Our book today is The Crimson Patch, a 1936 murder mystery by the indomitable Phoebe Atwood Taylor, starring her recurrent character Asey Mayo and set, as all her fans know and love, on that sacred patch called Cape Cod. The Cape is a little hooked spit of land jutting out from the coast of mainland Massachusetts, and thanks in large part to Taylor’s own path-making efforts, it’s easy to see it as the ultimate locked-door room in which any number of delectable mysteries can take place. It’s perfect: it’s bordered on all sides by water, it’s got no geography to complicate things, and from Sandwich to Provincetown it’s full of clannish, moneyed eccentrics just begging to be cast in a whodunit. Visitors to Cape Cod are all transients and hence automatically up to no good, and residents of Cape Cod are all certifiably insane and hence capable of anything. It’s Bedlam, with clamming beds.
Taylor latches onto such characters with gusto. In fact, one of the best and signature things about her mystery novels is how thickly populated they are – in the first few chapters of any Asey Mayo book, things almost seem too crowded for a murder to take place. Houses fill up with pipe-smoking, cocktail-swilling guests. Everybody has cronies. Nobody dines alone. Partly this just good melodrama, and partly it reflects Taylor’s long-held belief that new influxes of people were destroying the good old-fashioned Cape. This attitude has existed as long as the Cape has existed (the Harwich Port Neanderthals deplored how those Dennis Port Cro Magnons would walk around with no shirts on), so encountering it reflected in 80-year-old novels is actually kind of heartwarming.
The Crimson Patch is a wonderfully typical Taylor affair, full of colorful characters, whip-crack dialogue, and a spring-tide running of red herrings. An obnoxious radio celebrity named Rosalie Ray has been murdered (on a dark and stormy night, of course, and with … wait for it … a whaling lance), and steadfast old Myles Witherall, one of Taylor’s favorite characters, is relieved to know Cape Cod legend Asey Mayo has been called in, although his first sight of Mayo is double-edged:
Myles watched him eagerly, was amazed to find that the man actually resembled the pictures of him printed in the rotogravure sections. Tall, lean faced, blue eyed, he looked exactly as Myles had fondly imagined all Cape Codders would look, and as, to his intense disappointment, they had not.
He wore corduroys and a flannel shirt, which the papers always mentioned, but in place of the much publicized broad brimmed Stetson was a yachting cap set at a jaunty angle. Reporters never stated his age, and Myles found himself speculating. He had hopped up on the wharf with the ease and agility of a young man, but if he had been to see in the days of sailing ships, as articles about him always said, then Asey must be as old as Myles himself.
The death – and the dark deeds that follow it – set the quiet Cape town of Skaket ablaze with rumor and speculation that stretches all the way to Boston and might involve a notorious escaped master-criminal (the very public aspect of it all is extra worrying to the natives, since, as we’re told, “Skaket keeps its dirty linen in its own back yard”). Taylor handles it all like the seasoned pro she was by the time she whipped up this book, and as usual, she saves most of her fun for the crackling good words she puts in the mouths of all her characters, like this prime suspect attempting – not very reassuringly – to defend herself:
“Death doesn’t pay scores. D’you think it does? You can mutter all you want about eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth, but had I ever thought it my job to get back at her for what she did to Father, I think I should have tried to make her suffer about something to the same degree my mother did. I shouldn’t have killed her. I should simply have made her wish she were comfortably dead.”
If you pop in to any Cape Cod used bookstore, you’ll find a required-by-statute entire shelf of the mystery novels of Phoebe Atwood Taylor (many of the books have also had lovely modern reprints that you’ll find at Edgartown Books When you make your requisite stop there to talk to the lovely ladies who run it with an iron fist), and all those books are well worth your time.
If you can even FIND a used bookstore, that is. There aren’t as many of them since those horrid Neanderthals started buying up property …