The Cape Cod Mystery by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The cover to the American Mystery Classics reprint (2022) of The Cape Cod Mystery.

Originally published 1931
Asey Mayo #1
Followed by Death Lights a Candle

Meet Asey Mayo, Cape Cod’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. Settled down from his former life as a seafaring adventurer, Asey is a Jack-of-all-trades who uses his worldly knowledge, folksy wisdom, and plain common sense to solve the most puzzling crimes to strike the peninsula. And in this, his first case, Asey finds himself embroiled in a scandal that will push his deductive powers to their limits.

A massive heatwave is scorching the Northeast, and vacationers from New York and Boston flock to Cape Cod for breezy, cool respite. Then a muckraking journalist is found murdered in the cabin he’s rented for the season, and the summer holiday becomes a nightmare for the local authorities. There are abundant suspects among the out-of-towners flooding the area, but they ultimately fix their sights on beloved local businessman Bill Porter as the murderer―unless Asey Mayo can prove him innocent and find the true killer. 

Our expectations coming to a book can definitely affect our experiences reading it. I have suggested before that my slightly underwhelmed reaction to Malice Aforethought may well have been a consequence of people telling me for several years that I was certain to love it. After so much build-up, the hype was so great that the reality of the book was unlikely to live up to what I had imagined it to be.

I experienced a similar sort of effect when coming to Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery. Admittedly this was not the positive sort of hype but rather some recent interactions with other classic crime fans who were not glowing in their sentiments about other books in this series. Still, I had paid for the thing and when it turned up I was curious enough to give it a couple of chapters and I was initially quite pleasantly surprised at how much I was enjoying it. I can’t help but wonder if I would have enjoyed it less if I came to it with no preconceptions whatsoever.

The story is set in Cape Cod where Prudence and her young niece Betsy have recently acquired a small holiday home and invited a few friends to stay. The murder takes place in a neighboring property where a bestselling author is found dead, his body covered with a sheet. Unfortunately the local sheriff, a former policeman from Boston who works as a grocery clerk, seems out of his depth and quickly settles on Betsy’s beau, a local businessman named Bill.

While there are flaws with the sheriff’s case, he seems settled on Bill’s guilt. Prudence talks with Asey Mayo, a sharp-witted local handyman who had once travelled the world as a sailor, and the pair decide to try and prove Bill’s innocence by doing a little sleuthing of their own…

Let’s start with the series’ setting because I think that this is one of the most inspired aspects of the book. One of the great things about the idea of setting a mystery series on Cape Cod is that you have the opportunity to have both that country, small town vibe married to some of the anonymity that comes with living somewhere where so many of the people are vacationing. This not only allows the author to introduce whole new casts of characters between books, it also enables the author to play with questions of identity – in the case of this book prompting us to consider who may have actually known the victim.

While I may not have been to Cape Cod, I did feel that Taylor provides the reader both with a sense of the physical space but also the rhythms of life there during the season. There are some neat observations about the way local businesses adjust to cater for their temporary residents and I enjoyed getting to know some of the colorful locals such as that sheriff and also the rather full-of-himself doctor.

I also quite enjoyed some of the early instances of our heroes engaging in simple, logical thinking. A prime example would be the short series of inferences that Prudence is able to make about the body to suggest murder from a few details of the circumstances in which it is found. I quickly found that my expectations were raising and I was quite hopeful that further logical sleuthing would follow.

As I spent more time with the sleuth, Asey Mayo, however I began to find myself frustrated with his folksy manner and the pacing of the story. Part of that is, no doubt, because I tend to dislike rendering dialect with phonetic spellings. We are told early on that Asey speaks in a very distinctive way, dropping whole parts of words, and while the spellings certainly convey that it also meant that I found myself having to slow down at points just to work out what he was saying. Sometimes that was fine as quite a bit of what he says can be quite amusing, but there are points where I found myself wishing that it had been eased back. The voice was strong enough just from the choice of words and sentence structure alone.

Another reason is that Asey is someone who seems to work on hunches and intuition, comparing situations to ones he has experienced before. Now, I think that is a legitimate type of crime-solving intelligence – I certainly don’t object to it with Miss Marple – but it felt that Taylor has her hero fall back on it too often, dulling its impact. That is, in this reader’s opinion, a particular shame as a key moment in the book really leans into that idea and I think it would have had an even greater impact if there had been fewer instances of it.

The final thing that I think doesn’t help is that the mid-section of the novel feels like a bit of a runaround. There certainly are some amusing and clever moments there, such as a very clever trick Asey plays to get someone to talk, but there is also quite a lot of what might be described as ‘business’ or ‘hijinks’. Some of its cute enough but the plot seemed to move at a glacial pace with few moments that shock or take the story in a strikingly different direction.

After finishing I started thinking about Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr and how often their books would feature a second killing. While sometimes those may feel like afterthoughts, that device can help to add interest into the second half of a novel and refocus the reader’s mind. Here the energy starts high but seems to drain away with the details, only really picking up in the final few chapters as we reach our denouement.

That strikes me as a bit of a shame because the actual solution is pretty interesting, particularly with regards the motive. Taylor goes on to enhance that conclusion by hitting some unexpected emotional notes towards the very end, tying things up in a surprisingly satisfying and powerful (if perhaps slightly convenient) way.

Were I judging this story purely on the setup and resolution of the crime I suspect I would be viewing it quite favorably. The problem I have with it though is that question of pacing which just didn’t work for me. It’s possible, of course, that it may just have been a poor match for my reading mood. Unfortunately as much as I liked the two ends of the story, the middle just proved too much of a slog for this reader.

The Verdict: Asey is a colorful sleuth and your enjoyment of this novel will likely reflect how much you like that sort of folksy character. While I think there are some neat ideas at play with the solution, the journey to that point exhausted me.

3 thoughts on “The Cape Cod Mystery by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

  1. I have tried a few of the Mayo books, and even did a Mayo/Marple comparison post at one point, but like you struggled to finally get on board with them. The dialect was certainly an issue. Have you tried any of her Leonidas Witherall books, under he penname Alice Tilton? I think those 8 books are much better.


  2. I absolutely love the work of Phoebe Atwood Taylor, and I have been reading all of her novels in publication order. Not all at once, but about one every three or four months.
    Thank you for bringing her to the attention of today’s readers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s