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Phyllis A. Whitney is one of my all-time favorite authors.

I first discovered her, as Constant Reader is probably already aware, when I was a kid looking for mysteries in the school library. I distinctly remember that day in the fourth grade when I found The Mystery of the Hidden Hand on the shelves at the Eli Whitney Elementary School library; this was during my period of fascination with the ancient world (I was getting the Time-Life series Great Ages of Man; and had just gotten the volume Classical Greece). The description on the back of the book told me it was set in Greece, and had to do with antiquities and Greek history; that was all I needed and I signed it out. (I have, in the past, mistakenly identified The Secret of the Tiger’s Eye as my gateway drug into Whitney’s novels; I remembered incorrectly.) I enjoyed the book tremendously; I returned it and checked out The Secret of the Tiger’s Eye. I went on to read many of her children’s mysteries; she won two Edgars for Best Juvenile and was nominated twice more. After we’d moved to the suburbs, Signet started reissuing her children’s mysteries, and I started buying them at Zayre’s: The Mystery of the Angry Idol, The Secret of the Spotted Shell, The Mystery of the Black Diamonds, The Mystery of the Golden Horn, The Mystery of the Gulls, and numerous others. (I started collecting them again as an adult, thanks to eBay.)

I won’t tell the story again of how I rediscovered Whitney as a romantic suspense writer for adults; I’ve told that story any number of times, and I read almost everything she wrote for adults–but with The Ebony Swan I noted a decline in the quality of her writing, and never read anything she published after that. (I do intend, at some point, to read the ones I’ve never read–it’s the completist in me.)

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Cunningham’s department store is quiet again now. Sylvester Haring still puts his head in the door of my office whenever he goes by, to call out “Hi, Linell!” and perhaps to linger and study the pictures on my walls, to speak briefly of the past. But his days are given over to the humdrum of catching shoplifters and petty thieves, instead of trailing a murderer.

He never mentions that one picture we hunted down together, or the tragic denouement to which it led. But now and then we cock an eyebrow at each other because we are conspirators and know it.

Not that the law was in any way defeated. Payment in full was made for all those terrible things that happened. But still, Haring and I know what we know and the case as it broke in the papers told only half the story.

There are still things about Cunningham’s that make me shiver. I can never cross that narrow passageway that leads past the freight elevators into the display department without a feeling of uneasiness. I cannot bear the mannequin room at all, and I will go to any length to avoid setting foot in it. But most of all I am haunted by the symbols that came into being during the case.

The color red, for instance. I never wear it anymore, because it was the theme of those dreadful days. It ran beneath the surface of our lives like a bright network of veins, spilling out into the open now and then to accent with horror. And there are the owls. Sometimes in my dreams that eerie moment returns when I stood there in the gloom with all those plaster creatures crowding about me, cutting off my escape.

Nor will I ever again breathe the scent of pine without remembering the way the light went out and those groping hands came toward me. Strange to have your life saved by the odor of Christmas trees.

But the worst thing of all is when I imagine I hear the strains of Sondo’s phonograph. For me, those rooms will never be free of ghostly music and I break into cold chills in broad daylight whenever a radio plays Begin the Beguine.

And while there are some romantic aspects to The Red Carnelian, it’s probably one of the least romantic suspense-like novels she published (Skye Cameron, The Quicksilver Pool, and The Trembling Hills were not mysteries, at least not that I recall; but they were also early in her career and once she hit her stride, she became enormously successful). It’s a straight-up murder mystery, told in the first person point of view of Linell Wynn, who works at Cunningham’s Department Store on State Street in Chicago, writing copy for advertising posters, ads, and so forth. When the story opens, the entire store is on edge, because the window display manager, Michael “Monty” Montgomery, is returning to work that day from his surprise honeymoon; he and Linell had been a thing before his sudden elopement caught everyone by surprise. He’d married Chris Gardner, whose father Owen ran the luxury floor–the 4th–evening gowns and jewelry and furs. Linell claims that she and Monty were cooling things off when he suddenly eloped; I’m not entirely convinced that’s not something she claims to salvage her damaged pride. Naturally, later that day Monty is murdered, and of course, Linell finds the body; a fact which she, on the advice of Bill Thorne (one of the store’s vendors) keeps quiet from the police. He was killed near one of the window displays, by a golf club; Linell found the broken end of it in the window before she finds the body and put it back in the golf bag, thus handling the murder weapon. She also finds a piece of stone, a red carnelian, in the window display and puts it in her smock pocket and forgets about it.

Linell, of course, immediately becomes suspect number one–but it doesn’t take long for her, her store detective buddy Sylvester Haring, and new love interest Bill (who she does suspect from time to time) to find out almost every single person working in the store who’s a character in the book has a reason for hating Monty and wanting to see him dead. Linell of course also finds herself targeted from time to time by the killer–who never actually kills her (obviously)–as she sort of starts figuring out the who’s and what’s and why’s of the story.

It’s quite a good read; the characters are very well fleshed out, and the writing itself is pretty good. Whitney always wrote in a more Gothic style, in her books for adults; a style that seems a little dated now as well but still manages to hold your interest. I also would imagine a teenager reading the book today would have to look up what a “phonograph” was–although its usage makes it fairly clear to me what it is; but of course I grew up with phonographs and vinyl records and needles and all the accoutrement that goes along with them.

