Ah, Phyllis A. Whitney.
I first discovered Mrs. Whitney’s work at the Tomen Branch of the Chicago Public Library, where it stood on the corner of Pulaski and 27th Street. My mother used to leave my sister and I at the library while she grocery shopped (not always; we could only go to the library and check out books when we were returning the ones we’d checked out the last time, so about every other Saturday; I can only imagine the relief she felt when she saw us go through the library doors on those Saturdays to be free of her kids for a while) at the Jewel/Osco kitty corner across the street. The book–The Secret of the Tiger’s Eye–was a lot of fun; I was just discovering the joys of mysteries through the Scholastic Book Club at school, and was also discovering the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and the other series for kids, and it was educational. Set in Cape Town, I learned a lot about apartheid and the structural and systemic racism in South Africa. Bonita (I think that was her name) had to come spend the summer there with her aunt, and soon became involved in a mystery involving her dead cousin. It was great fun, and soon I was either buying her books from the book club or checking them out from the public library or the school library: The Mystery of the Hidden Hand (Greece), The Mystery of the Golden Horn (Istanbul), and so forth. Her books was also kind of travelogues, where she managed to also educate her young readers about the places where there were set, and the history there, as well. Mrs. Whitney had been a librarian, and so she knew her research, she took her writing–and her audience–seriously, and she won two Edgar Awards for best mystery for juveniles.
When I was eleven or twelve–not sure which–my parents let me join the Mystery Guild, and after I got the initial shipment of books, the first catalogue with a selection was a novel called Listen for the Whisperer, by Phyllis A. Whitney–whose juvenile mysteries I was still reading. I read the description, and its story–about a film star and a murder twenty years in the past–intrigued me; I was just starting my Hollywood fascination, and this seemed right up my alley. My mother gave me permission; I ordered it, and I never looked back with Phyllis A. Whitney.
I sat in the darkened theater with my hands clasped tensely in my lap and my eyes fixed unblinking upon the screen. The man beside me touched my arm and I pulled away from him, not wanting anything to break the spell of the scene that was moving, inexorably to its climax.
“Let up, Leigh,” Dick whispered. “This is pure corn, even if Laura Worth did win an Oscar nomination for it years ago.”
Twenty years ago. I knew. But I would not listen to him. I shut him out and watched the screen. I knew the scene by heart, but the impact was always the same. My ambivalence was always the same. I was fascinated by every move the woman on the screen made, yet at the same time I detested her utterly. No one had a better right to detest her.
In the role of Helen Bradley in the movie adaptation of my father’s novel, The Whisperer, Laura Worth was coming down that famous Victorian staircase that had been almost a character in the book. Not only I, but the entire audience sensed her fear. Terror seemed to emanate from her as she descended the stairs, one hand clinging to the banister, the other held to her throat in dread. She was a woman going to meet death–and knowing it. The audience knew it, too. Sure of the outcome, sure she would finally escape, they still felt the fright she meant to convey. Even Dick was silent, watching as she reached the foot of the stairs.
The black and white screen managed to reproduce the eeriness of gaslight; even the furnishings seemed to suggest the gray flicker that was the very color of terror. Helen Bradley knew that she lived in this house with a husband who intended to kill her. She knew that no one would believe her accusation if she made it, and that there was no escape from what was going to happen–very soon. Yet she must go down those stairs, cross the hall and enter the parlor where he waited for her. The background music was hushed, suitably tense and anticipatory. You forgot this was Laura Worth, the actress. You became Helen Bradley.
Pretty great opening there, isn’t it? Mrs. Whitney established who the center of the novel is: an actress named Laura Worth, and as the opening scene progresses, Dick asks Leigh, “Wasn’t there some scandal that hurt the picture and cost her the Oscar?”
And that is the central mystery at the heart of the novel: the murder of director Cass Alroy during the filming of The Whisperer, some twenty years or so earlier. Ms. Worth had a habit of sleeping in her dressing room during filming; in order to feel closer to the part and to the process of filming. She’d been feuding with her director since filming started; there were rumors of a love affair gone bad between them. One night while she was staying in her dressing room, she had a crash and went out to see what made the noise; a younger co-star who also happened to be a huge fan of hers, Rita Bond, was also there, and they discovered the dead body of Cass Alroy, hit over the head and killed by someone unknown. The feud stories cast suspicion on Laura; after the filming was complete she gave up her career, left Hollywood, and returned to her home country, Norway–she was half-Norwegian–and became a recluse.
Leigh Hollins, the main character, is Laura’s daughter. Laura had an affair with Leigh’s father during the filming of another of his books, but she wasn’t interested in either marriage or being a mother; so she gave up the child to Leigh’s father, who later married someone else who raised Leigh as her own. Leigh has never known her birth mother, and that has always been a bone of contention and discontent in her life. Now, watching the film again, as a young journalist who often writes profiles of film stars and with her father dead, Leigh decides to go to Norway and make contact with her birth-mother after all these years. But what she finds when she gets to Norway is that the secrets from the past–and the mystery of who killed Cass Alroy–is still very current and swirling around her mother’s household. Leigh also finds herself not only in danger, but some romance as she tries to build a relationship with her mother and get to the truth about what happened so many years ago on the set of The Whisperer–and almost everyone in the household is a suspect, then and now.
It’s a terrific book, if a little dated; one of my primary problems with Whitney’s heroines is they weren’t nearly as strong as I would have liked, and another trope she repeatedly used (although not in this particular novel) was good girl (her heroine) vs. “bad girl” (the villainess); the bad girl in the story inevitably was sexually promiscuous, mean-spirited, and often married to the man the heroine was in live with, and made him miserable (Lost Island, Columbella, The Turquoise Mask, among many others). Another recurrent theme in Whitney’s work was family drama/tension; her heroines also often had to return to somewhere they’d fled and avoided to try to repair a family relationship: in this book, the heroine and her birth mother; in Silverhill, she is returning her mother’s body to the family she was estranged from; in The Turquoise Mask she is going to meet her mother’s family and try to get to the truth of her mother’s death when she was a little girl; in Lost Island she is returning to get to know the son she gave up to her cousin and the son’s father, whom her cousin married (Lost Island was always one of my favorites; I may have to revisit it as well).
Whitney’s books are mostly available as ebooks now; some are still in paperback print–but I think the majority of her children’s books are unavailable. She won two Edgars for Best Juvenile Mystery, and was named a Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America in the 1980’s. As I said, some of her books probably seem a little dated now, but she was an incredibly prolific writer, the books are still engaging, and I think she isn’t remembered as much as perhaps she should be.