We’re back in Boston again this week, in another large house with murder insinuating its way among the denizens. Everyone is snowed in when the death occurs, and so good-ol’-boy Asey Mayo must counter the cunning devilry of an ingenious and unscrupulous killer with his own brand of misleadingly languid style, plenty of homespun wisdom, and lot and lots of phonetic dialogue — in fact, this is the first time I’ve actively wondered whether an author was on some sort of pro rata arrangement for the number of times an apostrophe could be used where a letter would be equally good. So that’s another benchmark reached, I guess.
I’d previously read just the one book by Phoebe Atwood Taylor, under her Alice Tilton pseudonym — something involving a man who looks like William Shakespeare having a fridge delivered, full of zany humour and characters. In an act of beautiful self-sacrifice, that book exploded in my hands about 70% of the way in, almost as if aware of how thoroughly I was detesting it, and after six chapters of Asey Mayo saying things like “Take the c’mfortable chair an’ I’ll put on another log an’ try an’ warm you an’ your animule [sic]” I had a notion that things might be going the same way here. Especially when you’re either told nothing about the characters involved — seriously, four chapters in I had no idea who was who — or what you are told is of this calibre:
He was, I thought, a perfectly nondescript person. He reminded me of the faces you see in news-reel crowds. There wasn’t a single thing about him which impressed me unless it was his utter lack of any outstanding quality at all.
Well, good job we’ve got a lot of time remaining to spend with that particular fellow, then. Equally, there is a strange imbalance in how time is presented in this world, with interviews straight from the Hawk and Fisher school:
Asey Mayo: So, wh’t d’y’no ab’t [a thing]? Witness: Why do you think I’d know about [that thing]? AM: Well, see here, I cal’late y’no ab’t [the thing]. W: Okay, yes, I know about [the thing]. AM: S’th’n wh’t’re y’g’n’a t’ll ‘s ‘b’t [the thing]? W: I can’t tell you anything about [the thing]. AM: ‘Th’nk y’c’n t’ll ‘s som’thin’ ab’t [the thing]. W: Well, all I know is [exactly what happened in precise detail]. AM: W” g’j I c’n g”y”’p g”o’m”. W: Uhm- AM: W’f’g ;c k’jf m;l’d”’ d’dldjw’s’sj ;kn’?
…in which tedious detail is raked over again and again, even to the extent that someone tells Asey mayo exactly how a business in the town is run, and then Asey Mayo goes to that business and laboriously combs through paperwork to establish that, yup, this is indeed exactly how it’s run. And then there are alarming jumps ahead in the prose, including one example — and, I’ll b’ a g’sh-durn’d m’nkey’s ‘cle ‘f ah c’n f’nd it — that essentially goes “He went upstairs. When he came down an hour later everything had been done”. Nothing anyone else did in that house is ever relevant or referred to, so it almost feels like a philosophical point on the nature and importance of the observer for the continued function and existence of a universe…though I can’t claim whether or not this was Taylor’s intention.
And yet, weirdly, as much as I hated all these aspects and more, I sort of enjoyed knowing that this wasn’t going to be my sort of book, and it freed up my brain to just let blank-faced characters with no feeling attached to them come in, say their lines, and leave without any sense of how it contributed to the overall plot. it reminded me of my avant garde theatre days as a young man, where you’d have actors switch characters midway through a play and wait for the audience to figure it out, taking on a sort of Kafka-in-miniature approach that left it feeling both nightmarish and also very comfortable. Not an experience that you, dear reader, would ever be able to replicate, but something I had fun with nonetheless.
And, in the interests of fairness, it’s not right that I give this a complete pasting. A few turns of phrase are very well-hewn:
“This,” he opened a door at the farther end of the hall, “is the way to the game room. It’s built like a ship’s cabin, and it’s got port-holes. Upstairs,” we mounted the curving staircase, “is confusion.”
Enough contemporary flashes show through — like the frank delight at one witness upon being informed that they’ll be taken to give their statement “in a car” — to commend this as a period piece, too. And no more than the utterly, nonsensically ridiculous motivating factor for one aspect of the main death, which would be too stupid for words in today’s society, but…well…when you take a moment or two to think about it, and when you read through the frustratingly protracted thoughts people have about it herein, it sort of blooms into a gloriously effortless way to reflect on social norms and how attitudes have altered considerably in the decades since this first saw the light. As a mystery novel and an experience of the GAD trappings, however, no; it is one to avoid.