I’d recommend it as a gateway to Whitney’s other, more romantic suspense type work; it works very well as a stand-alone cozy type mystery novel.

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.

U Got the Look

This week, The CW debuted a new version of Nancy Drew. I sort of watched it Thursday night, and will probably watch again so I can pay better attention. It’s definitely a reboot, with a lot of changes–Nancy’s mom died much later in her life, for example, and there’s no Bess. The story is also set in Horseshoe Bay rather than River Heights, and Nancy has hung up her sleuthing cap since her mother’s death and is now working as a waitress in a diner. George Fayne isn’t a close friend but now her boss, and they don’t get along–I expect that to change. Ned Nickerson is not white–a change I liked a lot–and prefers to go by Nick. It’s also a bit more in the vein of Riverdale than the classic Nancy Drew stories, but let’s face it–the real Nancy as originally written is kind of insufferable–bit more on that later.

I’m also sure these changes will enrage the Nancy Drew fanbase–anything other than the way she was originally written by a lot of ghostwriters generally sets them off. I am not such a purist–I recognize that changes have to be made for a different medium, for one thing, and for another–as I said earlier, Nancy was a bit insufferable as originally written.

I did enjoy the movie a few years ago with Emma Roberts (it might be the only time I’ve ever actually enjoyed an Emma Roberts performance, frankly); a lot was changed from the books to the series.

Nancy Drew and I go back to my fifth grade year at Eli Whitney Elementary in Chicago. I was already reading as many mysteries as I could get my hands on–those Scholastic Book Fairs were my favorite part of school–and I was checking out as many mysteries from the library as I could. (This was also the period of time when I discovered Phyllis Whitney’s mysteries for children; the first I read was The Secret of the Tiger’s Eye.) My fifth grade teacher had a big table in the back of the room with books for kids on them; we were on the honor system. We could borrow a book but we were supposed to return it when we finished reading it. The first day of school I wandered back there and looked at the books on the table; the first title to jump out at me was The Secret of Red Gate Farm. Above the title was NANCY DREW MYSTERY SERIES, and on the cover was a picture of a girl with wavy blonde hair, wearing a sweater and a long skirt, hiding behind a tree and looking, her mouth wide open in shock, fear or surprise, staring at the entrance to a cave  as some strangely robed figures entered it. I took it back to my desk, and started reading it.

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“That Oriental-looking clerk in the perfume shop certainly acted mysterious, ” Bess Marvin declared, as she and her two friends ended their shopping trip and hurried down the street to the railroad station.

“Yes,” Nancy Drew answered thoughtfully. “I wonder why she didn’t want you to buy that bottle of Blue Jade?”

“The price would have discouraged me,” spoke up Bess’ cousin, dark-haired George Fayne. Her boyish name fitted her slim build and straight-forward, breezy manner. “Twenty dollars an ounce!”

“Oriental-looking.”

Sigh. The great irony is that both the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series were rewritten and revised to remove racist stereotypes and language…

Anyway, The Secret of Red Gate Farm enthralled me, as Nancy and her friends tried to help a young girl and her grandmother save Red Gate Farm from mortgage foreclosure while also trying to expose a ring of counterfeiters. There was a list of intriguing-sounding Nancy Drew titles on the back of the book, and back on the table in my fifth grade classroom there were three more titles: The Mystery at Lilac Inn, The Haunted Showboat, and The Clue of the Leaning Chimney. As I scoped around, there was another series novel, but it wasn’t Nancy Drew; it was the Dana Girls The Secret of the Old Well, allegedly written by the same person: Carolyn Keene.

Nancy Drew introduced me to the world of Grosset & Dunlap series–which were actually all produced, for the most part, by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. I eventually found myself reading–and collecting–many of those series, including the Hardy Boys, Dana Girls, Ken Holt, Rick Brant, Biff Brewster, Chip Hilton, and Judy Bolton, among others–I also wound up collecting Trixie Belden and the Three Investigators, too.

I always wanted to write a series like these when I was a kid; I even came up with a list of about forty titles I could use. I wrote one, actually, when I was in the fifth grade–called The Secret of the Haunted Mansion–which, to the best of my recollection, might be the first fiction I ever wrote; alas, it is lost in the mists of time. Periodically, I come back to the thought of writing such a series, but I don’t know that there’s a market for them anymore. Most of the series have gone out of print, with only Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, as far as I know, still available; Trixie Belden might be but I’m not sure. I still collect the books–it really pleases my OCD to have the series completed. I’m still missing a few from some of the harder to find series–like Biff Brewster and Ken Holt, and I do think I am missing a couple of Judy Boltons and Dana Girls as well–but I’ve stopped scouring eBay over the last few years because, well, money.

But at some point, I imagine I will go back and try to complete the series.

I do credit these series with a lot of my devotion to the world of crime and crime writing; while I always loved mysteries, it’s entirely possible I would have moved on to something else had I not discovered, and become addicted, to these series. These series led me eventually to Agatha Christie, Mary Stewart, Charlotte Armstrong, and Ellery Queen; and those authors eventually led me to others…and wanting to write crime fiction of my own.

So, thank you, Nancy Drew. It’s kind of your fault.