Dead Ernest, as by Alice Tilton (Phoebe Atwood Taylor) (1944)
Phoebe Atwood Taylor, writing as Alice Tilton. The Alice Tilton pseudonym was reserved for the eight novels featuring amateur detective Leonidas Witherall, “The Man who looked like Shakespeare”; this is the seventh.
2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:
This 1944 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fourth under “L”, “Read one book with a man in the title.” The titular Ernest is the victim in this novel. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.
The first edition is US, Norton in 1944. First UK edition is Collins, 1945. Many editions exist; the paperback I used is depicted at the top of this post and is from Foul Play Press, 1992.
About this book:
Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.
Leonidas Witherall is known to one and all in his small New England community as “the man who looks like Shakespeare”. He’s also well-known in civic circles, he’s the owner and headmaster of a prominent boys’ school — and, a fact known to few, he’s also the writer of radio’s Lieutenant Haseltine series. “Has–eltine to the res-cue!” (Indeed, the exploits and habits of Haseltine and the beautiful Lady Alicia are a constant theme in Witherall’s adventures. We never exactly understand any of Haseltine’s story lines, but they sound hokey, simplistic, and repetitive.) As the story begins, Witherall is in his study desperately trying to complete the latest Haseltine adventure and being pestered by his housekeeper, Mrs. Mullet, a sturdy middle-aged woman who is constantly expressing her “candied” opinion. She’s trying to tell him a number of important things that later he wishes fervently he’d understood, but he brushes her off and she leaves.
Almost immediately, two drunken deliverymen insist that Leonidas is to receive the delivery of a deep freeze (a household freezer), which they unload into his kitchen. Nearly simultaneously, a gorgeous violet-eyed blonde (named Terpsichore, but known to one and all as Terry) in an evening gown rings Leonidas’s front doorbell and insists that he is the person for whom she has been paid to sing “Happy Birthday” — which she promptly does. Leonidas then discovers that the deep freeze contains the corpse of Mr. Ernest Finger, whom he has just hired as the latest French language instructor at his boys’ school and who is related to his neighbours, the Finger family.
It’s hard to describe exactly what happens for the remainder of the novel; a bald recital of the facts of the movements of the characters would have my readers tugging at my sleeve and saying, “Um, WHY exactly would they all want to attend a policeman’s supper during such urgent and dangerous circumstances? Why exactly do the neighbours keep popping into the kitchen on errands? What combination of circumstances exactly left Mrs. Mullet tied up in Leonidas’s basement and only able to identify her assailant by the stitch that produced his hand-knit socks?” It’s pretty clear that it’s the murderer who is trying to get Leonidas in trouble and accused of the Finger murder, but what does moving the corpse around erratically have to do with it? (Accompanied by many, many jokes about the Finger family name; comments about “the moving Finger” and “I’ve had those Fingers in my hair all day” abound.)
Honestly, if I told you what happened, you wouldn’t be interested in reading the novel because you would, probably rightly, think that it was ridiculous and never bother to pick it up. It IS ridiculous. Nearly everything that happens is ridiculous, zany, and improbable in the extreme. Essentially what happens is that Leonidas puts together a small crew of associates and they all race around like crazy people, reacting spontaneously to things that happen in the vicinity while they try to solve the murder of Mr. Finger and keep Leonidas from being arrested for it — or anyone else in the crew, many of whom have reason to have done violence to Ernest. Indeed, in all the books, this is the pattern; Leonidas assembles a crew that usually contains a beautiful young woman, a handsome young man, a ditzy but highly competent housewife, a child with no conscience, and a couple of salty-tongued members of the lower classes. This particular novel features lower-class Mrs. Mullet prominently, who here is constantly acting out the actions of the beautiful Lady Alicia as she attempts to aid the gallant lieutenant, and her daughter Gerty, who wishes to be known as Sonia. (Well, wouldn’t you?)
Finally, everyone takes a leaf from Haseltine’s adventures as Leonidas invokes the constant factor in the Haseltine stories; the principle of Cannae. “Cannae,” chant all the good guys simultaneously since they are all Haseltine devotees, “is the historic battle between the Romans and the Carthaginians, fought in Apulia in the year 216 B.C., in which the small, weak army of Hannibal cut the incomparable forces of eighty-five thousand proud Roman legionnaires to pieces.” (The action stops for a moment while they discuss whether the word is “pieces” or “shreds”. They continue …) “By means of an ingenious strategical concentration, it caught the enemy from the flank with calvary and surrounded him. Clausewitz and Schlieffen of the Prussian General Staff elaborated the idea of Cannae into a general theoretical doctrine, and then compressed the doctrine into an exact strategical system: Blitzkrieg.” This exact speech recurs in every single Witherall novel and signals that Leonidas is about to solve the mystery, ensure the arrest of the criminal, and cause everything to end happily. Which he does and they do. “Bathed in the refulgent glow of the setting sun, Haseltine clasped the Lady Alicia to his manly bosom.” And Leonidas and Mrs. Mullet exchange a set of little jokes about what to call the next Haseltine adventure, which will be based on recent events — not “The Moving Finger” or “Deep Freeze”, but “Dead Ernest”.
