Octagon House (1937) by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

Whale poo – or ambergris to give it the proper name – is far more valuable than you might think, and when Pam Frye, the young resident of the Octagon House, finds a massive lump of it on the beach, she thinks that her luck is in. But without a means of transporting it, she has to recruit her much-despised sister, Marina, to help her move it. But when Marina is killed with Pam’s own knife, and the ambergris disappears, the police are convinced that Pam must be guilty.

The town of Quanomet is already in uproar due to the unveiling of a new mural in the post office that portrays the citizens of the town in a distinctly unflattering light. While it was painted by Marina’s husband, it seems that everyone knows that Marina designed it, so there is possible a motive beyond the acquisition of valuable whale faeces for the crime. Enter Asey Mayo, local detective, to solve the crime and find the whale excrement.

OK, it’ll be a New Year resolution but I need to start working my way down my TBR pile, so I thought I’d start with one of my Secret Santa Christmas presents – I say secret, but only because the package arrived over a month ago and I’ve actually forgotten whose name was on the postage label that I saw by accident.

I’ve not encountered Phoebe Atwood Taylor before – she wrote 24 Asey Mayo novels between 1931 and 1951 (most of them in the first decade of that period), one book as Freeman Dana and eight as Alice Tilton. This is the eleventh(ish) Mayo mystery and I’ll be honest, I was a little unsure about which characters were regulars from the series and which were “new” i.e. suspects. Not that it matters – knowing who the recurring, i.e. probably innocent, characters can actually harm the reading experience.

It begins very well, with the set-up, Asey getting involved by hiding Pam from the authorities and then, when she disappears, trying to work out what is going on. I did, in general, enjoy the book, but I think I’d have enjoyed it more if I was more attuned to Taylor’s sense of humour. The constant references to someone who ends up knocking half the cast unconscious during the tale as “the Biffer” gives an idea of how serious people are taking things. The plot is propelled forward by people doing odd things – one example involves Pam’s prolonged disappearance, and another is Asey’s constant delay in interviewing an obvious suspect. It’s one of those books where you want to reach into the book and give the odd character a slap and tell them to get on with it and stop faffing about. One character (male for once) does get a good spanking from the Biffer (ugh) but I don’t think that counts.

All in all, though, I did enjoy this one – thanks, Santa. I’m a little wary about racing back to Atwood as I get the impression that this is one of her best books, and some of them have some terrible phonetically written dialogue, a particular bugbear of mine, although that’s not present here. Does anyone have a recommendation of her work for me?


  1. I’ve only read the books she wrote as “Alice Tilton” with her Shakespeare lookalike detective Leonidas Witherall. They’re comic crime capers and read like 1930s screwball comedy movies. Like Bringing up Baby with dead bodies and crime. Silly, frothy fun. Some of the early Asey Mayo mysteries are a supposed to be good. Death Lights a Candle, Sandbar Sinister, The Cape Cod Mystery… Unfortunately, I can’t tell you which ones are the absolute best. Though I own many of them I’ve never read a single one.

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  2. I’ve read Going, Going, Gone and Punch with Care. I thought they were enjoyable enough, but a bit heavy on coincidence – Asey Mayo doesn’t do much real detecting but just happens to be in the right place at the right time to observe someone doing something suspicious.

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  3. Thanks
    Seems perfect reading during this rather gloomy week between 2 festive dates
    And found it online. Xmas miracle.
    Happy new year and plenty of blogs for 2022.


  4. I’ve read most, if not all, of her books. They are delightful, but light reading. Don’t bother with the one about the World’s Fair – it’s a puff-piece only, for Fair promotion only – reads like a guide to the highlights of the Fair. Also beware of the first books in each series, especially the Witherall one where he works in a bookshop – I didn’t finish that one . It was too racist (anti-Italian) and definitely not politically correct in its references to the Italians. One of the Mayo ones was racist against another group of not-Mayflower descendants. Except for those three, the books are fun but light.

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