Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Phoebe Atwood Taylor writing as Alice Tilton



Our Tuesday Night Bloggers – an informal group of crime fiction fans writing about a different author each month – have moved on to Phoebe Atwood Taylor. Tuesday Night Bloggers Taylor
All contributions to the meme are welcome – and if anyone wants to guest-blog here on Taylor do let me know, there’s space here…


Last week’s contributions were collected by Curt at the Passing Tramp here.

Logo courtesy of Bev Hankins from My Reader’s Block.
 

File for Record by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

published 1943
 
File for Record
 

[Suzanne Quarl has taken a job delivering heating oil to households, to help out in wartime]

Leonidas said: …’Tell me just one more thing – er- why -er why did you – er- choose to wear a mink coat on such a job?’

‘Why,’ Suzanne said simply, ‘I have just two decent cloth coats to my name, and they’ve got to do for the duration. You can’t get wool, you know. Only three per cent mouse fur, six per cent rat hair, nine per cent old pasteboard, and the rest milk. I’m certainly not going to wear out my good cloth coats messing around in the oil business!’

‘I see. Er – just using up the old mink. Er -m’yes.’ Leonidas could see the twinkle in Meiklejohn’s eyes. ‘M’yes. Very thrifty and prudent of you, I’m sure. Dear me, yes!’

commentary: Last week I covered the first of Taylor’s Asey Mayo books, The Cape Cod Mystery. She wrote a second series as Alice Tilton, featuring investigator Leonidas Witherall. He looks like William Shakespeare, lives in Boston, and solves crimes.

This book had a rather splendid WW2 setting – plenty of detail of rationing and (to my surprise) blackouts. I had no idea there was a fear of enemy bombing on the East Coast – and was very interested to find this reminiscence from Barbara Yeoman, a resident of Cambridge Massachusetts, online:
There were blackouts in preparation for possible enemy bombing attacks. I feared planes bombing our homes but learned later that blackouts were also needed so that city lights would not silhouette our ships in the harbor for the prowling U-boats. No lights were allowed, not even the tiny radio dial light. Blackout curtains were in every window. Air raid wardens patrolled the streets with their white helmets and arm bands. When the Air Raid sirens screeched warnings, the wardens would tell everyone to get off the streets and go into their homes. A cheer would go up when the ``all clear'' sounded.
This is very much what is described in the book (although there is something suspicious about this particular event…) and there is also a lot of detail of rationing and shortages. Much of the action centres on two Victory Swaps, social Lady Baltimore cakeevents where locals swap goods they have for what they need. One of the main characters has made a Lady Baltimore cake for swapping: luckily for you readers, I know more about this obscure and half-forgotten bakery item than seems feasible. I even read a lost book about the cake – a full rundown can be found in a blogpost here.
 
[ADDED LATER: and have realized that the reason I had this book on my shelves was because my good friend Noah Stewart recommended it for its Lady Baltimore content....]
 
And – yet another favoured Clothes in Books feature – we have a department store, and a stocking sale. As in the Colm Toibin novel Brooklyn, as in Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station, as in an authoritative look at stockings in literature that I did for the Guardian here.

And there are mink coats everywhere on the blog –  I just used a picture for James Bond on Friday. I loved the very reasonable explanation above as to why Suzanne was wearing a mink coat in the oil delivery truck – and, it reminded me of the non-fiction Merchant of Prato where we found out that your furs were not your expensive clothes in 14th & 15th Century Italy.

Beyond all that – from what I can gather, this was a typical example of the Leonidas books: full of comic mishaps, strange goings-ons. A collection of eccentric people finding clues, losing each other, getting knocked out, trying to solve a mystery.