Why is this book worth your time?
“Screwball comedy” in film pretty much began in 1934 with It Happened One Night, according to Wikipedia, but that reference also suggests that the style ended by 1942. It also says screwball comedies “… often involve mistaken identities or other circumstances in which a character or characters try to keep some important fact a secret.” That sounds like a murder mystery to me. I’ll tentatively suggest that mystery writers who were looking around for new twists on the traditional mystery noted the success of the screwball comedy in film and decided that it would go well as the foundation of a murder mystery plot. And thus began the transmigration of the filmic screwball comedy into the novelistic comedy mystery.
I can’t say that I understand the entire history of the particular sub-genre of the “comedy mystery”. I’m not certain I know of all early examples; I’m aware of a couple of instances, including works by Marco Page (a pseudonym of Harry Kurnitz) like Fast Company that were filmed at about the same time as this book was published. But historians and analysts seem to be interested in very little in the way of comedy mystery before the work of Craig Rice, whose first novel, Eight Faces at Three (1939), began the genre, it seems. Except that if that’s the case, then Phoebe Atwood Taylor beat her to it; Taylor’s first novel as by Alice Tilton, Beginning With a Bash, was published in 1937 and the third in the series in 1939.
It’s hard to tell the impact of a particular writer at such a great distance. We know that Craig Rice was the first mystery writer to appear on the cover of Time (January 28, 1946), and a number of her works were filmed (including Having Wonderful Crime in 1945, the film for which certainly qualifies as some kind of comedy, screwball or otherwise). Phoebe Atwood Taylor doesn’t appear to have been the subject of any media interest that I can locate, and her cross-platform success was limited to a single year (1944-1945) of a radio program, The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall, starring well-known actor Walter Hampden. So I’m guessing that Craig Rice was much more impactful than Phoebe Atwood Taylor. I cannot imagine why no one tried to film any of Taylor’s Witherall adventures when lesser writers’ attempts at screwball comedy were being filmed right and left; it just didn’t happen, and now the moment has passed.
This book, and indeed the whole Leonidas Witherall series, are beautifully crafted examples of screwball comedies in novel form. They are not especially interesting as mysteries if that is your only purpose in reading. The plots are so convoluted and baroque, and move at such a careening clip, that it is impossible to suggest that you will solve the mystery in the usual sense. Usually there is one character who stands out as the only potential suspect; either that, or you take a brief moment to wonder who might have done the murder and think, “Oh, THAT person, I guess.” It’s not usually possible, in a strict and formal sense, to “solve” an Alice Tilton mystery. That requires certain kinds of facts that are not really available to the reader.
For instance, in this case, we do not “see” the actions of the murderer in the sense that we would be able to go back and trace that person’s actions throughout the day, to know where they were when and with whom as witness. Instead, and I don’t think I’m going to spoil your enjoyment of this novel by saying so before you read it, the murderer here is someone who had a reason to put Ernest Finger’s body in a deep freeze and have it delivered to Leonidas Witherall’s kitchen. That action sparks the actions of the plot, but there really is only one person who had a (barely) sane and sensible reason to do such a thing. You can imagine that that limited the list of potential murderers to a single name, which it does here. That will have to be sufficient for those of us who like to have a try at actually solving a mystery; the others will have little about which to complain. There is so much going on here, and so much of it is actually hilarious, that you won’t mind a bit that the mystery ingredient is a bit skimpy.
I’ve enjoyed this whole series and read them all a number of years ago, and they stand up well to re-reading; not all books by the writers about whom I was enthusiastic in my youth have done so. This book is funny in a way that is hard to describe; to me, the closest analogy is the work of P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse is the creator of Bertie Wooster, the quintessential “Silly Ass” in the tradition of Philo Vance, Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion. I’ve read a quotation from Wodehouse to the effect that he was being blamed for writing about the same characters, just giving them new names in each book; Wodehouse announced he was confounding his critics next time by keeping the same names. And this process is very much what happens in these eight books. They are a series of linked character trophes, like Benny Hill or the Carry On movies. There’s a smart and practical housewife whose presentation is that of a ditz. There’s a beautiful girl who is in trouble through no fault of her own. There’s a handsome young man of good family and education who is misunderstood but anxious to help solve the mystery. And there are a couple of plucky and stupid members of the lower classes, pronouncedly comedic characters, along to do the heavy lifting and offer silly suggestions about alternatives. The author has a limited deck of characters whom she shuffles and recombines; some overlap and recur in the author’s Asey Mayo mysteries under her own name. An ineffectual middle-aged upper-class male who turns out to have a backbone. A young woman who learned competence by serving in the Armed Forces during WWII. A self-sufficient man of great age, a spoiled young wealthy woman, a preternaturally intelligent child — there are more (not all these trophes are represented in this book, I have to add).
