This is my final look at Phoebe Atwood Taylor for the Tuesday Night Bloggers and for unfathomable reasons out of the books I had by her I read them in reverse date order, starting with the latest and finishing with the earliest. Punch with Care (1946) had very poor pacing in my opinion, but last week I fared better with The Six Iron Spiders (1942) and this week I think I unwittingly left the best till last.
In contrast to the other Asey Mayo novels I have reviewed, The Criminal C. O. D. (1940) begins differently, with the narration not immediately focusing on Asey Mayo, our series’ sleuth, but with a young woman called Jane Lennox. Jane is mad at her mother, Kate, for lending her car to Henry P. Slocum to drive to a dedication speech. Slocum is running in the local elections and Kate Lennox is avidly supporting him, despite the fact that Jane’s uncle Jeff Gage is also running. Her support for Slocum is so extensive that rumours are circulating about the pair of them. Jane feels intensively frustrated by her parents’ attitude towards her, treating her like a child – with her mother having very outdated ideas on what she should be doing e.g. occupying her mind by opening a knitting shop. Jane’s father is also quite absentminded so he usually gets the wrong end of the stick or only half listens to what Jane is saying. Consequently Jane storms out of the house determined to show her parents she means business, with plans to thwart Slocum’s political career, with the aid of her friend Ty Bricker. Only it seems someone has had a similar plan when Jane trips over a body in a sail loft, a body wearing a tweed coat remarkably like Slocum’s.
Full of terror and alarm Jane nearly ends up run over by a car, which conveniently is being driven by Asey Mayo, who in this adventure comes across as a much more serious and less comic character. Having caused him to crash his car, Mayo is less than impressed with Jane, especially since she has a reputation of being a prankster, so he assumes she is lying about finding a body. Jane equally isn’t that impressed by Mayo:
‘The brainy Homespun Sleuth! The dry, humorous Codfish Sherlock!’ ‘Why, to hear Uncle talk, you’d think you were a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Will Rogers and Abraham Lincoln and God! But as far as I can see, you’re a dumb sorehead Cape Codder, beefing because your pretty car’s got a scratch.’
However, Mayo is starting to feel fairly justified in his opinions of Jane when they return to the loft and find no body. Added into the mix is a red wig which Jane’s dog Nosey finds and runs away with and the sensation that they are being watched, a notion which is justified when Mayo gives chase to a man in a grey felt hat. Jane’s own anxieties are increased by her concern for Ty, who has not turned up. In the end Mayo is left wondering if there was ever a body at all. On returning home though it turns out people are looking for Slocum since he never turned up to give his speech. Mayo and Jane decide not to tell people about the incident in the loft, which possibly seems for the best when Slocum in a rage, smelling of alcohol and carrying a gun reappears at the Lennox’s home, swearing revenge against them for the plot they have supposedly concocted against him. Confusion would be an understatement for what the Lennox’s feel at this moment, followed by alarm when Slocum says he will expose them at tomorrow’s meeting.
It is at this point we are told about Slocum’s darker side, which contains selfish ambition, drinking, disreputable friends and frequent lady problems. The next day of course presents further bizarre events when unsurprisingly Slocum again does not show up and this time Lieutenant Hanson suspects foul play. He is also annoyed at Mayo, thinking he has been holding out on him with information, saying:
‘I think you are getting too high-handed for your own good, Mayo. There isn’t any reason for you to take matters into your own hands, as if you were the law!’
The subsequent investigation happens over a few days and is not without incident and Mayo has his work cut out explaining all the unusual things which have been happening, starting with Jane’s shocking experience in the sail loft. Although there is the mysterious grey felt hatted man, suspicion falls heavily on various members of the Lennox family which is aided by their own behaviour. What are Jeff and Jane taking to the beach? Furthermore, Dr Cummings is in for a nasty surprise when he receives a rather unpleasant package in the post, a package which makes the situation far more complicated and makes the Lennox family look even guiltier. Mayo has been champions of the Lennox family throughout the case, but is his faith in their innocence misplaced? And for regular readers of the Mayo adventures along with corpses that never stay in one place, this story also includes the series’ trope of one of the main detecting characters being knocked out and bound. No Mayo novel would be complete without it.
The final solution is a satisfying one, as there is a complicated but believable mystery at the centre of the novel and the choice of killer is a good one, as throughout the story you are kept guessing as to who might be guilty. Taylor also seems to have cracked the issue of pacing (which has been a problem in some of her novels) in this story. With the other Mayo novels I have read I have not found them particularly funny, especially in comparison to Taylor’s Witherall novels. But in this novel I did actually find parts of it quite funny, as Jane’s parents are quite effective as comic figures. Also I think this novel tries less obviously to be funny so ends up being more successful in this area. Additionally I did rather chuckle when the narrator talks of ‘Hanson’s Arresting Swagger’. Although set contemporary to publication, WW2 does not significantly intrude into the narrative and there are only brief mentions of it: Jane is said to have done some work for the Red Cross and she and Ty apparently pulled a prank on the coast guard about sighting a German submarine. I think something that made this a stronger story was that the case was stretched over several days rather than being crammed into 24 hours or less. So overall I definitely would recommend this novel for readers new to and familiar with the Asey Mayo’s series.