#420: Death Lights a Candle (1932) by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

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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.

~

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Ponson Case from last week since both concern the murder of an Industrialist who also happens to be The Squire.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category Death by poison.

25 thoughts on “#420: Death Lights a Candle (1932) by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

  1. Clearly I like PAT’s books a lot more than you do 😉 … it’s not her best work, I agree, she gets better in a few years though. I thought the murder method was interesting in this one and a couple of the characters are well drawn. After a while PAT dropped the female viewpoint protagonist and restored a lot of consonants to Asey, toning down the down-home qualities. The books get faster and faster-moving as time goes by, and they can be quite funny. You might try Octagon House, if you can find a copy.
    But I won’t berate you for not liking her; I think she’s an acquired taste, and to each his own. There’s so much out there, why keep trying authors you don’t already like?

    • She has such a good hand on atmosphere — though aboslutely zero sense of setting — that I could well believe there’s a very enjoyable story somewhere in her output if the pacing were to improve. These almost feel so cosseted and comfortable in their settings that they could do with the plots being a bit more outlandish, too — hell, even Murder, She Wrote threw in headless horsemen and the like from time to time…!

      While I liked the murder methods
      S
      P
      O
      I
      L
      E
      R
      S
      ?
      ?
      …it seems a bt odd to put it in the title of the book. I mean, any intelligent person is obviously thinking it, and its revealed by the halfway stage, but — dude! — try to preserve at least a little mystery, hey?!

  2. I’m with you on this one, JJ. Years ago, I got two reprints of Death Lights a Candle and The Criminal C.O.D., but one was worse than the other. The Criminal C.O.D. was pretty much written around a punning joke that you could see coming from the first chapter. Somehow, Taylor thought that joke was so good she used as a closer in the final lines of the book. Just terrible.

    Later, I read Octagon House and the plot, as well as the story-telling, was much better, but still not enough to lure me back for a third time. However, I’m more than willing to give Taylor and her Codfish Sherlock another go. So, if anyone has any recommendations, they’re more than welcome.

    • I’m glad I had the chance to read her more pedestrian series under this name, because the Tilton book was most assuredly not for me, and I find it oh-so-difficult to consign anyone to the scrapheap after a mwre two books, but I’m with you: it would take a recommendation, and that recommendation would hperhaps have to be rather more enthusiastic then the usual to convince me to jump in any time soon.

      I am, however, delighted to have this gorgeous Pocket Book edition — that’s actually a scan of my copy, creases an’ all. It feels a bit like it might fall apart at any moment, but the experience of reading a poor book is definitely enhanced by reading it in a lovely edition.

  3. Oh dear. 😞 I recently bought a small stash of Tilton and Taylor novels: ‘Iron Clew’, ‘Left Leg’, ‘Death Lights a Candle’ and ‘Criminal COD’. I thought ‘Left Leg’ was quite funny, but there was more humour than there was mystery – quite a lot more. 🤕 You’ve dashed my hopes!

  4. On the one hand it’s not great that your read was poor, because well duh, but on the other hand I wasn’t surprised that Mayo didn’t gel with you, as I found him a bit of a drag to say the least, makes Massie in The Corpse is Indignant sound as clearly spoken as an Oxford Don and on the other hand, (I seem to have three hands at this point), I am having a rough week wearing in some new painkillers so I definitely needed a JJ deconstruction of how awful a book was.

    • Haha, I’d put The Corpse is Indignant on my TBB following your review, thinking “Well, how bad can phonetic speech patterns be, eh?” — aaaah, yes, and then had this x’peer’nce to r’mind me. However, I very much doubt anything else not by PAT could be this bad — heaven knows how long this took to type out, and more importantly why she persevered with it — but I hope it would break most people and isn’t just me being easily dissuaded.

      I have a feeling that doesn’t make sense, but even talking about this book scrambles my brain.

