You Are My Sunshine

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.

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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.

Walking the Floor Over You

I have always loved to read, and have always encouraged other people to read. It’s one of the great pleasures of my life, for as long as I can remember. Once I learned how to read, I never stopped reading. I will probably never stop reading. There are fewer non-sexual pleasures in life as satisfying as reading a good book.

As I’ve mentioned before, my grandmother got me really started into watching old movies–both horror and crime–and also encouraged me to read. She was the one who got me started reading Mary Stewart, by giving me her copy of The Ivy Tree; my friend Felicia in high school reminded me of Stewart and so I started reading more of her work. (I still have not read all of Mary Stewart’s work–that “I don’t ever want to run out of something new to read by Mary Stewart” thing I do) And while I enjoyed all of them, I enjoyed some more than others. For example, i remember reading The Moon-spinners, but not really enjoying it very much, frankly. I never revisited the book…but now that I am doing the Reread Project, I decided to give it another read.

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It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that started it. I won’t pretend I saw it straight away as the conventional herald of adventure, the white stag of the fairytale, which, bounding from the enchanted thicket, entices the prince away from his followers and loses him in the forest where danger threatens with the dusk. But, when the big white bird flew suddenly up among the glossy leaves and the lemon flowers, and wheeled into the mountain, I followed it. What else is there to do, when such a thing happens on a brilliant April noonday at the foot of the White Mountains of Crete; when the road is hot and dusty, but the gorge is green, and full of the sound of water, and the white wings, flying ahead, flicker in and out of the deep shadow, and the air is full of the scent of lemon blossom?

The car from Heraklion had set me down where the track for Agios Georgios leaves the road. I got out, adjusted on my shoulder the big bag of embroidered canvas that did duty as a haversack, then turned to thank the American couple for the lift.

“It was a pleasure, honey.” Mrs. Studebaker peered, rather anxiously, out of the car window. “But are you sure you’re all right? I don’t like putting you down on the hill like this, in the middle of nowhere. You’re sure you’re in the right place? What does that sign post say?”

The above pictured cover was the one I originally read; the reread was of a more recent edition. When I was younger, I was fascinated by ancient history: Egypt, Greece, and Rome, to be exact; Greek or Roman or Egyptian ruins on the cover of a book, especially if it was a suspense novel, drew me to the book like moth to flame. (That was what originally drew me to read Phyllis A. Whitney’s Mystery of the Hidden Hand, which I now believe–my memory lies, remember–was the first Whitney I read, because it was set in Greece) I had also remembered seeing a film version of The Moon-spinners, broken up over two weeks’ episodes of The Wonderful World of Disney, which starred Hayley Mills. I don’t remember much of the film now, but I do remember thinking it was vastly different from the book when I read it the first time. It’s not on Disney Plus (neither is Johnny Tremain or Now You See Him Now You Don’t, which has annoyed me regularly since I signed up for the service), and I’m not about to spend even three dollars on renting it on Amazon Prime–although I was tempted enough to look it up to see if it can actually be viewed anywhere.

Anyway.

I enjoyed the book much more greatly this time. I’m not certain why, precisely, I didn’t like it as much as Stewart’s other books at the time, but sometimes that’s just the way it is. The Moon-spinners focuses on Nicola Ferris, an adventurous young Englishwoman in her early twenties. She works at the British Embassy in Athens; her parents died when she was a teenager and she went to live with her aunt Frances, who is a leading botanist. Frances is also single and terribly independent, like most women in Stewart novels; Nicola admires and loves her aunt greatly and emulates her. Her aunt is taking a yacht voyage with friends around Greece and the islands; Nicola decides to take a vacation, meet up with Frances on Crete–a friend, a travel writer, has recommended a very remote village with a small hotel to them–and Nicola has the great good fortune, while on Crete, to meet an American couple (the above mentioned Studebakers) who are driving around Crete and offer her a lift to Agios Georgios, putting her there a day earlier than expected. (This sentence, describing the Studebakers,  They were both lavish with that warm, extroverted, and slightly overwhelming kindliness which seems a specifically American virtue–is a terrific example of Stewart’s exceptional skill as a writer; in that one sentence she tells you exactly who the Studebakers are.) The Studebakers aren’t terribly keen on letting her off in the middle of nowhere, to lug her suitcases and such over a dusty mountain trail to a village where she isn’t expected until tomorrow and where she will know no one; fortunately her work at the embassy has given her a passable knowledge of speaking Greek.  Nicola insists she’s fine and thanks them for their kindness, and starts trudging along the dusty path.

All of Stewart’s heroines are strong, capable, intelligent young woman who can take care of themselves; and courageous. It is while walking on the path that Nicola’s Greek adventure takes off–she stops at a pond to get a drink of water, and in the reflection of the water she sees a man’s face, watching her. Your average run-of-the-mill heroine would scream and run off or be terrified; Nicola is merely startled and curious. This is how she comes across Lambis, the Greek boatman, and young Mark Langley, who has been shot and needs medical attention. Nicola immediately makes Mark’s problems her own. Lambis, as it turns out, had put in his boat in a nearby bay so that Mark and his younger brother Colin could go exploring and look at the ruins of an old church, originally a shrine to a Greek god but converted during the days of the old Eastern Empire into a Byzantine church. As they are walking back to the boat they come across of small group of people arguing over a recently dead body. Mark is shot and left for dead; Colin is taken. And so, now of course, Nicola wants to help rescue Colin and help Mark–she isn’t, after all, expected for another day, and of course, the killers/kidnappers must be from the small town of Agios Georgios.

Stewart is, as always, an exceptionally talented writer. Her descriptions are simple yet poetic; she vividly brings the town, the mountains, the sea, everything to life so well you can easily imagine yourself there. And courageous Nicola, now possessed of dangerous knowledge that could get her killed, has to navigate the village while trying to help Mark find Colin, with no idea of who she can trust and where she can turn to help.

Nicola is a terrific heroine, and I can see why Stewart was so popular with women and teenaged girls; she wrote smart, no-nonsense, capable young women who were courageous and fearless and could pretty much handle anything. The suspense is, at times, unbearable.

There is an element of romance to the story as well; Nicola begins to have feelings for Mark, but it’s practically an afterthought, and it feels almost like it was inserted into the story. There’s absolutely no need for the two of them to develop feelings for each other; other than the psychological closeness that comes from a shared danger (one of the things I loved the most about the sequel to Romancing the Stone, The Jewel of the Nile, is that it showed that happy couples who bond over adventures don’t necessarily wind up living happily ever after; I’ve often wondered about the couples from these types of novels), and this is one of the reasons I no longer really consider Stewart a romantic suspense writer; the romances in her books often feel that way–something inserted into the story later to appease either her agent or editor–and they are completely unnecessary to the story; if anything, the romance develop organically because of what else is going on in the story; the suspense/mystery aspect is the most important part.

And Stewart consistently wrote some of the best openings in crime fiction.

Highly recommended; I will probably reread it again someday.