Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Just Think of Hoop Skirts: Banbury Bog (1938), by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1909-1976) was not by any means the only American local color mystery writer of the Golden Age of detective fiction, but she was perhaps the most popular of them in her day; and she remains in print even now, when the sort of New England cozy mystery that Taylor's Asey Mayo Cape Cod series typified thrives.  The long-running television series Murder She Wrote (1984-1996), for example, seems to owe more to Taylor than to Agatha Christie.

It looks like about half of Phoebe Atwood Taylor's twenty-two Asey Mayo mystery novels are currently in print in paperback or Kindle form, courtesy of Countryman Press.  Apparently out-of-print, however, is Banbury Bog, the thirteenth Asey Mayo mystery and a typical example of the later books in the series.

Over time Taylor tended to move away from formal investigative detective novels to more of a whodunit hugger-mugger style.  This is to say, there is a great deal of incident in the Asey Mayo mysteries.  A great deal!

After the first few chapters, most of Banbury Bog consists of Asey, amateur detective extraordinaire, dashing about from place to place, evading bumbling police and fiendish murderer alike, while trying to solve the dastardly crime--though just exactly how he's accomplishing this often is not quite clear.

When the solution comes, it is what Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor call huddled: a great flurry of information appears in the last chapter, along with a great deal of explanation, some of it rather implausible (if I entirely understood it).

this 1960s/1970s
Gothic paperback fails utterly to
capture the cozy crazy quilt quality
of Banbury Bog
Is Banbury Bog truly a fair play detective novel?  Not exactly (though I did quite like one clue).

In Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s, Jeffrey Marks notes that Taylor wrote Banbury Bog in twenty days!  I'm no Sherlock Holmes, but this may explain looseness in plotting.

Yet I enjoyed the book.  Like other Asey Mayo mysteries, Banbury Bog is filled with local color and good humor, both things at which Taylor excelled as a writer. 

Banbury Bog concerns one Phineas Banbury, who with his wife Lu and daughter Jane is visiting his family's ancestral grounds of East Weesit, Cape Cod, Massachusetts when the tale begins.  The family is staying at the guest house of Tabitha Sparrow, one of the declining town's leading citizens.

Banbury is one of those Midwestern millionaires (pies and tarts) whom one so commonly finds in Golden Age American mystery fiction.  A generous sort, he decides to settle down in Weesit and economically revitalize the place.

Things go splendidly at first, but then someone poisons Banbury's pies with arsenic and most of the town gets sick.

Much of Weesit turns on Banbury and he is arrested by the police.  There's a bit of a commentary here on mobocracy, I think.  Here's Asey's friend Doc Cummings on the subject:

"What're they trying to do?  Now there's a man who's put a town on its feet.  He's done more for Weesit in two months than anyone ever did in twenty years....He hasn't done anything that wasn't all to the good.  He hasn't strutted around and asked for praise.  He's given all the credit to the people and the selectmen.  Now why in hell did somebody go and stick arsenic in his tarts?....[A]nd, furthermore, in spite of what he's done for 'em, and what a fine man they thought he was yesterday, do you know that every last person in that benighted town of Weesit believes that Banbury poisoned the tarts himself?"

A mob of townspeople has even thrown stones at the Banbury house, breaking windows.

As Jane Banbury worriedly comments to Asey, "Even when Dad had the strikes [at his bakeries], no one threw any stones.  Why, they even took time off the strike to bake dad a birthday cake!"

Worse yet, one of the selectmen is found  murdered and Banbury is blamed for that too!  And it looks like the police may arrest the Banbury women as well!

Obviously we have another job for Asey Mayo.

An extended scene on the confusion between Banbury and cranberry gets kind of tiresome, admittedly.  My tenth-grade English teacher three decades ago always used to say, puns are the lowest form of humor--my, though, aren't they hard to resist!

a Cape Cod delicacy called  
Huckleberry Slump (not a lab specimen!)
Still there are really funny bits, like when Asey is trapped by the murderer for hours in an old house cellar with Lu and Jane Banbury (Jane, by the way, unfortunately calls her parents Popsie and Momsie) and Lu advises Jane to think of hoop skirts to avoid getting nervous.

