I read a terrific piece about Mary Higgins Clark the other day; about how her books are really, at the barest bone, about how women cannot even truly trust men. It’s a terrific read, and I do think everyone should read this piece–draw your own conclusions. The brilliant Sarah Weinman then tweeted the piece, positing that she considers Clark the bridge between the domestic suspense thrillers of the past (writers like Dorothy B. Hughes, Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, and scores of others) to the modern day women who are killing it in the crime fiction world. On that tweet thread, someone (I think Jeff Abbott?) brought up Phyllis A. Whitney.
Now, Phyllis A. Whitney is one of my favorite writers of all time. I first read her children’s/young adult mysteries (the first being The Secret of the Tiger’s Eye, which I checked out from the library at Eli Whitney Elementary School, after which I started tearing through them. Some were available through the Scholastic Book Club, others I got from the library. I loved them all because they were always set in far off places I wanted to visit–Tiger’s Eye taught me about South Africa and apartheid; The Mystery of the Hidden Hand taught me about Greece and the black market for antiquities, etc.
My mom let me join the Mystery Guild when I was eleven, and I was very thrilled and excited to see as one of the choices, a book by Phyllis A. Whitney, Listen for the Whisperer, and I added it to my choices, filling in the little white box with the correct item number. I was also, at this same time, going through my Hollywood period, reading biographies of movie stars and producers and histories of the film industry. So, you can imagine my thrill to discover that Listen for the Whisperer also was sort of about the film industry; the main character’s biological mother, had been a major Hollywood star, even winning an Oscar, when a scandal destroyed her career; her director was murdered one night on the film set of what would ultimately be her last film, a Gothic black-and-white suspense film called The Whisperer.
It was amazing. A romance and a thriller and a murder mystery, with a lot of Hollywood background to it, it’s remained one of my favorite books of all time, and always makes any list I make of books that were important and/or formative to me.
I soon began tearing through her backlist: Thunder Heights, Seven Tears for Apollo, Blue Fire, Black Amber, Skye Cameron, The Trembling Hills, Silverhill, The Winter People, The Quicksilver Pool, Lost Island, The Moonflower, Sea Jade, Columbella, and Hunter’s Green. Mrs. Whitney continued producing work for almost another twenty years, and I read those books as they were released in paperback, later getting them as they were originally released in hardcover: Snowfire, The Turquoise Mask, The Golden Unicorn, The Glass Flame, Spindrift, Rainbow in the Mist, Woman without a Past, and Vermilion, among many others. Like her teen books, the adult novels also were often set in exotic places which Mrs. Whitney described perfectly, and you learned a little something about the places as you read about them. I also began to realize that when Mrs. Whitney went on one of her research trips, she often wrote two books set there–one for kids, and another for adults.
But the primary difference, I think, between Mary Higgins Clark and Phyllis Whitney is this: if, as the article I read (and linked to) is correct, Ms. Clark’s message is a woman can’t trust any man, then Mrs. Whitney’s was a woman can’t trust anyone, ESPECIALLY not family.
Mrs. Whitney’s books were often, not always, about a young woman trying to either obtain closure (like meeting the birth mother she never knew in Listen for the Whisperer, or confronting her estranged husband who finally wants a divorce after several years of separation in Hunter’s Green, or seeking a relationship with the child she gave up in Lost Island) or trying to get to know a family she’s never met or knew existed (Silverhill, Woman without a Past, Thunder Heights, Sea Jade).
You couldn’t trust anyone in a Whitney novel; sometimes her killers were actually women.
A common trope in Whitney’s work was also the bad girl, who was often either married to, or engaged to, the love interest for the main character; and frequently, particularly in her earlier works, the bad girl wound up as the murder victim (Columbella, Lost Island). There was almost always a “bad girl” archetype in these books; a beautiful, sexually free woman who refused to be a submissive wife, and was sometimes, quite frankly, a nasty bitch to the main character (The Turquoise Mask, Vermilion) but eventually came over the heroine’s side and thus survived the story.
Here’s a list of all her novels (you can see, she was very prolific and her career lasted over fifty years; often publishing more than one book per year–and remember, she had to use a typewriter):
- A Place for Ann (1941)
- A Star for Ginny (1942)
- A Window for Julie (1943)
- Red is for Murder (1943), Reissued as The Red Carnelian (1965)
- The Silver Inkwell (1945)
- Writing Juvenile Fiction (1947)
- Willow Hill (1947)
- Ever After (1948)
- The Mystery of the Gulls (1949)
- Linda’s Homecoming (1950)
- The Island of Dark Woods (1951), Reissued as Mystery of the Strange Traveler (1967)
- Love Me, Love Me Not (1952)
- Step to the Music (1953)
- Mystery of the Black Diamonds (1954)
- A Long Time Coming (1954)
- Mystery on the Isle of Skye (1955)
- The Quicksilver Pool (1955)
- The Fire and the Gold (1956)
- The Highest Dream (1956)
- The Trembling Hills (1956)
- Mystery of the Green Cat (1957)
- Skye Cameron (1957)
- Secret of the Samurai Sword (1958)
- The Moonflower (1958)
- Creole Holiday (1959)
- Mystery of the Haunted Pool (1960)
- Thunder Heights (1960)
- Secret of the Tiger’s Eye (1961)
- Blue Fire (1961)
- Mystery of the Golden Horn (1962)
- Window on the Square (1962)
- Mystery of the Hidden Hand (1963)
- Seven Tears for Apollo (1963)
- Secret of the Emerald Star (1964)
- Black Amber (1964)
- Mystery of the Angry Idol (1965)
- Sea Jade (1965)
- Columbella (1966)
- Secret of the Spotted Shell (1967)
- Silverhill (1967)
- Hunter’s Green (1968)
- Secret of Goblin Glen (1969)
- The Mystery of the Crimson Ghost (1969)
- The Winter People (1969)
- Secret of the Missing Footprint (1969)
- Lost Island (1970)
- The Vanishing Scarecrow (1971)
- Nobody Likes Trina (1972)
- Listen for the Whisperer (1972)
- Mystery of the Scowling Boy (1973)
- Snowfire (1973)
- The Turquoise Mask (1974)
- Secret of Haunted Mesa (1975)
- Spindrift (1975)
- The Golden Unicorn (1976)
- Writing Juvenile Stories and Novels (1976)
- Secret of the Stone Face (1977)
- The Stone Bull (1977)
- The Glass Flame (1978)
- Domino (1979)
- Poinciana (1980)
- Vermilion (1981)
- Guide to Fiction Writing (1982)
- Emerald (1983)
- Rainsong (1984)
- Dream of Orchids (1985)
- Flaming Tree (1986)
- Silversword (1987)
- Feather on the Moon (1988)
- Rainbow in the Mist (1989)
- The Singing Stones (1990)
- Woman Without a Past (1991)
- The Ebony Swan (1992)
- Star Flight (1993)
- Daughter of the Stars (1994)
- Amethyst Dreams (1997)
She won two Edgars for her mysteries for children, and was eventually named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.
I did sometimes get frustrated with her heroines for being more wimpy than they needed to be; usually, though, the course of the novel allowed her heroines to become more confident in themselves as well as to work through whatever neuroses they had at the start of the novel. And like I said, a common theme was damaged families. Her books, along with those of Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart, were labelled as romantic suspense, but I think female noir is actually a better label for them; and as an adult, I really don’t think Stewart’s books actually are romantic suspense…but that’s a topic for another time.
And now, back to the spice mines.