I make no secret of the fact that I'm not a huge fan of so-called "noir" mysteries. There are plenty of authors today who love to write about conflicted heroes, caught up in mystery plots that will rarely have a happy ending. You can find such gloomy authors, of course, back in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction as well. If you prefer a little humor mixed in with your mystery, however, you might very well enjoy some of Phoebe Atwood Taylor's mysteries set on Cape Cod and featuring the "codfish Sherlock," Asey Mayo. One of the first mysteries I reviewed on the Classic Mysteries podcast in the early days was Taylor's The Criminal C.O.D. Here's a slightly edited version of that review:
- 0 -
Asey Mayo was the creation of Phoebe Atwood Taylor, a Massachusetts author who knew and loved Cape Cod. From the 1930s through 1951, she turned out about two dozen books featuring Mayo, a Cape Cod resident with a pretty wide-ranging background. Mayo, we are told, had had a career as a seafarer before becoming a general all-around assistant to Bill Porter, the head of the fictional Porter Motors. Asey's not a private eye, not a police officer, not a consulting detective – but he does seem to have a knack for getting involved in crimes and helping the police solve them.
The Asey Mayo novels, generally, are written with a light touch. Some of them border on the farcical. While murder itself certainly isn’t very funny, the situations in which they occur – and the way that Asey Mayo is dragged into those situations – can be hilarious. Phoebe Atwood Taylor kept her stories moving at a brisk pace, and if the conclusions were sometimes frantic and even a bit hard to follow, why that was no more than might be expected.
Certainly, that’s the case in The Criminal C.O.D., which first appeared in 1940. It gets off to a fairly typical start for an Asey Mayo book – one of the characters, a young woman, chasing her dog, walks into an apparently deserted building and promptly trips over a dead body. Perhaps understandably, she runs out screaming. She is nearly run down by Asey Mayo, driving by in his brand new Porter 16. He follows her back to the building – only to find that the body has disappeared.
That’s in the first few pages, and it’s fair to say we’re off and running. There are all kinds of chases and diversions, some remarkably large red herrings are dragged across the trail, and Asey Mayo, along with the reader, must unravel some pretty complicated plots before getting to the bottom of the case. For, yes indeed, there is a case. And you have to admire the fortitude of a murderer who thoughtfully wraps the body of one victim and has it shipped to one of Mayo’s pals, the local doctor – C.O.D.
Taylor has a writing style that can make all this action seem reasonable – and on occasion downright funny. Consider this: at one point, Mayo traces a so-far-unknown individual to a small, deserted house. Being a reasonable man, he decided to try to confront the individual and find out who it is. Approaching the house, he tries to size it up, this way:
There was a bathing suit hanging next to a checked dish towel on the clothesline, a milk bottle on the doorstep, some withered marigolds and tomato plants in a tiny garden on one side. According to the standards of the Lennox place at Cod Point, or Jeff Gage’s big Colonial house on the Shore Road, this cabin on the swamp’s edge definitely belonged to the ill-housed third.
Still, Asey thought, you could hardly call those red-checked curtains sinister.
He got out of the car, walked over and knocked at the door.
Asey pressed down the latch with his thumb, and walked in.
At ten o’clock that night, Hanson and Dr. Cummings found him, neatly bound and gagged, on a couch in the cabin's combination kitchen, dining and living room.
I think that’s a remarkable passage – emphasizing the ordinary, disarming both Asey and the reader – and then showing the consequences. Mayo isn’t seriously hurt – nor did he ever get a look at the person who hit him over the head and knocked him out when he walked through that door. And it is written in a way to make it pretty clear that the incident is meant to be taken fairly lightly – assuming that you don’t mind being hit over the head every now and again.
The Asey Mayo books are pretty full of this kind of slapstick humor. The characters, particularly some of the regulars who appear in many of the books, are delightful. There’s Hanson, of the state police, who serves as adversary, foil, and colleague for Mayo. There’s Doc Cummings, the somewhat bad-tempered doctor who serves as medic and medical examiner as well. There’s Mayo’s cousin Jenny, who keeps her ear on the party line telephone to learn what usually turns out to be quite valuable gossip. And there’s her husband, Syl, who is a remarkably useful individual to have when somebody or something is missing. Syl has a real knack for finding them – using what might be called the “lost horse” school of detection. Here’s how Asey Mayo describes it:
“When Syl finds somethin’,” Asey said, ”an’ you ask him how he done it, he says, ‘Oh, it’s like the feller that found the lost hoss. I just thought if I was a lost hoss where I’d go, an’ I went there, an’ it was.’ I don’t pretend to understand the inner workin’s of the theory, but Syl gets results.”
The Criminal C.O.D. is fairly typical of the Asey Mayo books, and I think it makes delightful light reading.
- 0 -
Good grief. Party lines? C.O.D.? Milk bottles? Clotheslines? Good luck explaining THIS one to a millennial!
If you'd like to listen to the original podcast, you can listen to it by clicking here.
Next week, back to Agatha Christie and Taken at the Flood.