One of the more memorable characters you will find in American Golden Age mysteries is that New England born-and-bred jack of all trades and master of...well, detecting, Asey Mayo. Between 1931 and 1951, Phyllis Atwood Taylor wrote two dozen mysteries starring the "Codfish Sherlock," as he came to be known, in a series of mostly quite funny and rather clever books. The second book, Death Lights a Candle (1932), was darker than most of the books in that series - and I found it very enjoyable. Here's an edited version of my audio review, as it appeared on the Classic Mysteries podcast a decade ago:
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Ah, the joys of winter on Cape Cod. What better place to find yourself in a house party, stranded by a sudden blizzard – no heat, no telephone, no lights? A perfect time and place, of course, for a murder. Too bad for the murderer that one of the people stranded there is Asey Mayo. It’s Death Lights a Candle, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor.
A few months ago, I reviewed another of Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Asey Mayo mysteries, called The Criminal C. O. D. That was back in summertime, and I observed that the Cape Cod setting probably helped make it good summer reading. The Asey Mayo mysteries, for the most part, are light and good-humored, particularly the ones written later in the series.
This book, Death Lights a Candle, is a little different. The tone is somewhat darker here. There’s still a reasonable amount of Cape Cod dialect and behavior in the book, but it has a fairly serious tone throughout, where many of the later stories veered towards slapstick. This was published in 1932 and was only the second book to feature Asey Mayo, and, as with Taylor’s other early stories, there’s less humor and very little slapstick going on in this book.
The story is told through the eyes of a narrator, Prue Whitsby, who finds herself unexpectedly dragged off to Cape Cod by a friend. On their arrival, they are invited to a neighbor’s house party, to act as chaperones for a young woman who is visiting there. They find a fairly peculiar setup at the party. The host is absent, and nobody seems to know where he is or when he will arrive. He does turn up eventually with no explanation of where he’s been – but by this time, his arrival is overshadowed by a monumental storm outside, which knocks out power and the telephone line and cuts the party off from the outside world.
Everybody goes to bed, but when they wake up in the morning, they find their host has been murdered – poisoned with arsenic.
Among the people stranded in the house, we find Asey Mayo, who is a jack of all trades, a life-long Cape Cod resident, with a shrewd sense of humor and a very quick wit. Among his other obligations, he has a fairly tenuous link to official law enforcement – so he takes over the investigation. And, right away, he discovers a major problem: there doesn’t appear to have been any way that anyone could have given arsenic to the victim.
That discovery is followed by the appearance of arsenic in just about everybody’s possession – sometimes in medicine they were likely to take. Is somebody trying to kill off the entire party? And how was the murder really committed.
In the course of solving the mystery, Asey Mayo himself is nearly poisoned – and, I might add, we are treated to one of the most unusual – if historically correct – ways of poisoning someone that I can remember in any mystery.
Along the way to a solution, of course, there are several clues and a lot of red herrings dragged across the trail. There’s the mysterious young woman, supposedly the victim’s ward. There’s another poisoning death that appears to be related. There are mysterious checks for large amounts of cash. And, of course, there’s a reasonable amount of Cape Cod dialect and humor. Asey Mayo, like a lot of the other Cape Codders in Taylor’s book, frequently drops final “g”s and broadens his accent. But there’s not much of the “codfish Sherlock” persona that we see in the later novels. He’s more in control, and Death Lights a Candle is more of a puzzle mystery than many other books in the series.
And the puzzle is well done. We’re given the significant clues. Asey Mayo runs off to Boston near the end of the book to confirm some of his suspicions, but by the time he does that, we should have enough pointers to the real criminal to be able to make the same deductions that he does.
As you may gather, I like Asey Mayo, and I enjoy this series of books. I think Death Lights a Candle stands out from Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s other early books in plot and in tone. I like the ingenious method of murder that is used here, and I enjoy the challenge provided by the clues we are given along the way. It may be cold on Cape Cod at this time of year, but Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Death Lights a Candle is a good, warm cozy mystery.
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To listen to the original audio review, click here.
Next week: An Excellent Mystery, by Ellis Peters.