This weeks letter in Crime Fiction Alphabet is P. Stop over at Mysteries in Paradise and check out what others are reading.
Phoebe was born in Boston Massachusetts in 1909, her parents were natives of Cape Cod and were descendants of Mayflower pilgrims. After graduating from Barnard College she returned home to write. She married a surgeon with the surname Taylor also. They lived in the Boston suburbs and summered in Wellfleet on Cape Cod.
Phoebe wrote mysteries under her own name and under the names of Alice Tilton and Freeman Dana. Her books were a bit more serious than screwball comedy, she was referred to as ‘the mystery equivalent of Buster Keaton’. She wrote the Asey Mayo novels, set in Cape Cod, under her own name. Her first novel, ‘The Cape Cod Mystery‘ was published in 1931 and was the first in this series of 24.
‘Asey Mayo is a down-to-earth Cape Cod resident who has had numerous adventures around the world during his former sailing career, but now works as a kind of general assistant to the heir to “Porter Motors.” He has an immense amount of local knowledge of local geography and the doings of the inhabitants of Cape Cod, and uses his knowledge, his physical stamina, his very fast car and a great deal of intelligence to solve local murders at breakneck speed.’ from Wikipedia
Under the name of Alice Tilton she wrote a series featuring Leonidas Witherall. The first of these 8 books, ‘Beginning with a Bash‘ was written in 1937. Mystery critics of the time said these books were Marx Brotherish, too busy and complicated. H.R.F. Keating said at the time of a reissue of this series in 1987, “If a writer can keep in play an interest in a crime of some sort, preferably indeed murder, and at the same time induce the reader to take the hither-and-thither balloon flight of farce, then the entertainment provided will be not doubled but tripled. But it is difficult. I suspect that the only recipe for success is sheer deftness in writing, coupled perhaps with establishing a firm basis in fact before the hilarious fantasy is allowed to take off. Both these elements Alice Tilton has at her disposal.”
‘Leonidas Witherall (“the man who looks like Shakespeare”), once an instructor at a private boys’ school, has lost all of his money due to the Wall Street crash of 1929, and takes to anonymously writing books and, later, a radio show about the adventures of “Lieutenant Hazeltine” as a means of survival, while solving murders as a sideline.’ from Wikipedia
She only wrote one book as Freeman Dana, ‘Murder at the New York World’s Fair‘ in 1938. Random House commissioned her to write this mystery as part of the festivities of the World Fair in New York that year. A copy of it went into a time capsule buried that year.
I read one of her Alice Tilton books, ‘Dead Ernest‘, last week. It was a good mystery, but it was too busy for me. More like a whirlwind! A little too screwball and I enjoy a little humor in my mysteries from time to time.
In this adventure, a deep freezer is delivered to Leonidas by mistake. In it is the body of Ernest Finger, his new teacher at the boy’s school. Mrs. Mullet is missing, someone was rifling thru his desk drawer, a strange young woman wearing orchids appears at his door to sing Happy Birthday to him, but it’s not his birthday. Someone named Scrim keeps showing up trying to get his attention, The old neighbors the Haverstraws keep showing up to pick up their lawn tools they left in his basement and the new neighbors are named Finger! What was Mrs. Mullet saying about Goldfish before she left? Here’s a little excerpt to give you an idea of the nonsense –
‘Soy beans. The minute they give them soy beans back to Henry Ford,’ Mrs. Mullet said seriously, ‘everything’ll be all right again. Let him make his cars out of ’em if he wants to. Let him do just what he wants to with the things. Only give ’em back to him, so as i don’t have to eat any more candy made of soy beans, and sausage made of soy beans, and wear stockings made of soy beans, and sit in old chairs made of soy beans! No Mr. Witherall, I thought it all over, and in my candied opinion, the minute they stop fooling around with those soys, why the world’ll go on all right again. Now, sum!’
I must say though that I did like Mrs. Mullet! What a character! Leonidas, (what kind of name is that?) on the other hand did nothing to endear himself to me. If one of these mysteries showed up on my shelf, I would read it, but I wouldn’t buy another one.
The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall, based on the novels, was a radio mystery series on air from 194-1945. I found several of these episodes online. Below is an episode you can listen to and go here to listen to more!