The Cut Direct (1938) by Alice Tilton

This is the 2nd novel in Tilton’s Leonidas Witherall series. If you’ve not tried her work before, this particular series is a masterpiece in the art of writing screwball mysteries and this novel certainly upholds this. I’ve read 3 novels in the series and I have enjoyed everyone one of them so far.

The opening situation of the novel comes to us in small stages: the unusual behaviour of an alley cat around a car, the curiosity of someone walking by with their gentleman friend, a Boston bound bus ticket and then the startling information that a man is underneath the car. Initially presumed dead, but in fact just unconscious, the man in question is of course Leonidas Witherall, who informs us all that someone recently deliberately tried to run him over and having felt they succeeded put him under the vehicle. No idea why someone should feel the need to do all of this, Witherall is taken to a doctor’s surgery, having fainted. Yet naturally from this point onwards events take very unexpected and surprising turns, with Witherall having to go on the run, his escape being successful until he gets run over again! When he wakes up this time he is in someone’s house and is faced with the man who ran him over the first time, except this man is dead, murdered with a stab to the chest and just so happens to be Bennington Brett, one of Witherall’s ex-pupils. Whilst worried the police will assume he has done the deed, it soon seems there are others nearby who have equally become unintentionally involved in the matter and are also concerned about the police suspecting them. This anxiety is fairly justified as they are soon all fugitives from the law and in typical Witherall fashion have to solve the case undercover in order to clear their names. Mistaken identity, disguises, spot of police kidnap, pick pocketing are all to come and if you’ve read anything by Tilton before you know that a madcap mystery adventure will also certainly ensue…

Overall Thoughts

I think it must be pretty darn difficult to ever get bored by a Tilton novel, given the action packed pace of the story and the very zany yet lucid nature of the plot. Many a bizarre thing happens, after all Witherall says near the beginning of the story that his experiences so far have ‘the best features of E. Phillips Oppenheim with the general characteristics of a psychopathic ward…,’ but I’ve always found Tilton is adept at creating a plausible fictional world of implausible doings. I’ve probably almost definitely said this before, but the Leonidas Witherall stories would be very adaptable for television and often read quite like a cinematic romp. Yet for all the strength of the action that does not mean the writing style is sloppy and I love how Tilton builds up the situation in the opening chapters and the detail and thoughts she puts into the two passers-by who come across the cat; the lady insisting her gentleman friend figure out what is wrong with the cat, despite his evident reluctance. To be honest it would be hard to find a poorly drawn character in this book. The character list is substantial but the reader never struggles to remember who is who. Normally with these stories you know when you’re in the home stretch of Witherall finally extricating himself from the mess he is in, but this time around there is definitely a satisfying last minute shocker. So all in all a wonderfully entertaining book and just want I needed to read at the moment. Tilton has not been recently reprinted, though I think she should be, but thankfully it is usually possible to pick up novels from the series relatively cheaply, so if this has whetted your appetite you won’t have to break the bank to give the Witherall series a go.

Rating: 4.5/5

See also:

Beginning with a Bash (1937)

The Left Leg (1940)

The Iron Clew (1947)

The Great Detectives Week 2 – In which I write about Leonidas Witherall in more detail.

John at Pretty Sinister blog has also reviewed this book here.

15 comments

  1. The edition you show above is a trade paperback from Foul Play Press — they used figures from the mystery world as models. I’m not 100% sure who is depicted with the knife in his chest, but it might be Edward Gorey. I have another volume (Figure Away) with what I think is Dilys Wynn as the corpse.

    In 1944-1945, there was a radio program of “The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall” — they didn’t seem to have captured the breakneck pace or the comedic aspects of the stories, but you may find them of interest. Only a few episodes survive and you can find them here (http://oldtimeradiolover.com/the-adventures-of-leonidas-witherall/) for free — there are also other sites. Regrettably AFAIK none of the surviving episodes appears to have Agnes Moorhead as Mrs. Mullet, giving her “candied opinion”.

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  2. Of course, Alice Tilton was a pseudonym for Phoebe Atwood Taylor and I like the Witheralls more than her Asey Mayo books. I haven’t read this one yet but it sounds as crazy as those I have read. If the plots don’t make a lot of sense, they’re wild and entertaining and very fast moving.

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    • I’ve often heard people say they don’t think the plots make sense, but weirdly I’ve never had that problem. Everything by and larges dovetails. Could just be saying more about me though lol

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  3. I guess I will have to try one of this series. So far (within memory), I have only read one of her Asey Mayo books, and had a mixed reaction. Back when I was young, I read a lot of mysteries and could have read some then. I think I have few screwball type mysteries to try and I should because my tastes in humor in both books and movies have changed.

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  4. Thanks for the review. 😊 I’ve to date only read one novel by Tilton/Taylor: “The Left Leg”. It was quite fun, but I confess I would have liked a more coherently constructed puzzle. I still have “Iron Clew” on my shelf, which I will read before deciding whether or not to proceed further with Tilton. From your reviews I wonder if I might like Taylor more…? I have “Death Lights a Candle” and “Criminal COD” on my shelf too, and they seem to have more potential as mystery puzzles. 🧐

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    • Yeah her Taylor novels are more conventional puzzle mysteries, but I enjoyed them less. If my memory serves I found pacing issues, irritation with excessive dialect-ing and then there is Mayo himself. I remember him getting on my wick. The screwiness of the plots didn’t have the same fun factor as it does with the Tiltons. But then I am probably biased. JJ is reviewing DLAC on Thursday isn’t he? You’ll probably get a more positive stance on Mayo then! However dialect issues aside I think you’ll really enjoy my next read (which I’ve incidentally just finished). But I’ll say no more…

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      • Yes, I just looked at your next review – sounds like I should put in an order for some Coachwhip novels soon! 🤩

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      • The Asey Mayo books definitely fall into two periods, the first ending around 1940. The first-period ones are a lot more serious in tone, with a common recurring theme being the plight of an innocent person accused of a serious crime in a small town where everyone “knows” they’re guilty. The second-period ones are a lot closer to the Witherall mysteries in terms of zany events and a fast pace. I have a theory that Phoebe Atwood Taylor was trying to make her books more fun in light of the grim world situation of the early forties. If you like Witherall, there is a Mayo novella called “The Swan Boat Plot” that is particularly worth tracking down — it’s particularly like a Tilton story where the detective happens to be Mayo. It even takes place in Boston rather than on Cape Cod.

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