Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Tuesday Night Blogs: Accents and Cape Coders

Edmund Wilson, the well-known American man of letters wrote an infamous essay in the New Yorker in 1945, entitled Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? [scroll down to second essay], which has been taken apart by aficionados of the genre ever since. Wilson's purpose in this, the second essay of three, that were going to destroy detective stories for ever (and we all know how successful that effort proved to be) was to explain that he did do his best to like the books and even took people's advice to read Dorothy L. Sayers, the best, as he had been told, or, at least, the most literary of the writers. He read Nine Tailors and thought it was the dullest book he had ever opened, which shows that Mr Wilson had led a very sheltered life. He obviously had never tried reading Chernyshevsky's What Is To Be Done? despite producing one of the best analyses of Socialist ideology and its history in To The Finland Station. Now that is dull. Possibly, as my father once said to me, the worst book ever written.

Among other things he found annoying and embarrassing was the plethora of accents various characters used in the novel. When I read this I decided that Edmund Wilson clearly had a cloth ear. Alternatively, he had no real knowledge of England and the geographic and social importance of accents. Come to think of it, accents are of some importance in the US as well and that is one of the themes of this blog.

What Sayers was trying to do was not to embarrass sundry literary critics (though I do not suppose she minded that) but to present a picture of a village and its environs, in which the way people spoke depended on their place of birth, their age and their educational level. The old man who had never left the three Fenton villages in his long life was barely comprehensible to others and different in his speech from the younger inhabitants who had been away, perhaps even to London or abroad like Jim Thoday; They, in turn, spoke differently from the state school educated engineer Wimsey meets, from the Oxford educated, probably upper middle class rector and, of course, Wimsey himself, who is unlike anyone else in speech. One could argue that Sayers was not successful in her attempts to reproduce the variety of accents but to suggest that she ought not to have tried even but had everyone speak exactly the same, is to display, well, a cloth ear.

What, I wonder, would Edmund Wilson have thought of Asey Mayo's accent in Phoebe Atwood Taylor's books. Mayo is the Codfish Sherlock who appears in twentyfour novels between 1931 and 1951. He is also a master rather than a jack of all trades and, during the war, a man with a highly important job to do with tanks (previously it had been cars though the details are always a little vague). He goes to Washington for meetings with very important people, probably the President himself and we are reminded in the later books that his broad Cape Cod accent mysteriously disappeared when he attended those meetings.

The question is why does it exist at all. It fools nobody and it irritates the reader (well, this reader, certainly). Nobody else, apart from a few fishermen or layabouts speak in that accent. Why does Mayo? Unlike Sayers's characters whose accents are part of their social and geographic position, Mayo's is completely phony. Yet he goes on with it, stretching out every single statement and comment and adding what might be called local colour, which would have been provided quite adequately by his knowledge of the area, every single road in it, the various families though not everything about individual members.

It so happens that until now I have managed to find only wartime and postwar Asey Mayo novels but found it intriguing that the early ones are supposed to be darker and considerably less farcical. So I was very pleased to be able to lay my hands on The Tinkling Symbol, published in 1935 and the seventh in the series.

If there is any darkness in the early books, it must be in the first six, as The Tinkling Symbol (no, I am not telling you what it stands for) is as much of a screwball comedy as the later ones with Asey Mayo, unfortunately for the reader's patience and good will, spending even more time making long speeches, all in Cape Cod hayseed accent. The other Cape Coders, even the ones, we are told, who had settled families in the area twelve or thirteen generations before the mid 1930s (an unlikely story) speak the American equivalent of the Queen's English; fishermen and layabouts wander into regional speech but Mayo is the only one to keep to it consistently.

The book consists largely of people popping in and out of doors, windows and, especially, cars. Everybody repeatedly piles into one roadster or another and if they are not shot at and they do not find a knife in the upholstery then they race off to accuse somebody else of murder. Highly entertaining but not altogether satisfactory as a detective story. As a clue there is the last word the dying man (actually, victim number five but the first four had been done in before the book starts) speaks and it is solved very near the end by Mayo.

It is not till page 212 of 288 that we even hear of the reason behind the murders and it is shelved as there is another mad car ride and accusations of murder, easily dismissed by the sister of the accused in this case, till page 257 when we are told a certain amount to be picked up again on page 260. From page 266 on we get the explanation, much of which consists of Asey Mayo explaining all that he had been doing for weeks and, especially, in the last day and all that he had asked the police to find out for him. None of it had even been hinted at throughout the book. Finally we find out the most important fact about the murderer, one that has also not been hinted at and one that Mayo discovers completely by accident.

Comparing this book with the later ones I would hazard a guess that Phoebe Atwood Taylor may have decided to tighten up the plots a little. The later ones actually make some sense and there is the odd clue throughout the books. Doc Cummings, who appears very little in The Tinkling Symbol, plays a major part in all the later ones, Syl and Jennie Mayo, Asey's cousins, appear and  become important and the Cape Coders, uniformly unpleasant, appear and disappear. My guess is that Charlotte MacLeod was heavily influenced by Phoebe Atwood Taylor both in her Peter and Helen Shandy series of novels and the Bittersohn Kelling one. MacLeod is more determinedly farcical, there tend to be more bodies and her characters all do something but the latter may be just because times have changed and even Cape Coders cannot just sit around doing nothing.

For all the reasons listed above Taylor's later novels are more appealing but there is one problem: Asey Mayo's accent remains and is as phony as ever. I am sure Edmund Wilson would have been very sniffy about it.


  1. I don't believe I would say that any of the Asey Mayo books are "dark." At least not that I've read. The earlier ones do have middle-aged "spinster" narrators reminiscent of the HIBK books, which distance us a little from Asey.

    One would have to read them in sequence to be certain, but I have the impression in my mind that the later ones get zanier. I imagined this was the influence from the Tiltons.

    As for Asey and the accent, there I have the impression Taylor turned him more and more over the series into a sort of Superman. So the accent had to be made part of an act. Her family on both sides went back generations and to the 17th century in Cape Cod, so she must have known her stuff.

    Sayers did make a big thing about authentic accents. The Scots stuff in Five Red Herrings can be tortuous to American readers, but seems rather impressive in its way.

    1. This is the only early one I have read so there may be darkness in others. Not my comment: I am quoting. This one has a narrator as well, not a spinster but a wife and mother; a singularly stupid woman. I am not sure settled for twelve generations is an accurate way of describing Europeans in New England but, I suppose, it depends on how you define generations.

  2. I didn't say write 12 generations, but her family went back in Massachusetts for nearly 300 years before she was born, so I imagine you would stop least settle for ten? I think there actually is accessible data in her case so may be able to give an exact count.

  3. Okay, our Phoebe was eight generations in Mass. on her fathers side, going through grandfather, ten on mothers side going though grandfather and eleven on mothers site going through grandmother. Paternal grandmother only traced back to mid 18th century! Latecomers!

  4. Oh all right. Let her have a slight exaggeration.