Okay, you have to read it in context.

Okay, it doesn't really make sense in context either.

But that's what makes it funny, you see.  Banbury Bog is like something Grandma Moses might have painted had she tippled a bit too much cordial.

I also found out about sea clam pie and huckleberry slump by reading this novel, and how else would that have happened?  We don't have such things in Tennessee.

There are two rather callous murders, of nice enough people in the town, but Taylor doesn't allow us to to dwell on such unpleasantness.  There is simply too much going on!  Banbury Bog is definitely one cozy little jog.


  1. I'll make a point of avoiding her books! (Nice cover art, though.)

  2. One of Taylor's best attributes as a writer is her unerring sense of getting the setting just right. 60 years after her works were published, people still use them to navigate Cape Cod, because her descriptions are spot on. I know fans who read them for their accurate portrayal of the Depression and War Years. She has amazing powers of observation and the ability to transfer those observations to the page.

    As for her plotting, well, it's not always the tightest, but there's a sense of accuracy in her clews (as she called them) and they are some of the most original in crime fiction. My favorite clew was pistachio ice cream!

  3. Interesting observation about the "mobocracy." That kind of thing happens in several of the Asey Mayo books. I'm not sure it's a political statement - it may just be a good way of keeping the plot going. I enjoy Taylor's sense of humor; the books did seem to get funnier later in the series. For that matter, her other series, featuring Leonidas Witherall, is pure slapstick comedy. I'm glad her books are still available, for the most part.

  4. Richmonde,

    You might like one of the first five books or so, they are more like traditional detective novels. The later ones I would say if you don't like local color humor and hugger-mugger sleuthing, probably not!


    There's one clue in this book that I thought was quite clever. So much info came in at the end, however, that I saw this more as a mystery than a fully fair play ratiocinative detective novel. Which is okay too!

    It was interesting to learn from your book that Taylor lived with a spinster aunt when she wrote most of these books. She started very young, didn't she, making it into print at 22!


    Oddly Banburuy Bog seems not to be in print currently!

    I may add a quotation on the mobocracy business. Taylor goes out of her way to make Banbury into such a great guy who has done so much for the village and to make out the villagers--except Asey and a few friends--as ingrates (even throwing stones at the Banbury's house).

  5. In another of the books, "The Cape Cod Mystery" - the first in the series - Mayo's boss, Bill Porter, is arrested rather outlandishly for the murder. The main reason appears to be that he is rich, which, in 1931, didn't help a person's public image. Asey observes, "If a poor man c’mits a crime, he gets his, ‘cause he ain’t got money enough to get off by hirin’ smart lawyers. If a rich man gets mixed up in a crime, he’s got the money to get himself off, but the people are against him because he’s got money. Far’s I can see, all crimes ought t’be done by what the papers call the moneyed middle class."

    I have a review of that one scheduled for my site a couple of weeks out, but I think the quote bears out what you're saying about the mobocracy.

  6. "Far’s I can see, all crimes ought t’be done by what the papers call the moneyed middle class."

    LOL, great line!

  7. I think these are great fun. I read them as screwball comedies much like the Craig Rice books about John J Malone. And her series written as Alice Tilton are even funnier. How can you not like a detective with a name like Leonidas Witherall, who looks so much like Shakespeare that people call him Bill and who has a secret life as the writer of a radio mystery program about a character named Haseltine? I think I've read everything she wrote except DEATHBLOW HILL, even MURDER AT THE WORLD'S FAIR.

  8. I tried many times to read Asey Mayo but never got through a single one. I did like the few Alice Tilton books I read. They are definitely more in line with screwball mysteries. Craig Rice is in a class by herself, but Taylor as Tilton reminded me of the old Preston Sturges movies. Very funny stuff. Maybe I'll try Cape Cod Mystery after reading Les' comment. I found a copy of that last year and it's just sitting on the shelf with an almost complete set of Phoebe Atwood Taylor's books still unread.