The Wikipedia description of the series seemed to sum it up well:
[In each book] Witherall is confronted with a corpse under unusual ….circumstances, requiring him to enlist a motley crew of assistants, use disguise and impersonation to escape discovery, and engage in at least one scavenger-hunt-like chase before solving the crime. Once in every novel, Witherall references the radio program's constant repetition of "Cannae"—an ancient battle….This mention of Cannae means that Witherall is about to marshal his assistants as part of a clever scheme to deliver the murderer to justice.
I thought the book was amusing and entertaining, but too long, just too many characters and new incidents. I might read another one, but only after a gap. But I did very much enjoy the WW2 homefront setting and details.

Mink picture from the invaluable Kristine’s photostream.





















15 comments:

  1. Really interesting, Moira. I have to admit I've never Atwood Taylor's work as Alice Tilton. It sounds as though this series has a similar strong sense of place and time as the Asey Mayo series. At the same time, it seems more involved. I can see how you'd think there was too much there; still, it sounds like an interesting look at that era.

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    1. It's a lightweight enjoyable book, Margot, and although for me there was one too many adventures, I'm sure many people were much entertained by her clever writing.

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  2. I am currently reading The Six Iron Spiders (a Mayo novel)and like this novel seems to incorporate the war effort into the plot a lot. I haven't read this File for Record, but it is interesting read of a Witherall novel set in WW2. The only Tilton novel I have read is The Iron Clew which I really enjoyed and is a screwball comedy with lots of misunderstandings. But I didn't think there was too much going on and all the plot strands are rounded into one solution really well. Although as you suggest I don't think the Tilton novels are ones you can read one after another. You would need space in between.

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    1. Yes, I remember your review of Iron Clew, and can see that there were recurring features in the books of this series. I would certainly read more by this author (either series) but perhaps not soon enough to do much more Tuesday Night-ing.

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  3. I have not read any of the Leonidas Witherall books. The wartime setting of this one sounds very interesting.

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    1. Oh yes, I think you would very much enjoy the setting, even though the content is very lightweight...

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  4. What is often overlooked today is that fur coats are warm. Depending on the novel's setting (is it New England?), the choice of a fur coat over a cloth one may have an even more practical foundation that saving rationed wool garments.

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    1. Good point - yes, Boston I think, so cold in winter. And as you say, fur works for animals and for people keeing us warm.

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    2. And probably easier to clean oil off a fur coat than a cloth coat...

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    3. Yes another good point - we are working up quite the defence of fur coats...

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    4. According to one of my old cookbooks/household manuals from the 1920s, fur was cleaned (by ladies who could not afford to send them for professional handling) with cornmeal.

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  5. Just as I could only find one Taylor, I could only find one Tilton, which was THE IRON CLEW. I understand that it was fairly typical of the series. Great fun, but perhaps the pace was a little too relentless. They've been compared to the Marx Brother's movies, but the thing about those movies was that they were careful to stick in some boring musical interludes in order to break up the comedy segments and allow the audience to relax. Interestingly, Witherall did get his own radio series during the mid '40s. Maybe the more urbane lead character, plus the more farcical tone, made it an easier sell.

    The stuff about blackouts and air-raid wardens in the USA is interesting because it's a part of history that is pretty much forgotten about. When he was doing ARSENIC AND OLD LACE on Broadway, Boris Karloff served as an Air Raid Warden in Park Avenue. However, I get the feeling that no-one really believed that the enemy would turn up. When American TV attempted to do a version of DAD'S ARMY it didn't work because the sub-text that these old men might have to fight armed stormtroopers didn't exist.

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    1. Yes, I feel a bit grumpy complaining about what was a cheerful, entertaining book (and thus probably just the thing in wartime) but it is exhausting to be entertained at too high a pitch.
      I am always fascinated by WW2 homefront in the UK, and knew little about USA, and am enjoying learning.

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  6. It isn't easy to find these books. You have to relax and go with the flow. If you are familiar with the movie genre known as "screwball comedies" you will get the idea.

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    1. Thanks Dorothy - I understand exactly what you mean! It's surprising they didn't make movies from them, isn't it, all the snappy dialogue and intriguing action would suit the genre.

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