Nikita

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.

freddie stroma

Major Tom (Coming Home)

Tuesday morning.

I made an enormous decision regarding the point-of-view in the WIP; one that I should have made a long time ago: instead of third person point of view, I am going to revise and rewrite it in the first person. It makes more sense; I don’t know why I didn’t do it that way in the first place when I wrote the first draft; but that was so fucking long ago who knows why I did anything back then? I revised the first chapter yesterday, and it seems much more real, much more immediate, and much more involving than it did before. I think this was, indeed, a wise decision–at least until next week, when I am pounding my head against the wall again and wondering why the hell I decided to do it this way?

Why am I a writer again? Because I clearly hate myself.

Sunday Paul and I binge-watched It’s the End of the F**king World, a Netflix original series, and were quite taken with it. We wound up watching the entire season Sunday night–the episodes are only about twenty-one minutes long–and the two young kids who play the leads, Alyssa and James, are really quite appealing. James lives alone with his father and is a self-diagnosed psychopath; when Alyssa first crossed his path in the school cafeteria, he decides she’s interesting and he decides to kill her. He’s been killing animals for a while now, and has decided to move on to people, and she’s as good a victim as anyone. Alyssa lives with her mother and her perfectly awful stepfather, who have two kids of their own, and it’s obvious Alyssa isn’t wanted there, and her mother is too dominated by her new husband to stand up to him or for her. As a result, Alyssa has a bit of an anger issue. She also hasn’t seen her father since she was eight and he left her mother–but even though he doesn’t see her he sends her a birthday card every year. These two oddballs decide to steal James’ father’s car and run away together…but it continues its dark path. James and Alyssa are, if nothing else, oddly compelling and you can’t help but root for them to find some kind of a happy ending, although the events that keep happening to them make that virtually impossible; their crimes gradually get worse and worse, and I couldn’t help but think of them in terms of Bonnie and Clyde (no doubt because I am still reading Pictures at a Revolution) and Natural Born Killers; they didn’t mean to start committing crimes but once they did, they had no choice but to keep committing crimes. It’s all kind of noirish and charming; funny yet disturbing, and incredibly original. We also get to know the two–as they grow closer to each other and start to truly care about each other, they start sharing their childhood traumas and frankly, with all that scar tissue it’s no wonder they didn’t fit in anywhere.

I’ll be very curious to see how the second season turns out.

I also have two more short stories to discuss.

First up, I returned to Lawrence Block’s In Sunlight or in Shadow for Stephen King’s “The Music Room”:

The Enderbys were in their music room–so they called it, although it was really just the spare bedroom. Once they had thought it would be little James or Jill Enderby’s nursery, but after ten years of trying, it seemed increasingly unlikely that a Baby Dear would arrive out of the Nowhere and into the Here. They had made their peace with childlessness. AT least they had work, which was a blessing in a year when men were still standing in bread lines. There were fallow periods, it was true, but when the job was on, they could afford to think of nothing else, and they both liked it that way.

Mr. Enderby was reading The New York Journal-American,  a new daily not even halfway through its first year of publication. It was sort of a tabloid and sort of not. He usually began with the comics, but when they were on the job he turned to the city news first, scanning through the stories quickly, especially the police blotter.

This short story is one of the creepiest things I’ve read during this edition of the Short Story Project. King is always good for creepy stories, but the casual, calm matter of fact way the Enderbys go about their ‘business’ is what sets this story apart. The fact that they sit around and chat, quite normally, about the ‘business’ as though they were talking about nothing more important than the weather is very chilling; the kind of thing that would make a lovely episode of Twilight Zone. Very well done, very creepy.

Next I read “The Splintered Monday,” by Charlotte Armstrong, which Sarah Weinman included in her terrific anthology Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives. This story was originally publishing in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and was a nominee for the Best Short Story Edgar.

Mrs. Sarah Brady awakened in the guest room of her nephew Jeff’s house, and for a moment or two was simply glad for the clean page of a new day. Then she found her bookmark between the past and the future. Oh, yes. Her sister, Alice, had died on Monday, been buried on Wednesday. (Poor Alice.) This was Saturday. Mrs. Brady’s daughter, Del, was coming, late today, to drive her mother back home tomorrow.

Now that she knew where she was, Mrs. Brady cast a brief prayer into time and space, then put her lean old feet to the floor.

The house was very still. For days now it has seemed muffled, everyone moving in a quiet gloom, sweetened by mutually considerate behavior. Mrs. Brady had a feeling that her own departure would signal a lift of some kind in the atmosphere. And she did not particularly like the idea.

I first discovered Charlotte Armstrong when I was in junior high school; she was still alive and still being published, and was still rather popular. I got a Charlotte Armstrong Omnibus from the Mystery Guild; the novels included were The Witch’s House, Mischief, and The Dream Walker. I read and greatly enjoyed the first two–Mischief was made into a movie starring Marilyn Monroe, retitled Don’t Bother to Knock–and they weren’t like anything I’d ever read up to that point. I did read some more of her books back then, and I never forgot her. I was quite pleased when Sarah, along with Jeffrey Marks, began shining a light on Ms. Armstrong and bringing her back to her proper place in the history of the genre.

“The Splintered Monday” is a great example of Ms. Armstrong’s gifts as a writer. The premise, as seen above in the opening paragraphs that set the stage for the story, is quite simple. A woman, who was a hypochondriac but also ill–she was, as we learn as the story progresses, a narcissist as well who insisted on being at the center of everything, and everything was all about her–has died. Her sister was visiting and her sister is quite aware of what the deceased Alice was like. But something is off, something is wrong, and Mrs. Brady can’t quite put her finger on it…so she decides to find out for herself. At first, she doesn’t learn anything useful; and it’s more along the lines that everyone is coddling her, protecting her from the truth about her sister’s death for ‘her own good’ which annoys the crap out of her. But someone in the house has a very good reason for keeping things from Mrs. Brady…because if Mrs. Brady knows everything, she’ll put the truth together and will catch a very clever killer. Armstrong’s mastery is evident in every paragraph; there is a sweetness to her writing and a sweetness to her main characters, but there’s also a very strong sense of right and wrong, of common sense, and a heroic purpose to their investigations. This is why I love Armstrong so much…and was thrilled to read this story.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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