Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Blunt Instrument
This is my second foray into the world of Asey Mayo, my first read being Punch with Care (1946). The Six Iron Spiders (1942) is set contemporary to publication and the civilian war effort is a crucial aspect of the plot, as well as of the setting in this story. Mayo has two day leave from the tank plant he works at and has returned to Cape Cod to spend his holiday at home with his cousin and housekeeper Jennie. But things haven’t started out well, namely no one was there to pick him up at the airport so he has had to hitchhike and walk 60 miles home on a cold February afternoon. Moreover, when he finally makes it home it seems his house is full of odd people doing seemingly odder things with a shop dummy. The arrival of Mayo’s old friend Doctor Cummings though explains matters as he informs Mayo that one of the many things Jennie is doing now is leading a first aid group. But it seems Mayo is more surprised by the fact that Jennie is wearing slacks, sharing the opinion with Cummings that only women like Katharine Hepburn suit such items of clothing. This is no doubt meant to be an amusing point especially when moments later whilst attempting to catch a mysterious figure who has been watching the house, Mayo thinks a woman is a man due to apparently not ‘bein’ slack-minded’. I think the problem with this piece of humour is the fact it is dated as modern readers are not necessarily going to find women wearing trousers a humorous oddity in the same way some of Taylor’s contemporary readers might have done.
Eager to avoid getting cajoled into civilian defence activities, including an exercise where members from the first aid group have to reach a coded area within a certain amount of time, Mayo and Cummings make themselves scarce until the first aid group including Jennie leave. However what they find left behind certainly shocks them, as they find Philemon Mundy, one of the first aid group members, murdered in the buttery with a blunt instrument. How on earth did he get there? The police are delayed in getting to the scene of the crime as they are all out on special detail. Cummings convinces Mayo to take the lead in solving the case by exaggerating the likelihood of Jennie being suspected as the murderer (she did quarrel with the victim on occasion and was the last person to leave the house), thinking some amateur sleuthing is what Mayo needs to be doing on his two day leave. After all who needs a rest anyways?
With no clues to really go on at the scene of the crime Cummings and Mayo go off to try and find Jennie. Of course like in Punch with Care, this simplest of plans goes badly awry with Mayo soon being temporarily bound up by two unknown assailants in the wood they are searching for Jennie in. With Mayo and Cummings split up, the narrative then focuses on Mayo solo investigation having thankfully freed himself from his bondage. During this time he comes across some of the first aid group members and along the way he finds a number of motives for Mundy’s death as well as a number of iron spiders (frying pans to you and me), one of which is likely to have been the murder weapon. For example there are Mundy’s relations such as his spoilt brat of a daughter, June and his sister Kay. But is she all she appears to be? Mundy also seems to have annoyed Mr Hazard through his disregard for red tape, as well as the fact his daughter Tiny Hazard is infatuated with him and she is not the only one. A suspected spy is also added into the mix. Further spanners are thrown into the works when Mayo finally makes it home only to find Lieutenant Hanson there but no body. Where did it? And why was Mundy moved? Its reappearance pushes the case into one direction, but Mayo isn’t sure if it is the right one. A further death and a flash of detecting inspiration leads to a solution revealed at a gathering of all the suspects in true Golden Age murder mystery fashion.
A key theme which is prevalent in this novel is Mayo’s boggled attitude towards the changes which war has brought on his home, neighbours and town. In particular he seems quite thrown by the rising role of women in civilian defence work and his response is to disparage and derogate it. Women rather than being shown to be vital members of the war effort are shown as encumbering, ineffectual, unintelligent, hysterical and in some cases in need of male discipline. I think Mayo and Cumming’s attitudes towards women are summed up when Cummings says to one of the female first aid group members, ‘now you scoot along back to your knitting.’
In addition, having read two Mayo mysteries I think a number of tropes are emerging as both in The Six Iron Spiders and Punch with Care, we have a corpse which goes temporarily missing and in each novel either Doc Cummings or Mayo are temporarily captured or locked up in some way. Tying into that in both novels there is usually a difficulty for Mayo to keep a track of where his associates are such as Jennie or Cummings and this is usually when he does a significant amount of solo sleuthing. Furthermore, there is also a tendency for cars to get mixed up and to be driven by people who don’t own them and in both novels the cases are solved at breakneck speed, within less than a day.
Overall I thought the pace was much better in this novel, although it could have been improved further and I think the events in the plot work much better, being less zany than those found in Punch with Care and on the whole Mayo’s investigation is less thwarted and held up and thankfully there is much less prevarication on the part of the suspects. I think I enjoyed this book more because I had different expectations, in particular not expecting this to be a hugely comic or humorous novel and instead enjoying the characterisation and prose style. I was able to identify the moments which were meant to be funny but as I said earlier one of the key issues is the datedness of the humour, which was mostly to do with women and their changing role due to the war, though Tiny Hazard is probably the exception, as she inserts husband suitability questions into her responses to Mayo’s questions. The solution to this case was well hidden and was much better than the solution I was expecting, though I don’t think the reader is likely to guess it.
Thanks for the reviews recommending Alice Tilton/ Phoebe Atwood Taylor, and ‘Six Iron Spiders’ and ‘Iron Clew’ sound especially interesting. Sadly, the only available titles for purchase on my Kindle are ‘Cap Cod Mystery’ (Asey Mayo) and ‘Murder at the New York World’s Fair’ (Daisy Tower)…
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Yes there are lots of second hand copies of her books but I don’t there are any kindle versions. I wouldn’t recommend Murder at the NY world fair, as from what I have read from others is that it was a rush job done by Taylor and that even she didn’t think it very good. If the Cape Cod Mystery is one of the earlier novels then it will probably be a bit darker and less comic. For out and out (and very successful comedy) I would recommend The Iron Clew.
I just checked Amazon’s Kindle store – if you do a search for Phoebe Atwood Taylor, seven titles show up, including two of the Witherall books and four books (including a collection of novellas) with Asey Mayo. There’s also the World’s Fair book, which is outside the series and which, I confess, I haven’t read. I think a number of the other books are still available (at least they’re “Amazon Prime”) in print editions. Cape Cod Mystery, IIRC, was the first of the Asey Mayo books, and it is indeed somewhat darker than the later ones.
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Thanks for the info and its good to know more are available on kindle.
I’ve done two posts on PAT, and probably will read more of her in the future – but right now have too many other books to read, so am bowing out of Tuesday Nights for the rest of the month. I think you and I have been the most consistent post-ers (apologies if I am dissing someone else) – full marks to you for being so stalwart! I will be back.
The history of women-in-trousers-in-books is one of my key interests – I did an article for the Guardian on the topic a while back, and still like to collect examples. This sounds like a great addition.
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If only there was an attendance prize! Just finished reading my next PAT book for next Tuesday and I think I left the best till last, which is always nice. But I agree The Six Iron Spiders is definitely a good example of attitudes to women in slacks.
Nice piece! On slacks, there was ample commentary in detective fiction about women wearing them, often disapproving and disparaging.
I finally got a PAT piece done, so hope we can keep the effort going exit month, but I sure understand about time pressures!
PAT definitelygot zanier in the 1940s!
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Would you say the slack/trouser disparaging is more prominent in American or British GAD fiction? I should have a piece for next week, as I have finished reading The Criminal C. O. D. and I think I left the best till last. I think with PATs zaniness which is more overt in her later novels, that it works much better in her Witherall novels as opposed to her Mayo novels.
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