    • Alas, it is a chore, and but for my misspent youth I may have struggled to get through it. I’m still not entirely sure if that’s a good thing or not, but at least I got to experience the Harry Stephen Keelerian conceit of the murderer being introduced at the last moment…because, honestly, that could have happened here and my graps on who was who was so bad that I would not have noticed.

      “OMG! The killer is…Steve? There’s a Steve in this? Is he the one who fell down the stairs? No? Then who is he?”

      Please Note: the killer in this book is not Steve. Or maybe is it, I neither know nor care any more.

  5. B’t, J!’! ‘ r’y ‘n’j’d r’g y’r r’vu; ‘t h’d m’i’s’tx!
    Ph’nglui mglw’nafh wgah’nagl fhtagn.

    • W’ll, ah’m midy gra’eful’ to ya’ N’ck fer yer kin’ werds. Nahce t’ th’nk som’ne’d get sumthin’ outta this. ‘Ca ah sure ‘s dam’t don’ wann’ reed me to’ m’ch’ve this stuff in th’t there f’yooture. Too much hom’ly gud-ol’-boyin’ shure does get m’gag refleks goin’.

  6. There are a number of reasons that this doesn’t appeal to me but chief among them is the apostrophe thing. Any kind of attempts at writing dialect for more than a throwaway line drive me crazy as a reader and instantly become an obstacle for the book to overcome.

    • As a minor character trait I enjoy it — especially when you have an upper class sleuth who treats a commoner witness as an idiot and the phonetic speech is used to underline what an idiot the commoner thinks the sleuth is; that can be done extremely well (yeah, yeah, citation needed…), Too much of a good thing is…not a good thing, though — and I’d struggle to recommend this to too much of anyone who shared my tastes.

      As always, one must remember that these things are subjective, but if you’re reading a book because of the delightful rendering of the New England dialect, well, you’re probably not sharing my tastes from the off.

  7. At least your reconstruction of Mayo’s accent in the dialogue made me laugh so hard the te’rs r’n d’ ‘m’ face. When I started blogging a few years ago, I took raves over authors very much to heart and snapped up two Taylor books, including Octagon House. I got turned off by the other title, but I hear that OT is one of Taylor’s classics. Maybe someday, but after your review that “someday” remains a little further away.

    The other author that I got sucker punched into buying was Arthur Upfield. Now what the heck am I gonna do with Wings Above The Diamantina?

    • Is Arthur Upfield equally bad with dialectic speech, or is it simply not a good book?

      I’ll keep half of half of half of half an eye out for Octagon house, but rather like my recent experience with J.J. Connington it will be some time before I’m motivated to draw from this well again.

      • but rather like my recent experience with J.J. Connington it will be some time before I’m motivated to draw from this well again.

        You don’t like Connington? He’s one of my favourites. Mind you I’ve only read his earlier stuff – I’m told that the quality of his work took a nosedive after his health collapsed in the mid 1930s.

        I particularly liked The Two Tickets Puzzle and The Boat-House Riddle. Both from the early 30s.

        Connington wrote science fiction as well. If you’re into that sort of thing Nordenholt’s Million is one of the classic post-apocalyptic SF novels. It’s breathtakingly uncompromising.

        • I’m not going to claim at this stage — a mere two books in — that I don’t like Connington. I will say that I’ve read two, can’t remember one and hated the second and so he’s batting a low average so far. More will follow, and we’ll see how things progress.

          Thanks for the recommendations, I’m going to forge ahead when I a) can pick up a book cheaply, and b) feel motivated to try him again. At present, my TBR is too daunting to be worrying about Alfred Stewart and his puzzles, but I have no doubt a time will come.

      • Is Arthur Upfield equally bad with dialectic speech, or is it simply not a good book?

        I’m quite fond of Upfield. Mind you the exotic atmosphere is one of the major attractions of his books, rather than especially ingenious plots.

        Maybe I like him because as an urban Australian who has never been anywhere near the Outback Upfield’s Outback settings seem particularly exotic.

        • Yup, I entirely understand — that’s sort of what drew me to him, too. The difference being that I’m yet to actually read any 😀

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