Dead Ernest might be thought of as a kind of proto-cozy (oddly enough, this came out the same year as another possible proto-cozy, Craig Rice’s brilliant Home Sweet Homicide). It has some of the same qualities I associate with the modern cozy: violence is offstage and not indicated in any graphic way, there are strong implicit and sometimes explicit moral values, and the narrator is fallible. And that it is meant to be purchased by a female reader. To my mind, the difference is that the modern cozy lost most of the humour of a classic comedy mystery and replaced it with a kind of communication of “gentle” social values. Perhaps the premise that these two genres are related is fallacious; possibly I’ve omitted important intermediate steps. Maybe it’s just that the modern cozy is so cold-bloodedly commercial that any such relationship is possible, because commercial writing will use any cultural tradition it can to sell another book. Usually this involves the merger of the form of the “light comedy mystery” with the purveyance of a great deal of detailed information about, say, knitting; experts in knitting are easier to find than someone who can actually write comedy, so the focus changed as the cozy became more commercial, produced on assembly-line lines. I think it’s likely Taylor was writing for a female audience, but I also know many men enjoy her books (there are only a few men who can survive a regular diet of cozies). So, I’ll leave this to my readers’ speculation; I have no conclusive answers. I don’t know of any attempt that’s been made to trace this kind of literary relationship, but since there are so many doctoral students who have been forced to look at genre fiction because all the interesting work on Jane Austen has been done, perhaps we can expect such a thesis at some near future point. “Origins of the Cozy Mystery: from Craig Rice to Phoebe Atwood Taylor to Ailsa Craig to Marcia Muller, Joan Hess and beyond.” We can but hope.
Ultimately, I think this book deserves your time because, like its seven fellows in the series, it is literate and intelligent, well-written, and fast-moving. Taylor’s work presents a detailed portrait of a certain period in American history, focused on the domestic economy of Cape Cod in the period during and immediately after WWII. She is a clever and economical constructor of characters; I suggest that the fact that she reused a group of stock characters is evidence that she understood the inherent comedy situations in class conflict (again, this echoes British bawdy humour based on repetitive trophes) and this kind of writing came naturally to her. And she is a wildly inventive and truly eccentric plotter who has the skill in writing necessary to keep her plots moving at breakneck speed without losing the reader. Best of all, you can re-read them two or three times in your lifetime at long-separated intervals and still enjoy them in the same way, for that timeless quality of inspired silliness that brings out the child in us all.
Notes for the Collector:
The first edition (Norton, 1944) is available today from an American bookseller, Fine in a VG to NF jacket, for $65. A slightly less crisp copy is $40 from a Canadian bookseller. The UK first is Collins, 1945. A number of editions exist; Norton reissued the Alice Tilton novels in hardcover in the 1970s or thereabouts, Foul Play Press did a uniform paper edition including the copy I have re-read (seen at the top of this post) in 1992, and Popular Library did a 1970s edition with a wacky and reasonably irrelevant cover illustration, which I have shown to the left.
Here, I think the first edition is the most collectible; the cover illustration is charming, a drawing of the two drunken deliverymen who make up part of the wacky crew inhabiting this novel. (Why those two, I have no idea; they’re nowhere near being the most important characters in the book.) There is not much of a market for Alice Tilton these days; she seems to go in and out of favour. Considering the nonsense that got made into movies at about the time of publication, I am at a loss to understand why any of these books were never filmed; perhaps because of the one-year tenure of The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall on Mutual in 1944/1945.
By way of contrast, Home Sweet Homicide mentioned above, that came out in the same year, by Craig Rice, NF in NF jacket, is $1,250 plus shipping. I have to say there is a chance the specific value would be affected by having been named a Haycraft-Queen “cornerstone”, and filmed to boot, but this is still quite a difference from $65 for an Alice Tilton novel. I’m still not sure why the public loved Rice and was indifferent to Taylor, but this will give you a good idea of their value to posterity.
The handful of surviving episodes of the radio program are readily available on the internet for free, here and elsewhere; if you’re interested, I can’t guarantee that any of them contain Agnes Moorhead in her brief stint as Mrs. Mullet, but they’re worth a listen.