Dress Down Sunday: The Cape Cod Mystery by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

published 1931


[Summer visitor Prudence and local man Asey have joined forces to solve a crime, and Asey has been hit by a suspect]

“…You’re all covered with blood, Asey. And something ought to be bound round your head.”

Feeling a little like a Revolutionary War heroine, the kind who were always bandaging people up with their underthings, I lifted my skirt, took a nail file from my pocketbook and with it tore the hem from my white silk petticoat. As I tied up his head I reflected that Betsey would now have no reason to scoff at my petticoats for some time to come…

[Later on, Prudence says:] “oughtn’t someone look after your head?”

“It’ll be all right. I forgot to say I guess the doctor kind of recognized that petticoat.”


“Yup. I’m kind of ‘fraid your ‘scutcheon is goin’ to suffer a blot or two from this day’s goin’s-on.”

“Well,” I said resignedly, “no one talks about escutcheons till there’s a blot on them anyway.”

observations: Crime fiction blogger Margot Kinberg (see her terrific regular musings at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist) put me onto this book, the first of a classic American series. It’s a true Golden Age adventure, but one that has worn well – full of smart talk, and class divisions that seem extraordinary to us now. Asey Mayo the hired man – who is clever, entertaining and solves the crime – calls his co-conspirator ‘Miss Prue’, and tells her he’ll be happier in the kitchen. But at least he isn’t just a comic and idiotic servant, as found in so many books of the era, and he’s a great character. His finest moment comes when he gets hold of a child’s police fancy dress costume, so he can use the fake badge to fool a suspect into thinking he’s an official investigator.

The heroine/narrator is 50, which again makes a nice change from Bright Young Things or Miss Marples investigating crimes. (On the downside, she is known as Snoodles to her friends, but we can try to ignore that.) This cheerful tearing of the petticoat is fun – the doctor who looks at Asey’s head is also glimpsed in white knickers (he wears them ‘most of the time’). It is always such a disappointment to UK readers that this means knickerbockers not underwear.

And then there’s this: early on, Prudence is looking at the view:
The oyster-shell lane that led from the cottage down the hill past the tennis courts shone like a piece of white satin ribbon. I remembered that Betsey’s impractical underclothing needed new straps.

How lovely. The picture – of Lillian Gish, from the Bain Collection at the Library of Congress – is a combination of the two quotations.

Links on the blog: For more Dress Down Sunday, and many more petticoats, click on the label below. Flora Poste is sewing one in this entry (‘he hoped it was a pair of knickers’, UK readers), and Charles Darwin says gauchos wear them.


  1. Moira - First, thank you for the kind mention; that's awfully kind of you. This one really is a terrific Golden Age story for all of the reasons you outline. I love the setting too. And you know, I hadn't thought an awful lot about it, but you have such a well-taken point about the fact that Prudence is - er - no longer twenty. There's something refreshing about that I think.


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