At this time of year, my thoughts turn to summer vacations that bubble up from my memories of bygone days. My family always managed to travel somewhere, like the year we made it up to Cape Cod and rented a beach-side cabin. So naturally, a book I came across in the library titled The Cape Cod Mystery by Phoebe Atwood Taylor ended up in my book bag.
Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1909-1976) was born in Boston, the child of Cape Cod natives who were also descendents of Mayflower Pilgraims. After Taylor married a Boston surgeon, they had a summer home on the Cape, which explains why the author would choose that setting for her first novel, published in 1931 when she was all of 22. She puts that inside knowledge to good use in recreating the local culture there in the 1930s and 1940s.
Taylor has my undying respect for her work ethic of writing her novels between midnight and three a.m. after her "housekeeping day" had ended, although her habit of waiting to start a book until three weeks before the publisher's deadline would give me a heart attack.
The Cape Cod Mystery was fairly successful in its day, selling 5,000 copies, and introduced the "Codfish Sherlock", Asey Mayo, who went on to star in 24 of Taylor's novels. Mayo retired in Cape Cod, following his world travels as a sailor, to serve as a general assistant to the heir of Porter Motors. He uses his wits and wit to solve murders with the help of a very fast car.
In the novel, the muckraking author, philanderer and occasional blackmailer Dale Sanborn is murdered one hot August weekend, leaving behind a long list of enemies, including an old girl friend, his fiancee, an outraged husband, a long-lost brother and a few more. Asey Mayo gets involved when his friend and mentor Bill Porter is accused of the crime, even though Mayo only has one clue to go on: a sardine can.
There are a few oddities, such as the narrator being not Mayo but rather Prudence Whitsby, who has a cottage on Cape Cod she shares with her niece and a cook (and also serves as the sight where the victim was murdered). Taylor wrote Mayo with a very heavy Coddish (Codlian?) accent that sometime a bit difficult to wade through, particularly when he's offering up his homespun sayings like "They ain't many whys without becauses."
The earlier Mayo titles are a little darker (it's been suggested this was due to the Depression at the time), but as the series went on, the tone apparently lightened enough that critic Dilys Winn called Taylor "the mystery equivalent to Buster Keaton," and one reviewer added that Asey Mayo does for Cape Cod what Travis McGee does for Southern Florida. Apparently Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind) was even a fan of Taylor's Mayo character, encouraging Taylor to "pack the books with Cape Cod details."
Countryman Press re-issued several of Taylor's novels, including The Cape Cod Mystery, in 2005.