Phyllis Whitney Revisited

When Phyllis A. Whitney died a few years ago, at the age of 104, most if not all of her novels were out of print. Out of print, but not forgotten by two or three generations of mystery readers. I found a few of her late novels (she was 94 when the last one was published) at Half Price Books and enjoyed them, so I was delighted when Open Road Books began releasing Whitney’s tales of mystery and suspense in digital format, and I’ve been stashing them away on my Kindle.


The premise of Listen for the Whisperer (first published in 1972) intrigued me, perhaps because it involved a reclusive former Hollywood star (and I was reading a novel about Mary Pickford at the time), and it hopped to the head of the digital TBR shelf. The novel is set in Bergen, Norway (Whitney visited all her settings, right up into her 90s, and made them near-characters in her plots), and centers around Leigh Hollins, a young woman seeking to meet her birth mother, one-time movie star Laura Worth, who abandoned Leigh to her father at birth and abandoned Hollywood after a scandal involving the murder of her director. Leigh is very angry with Laura, but she soon sees that her mother may be the victim of a campaign of fear—or she may be delusional.


The novel seems slow by today’s suspense/thriller standards, the violence is mostly off-page and never graphic, and the romantic element is very low key and far from central to the story. (Although her books are now sometimes called romantic suspense, Whitney considered herself a mystery writer and was frequently honored as one.) But Whitney uses her atmospheric setting skillfully throughout the book (sending me to find pictures of the Fantoft Stave Church, an important location in the story, on the Internet), throws suspicion on everyone, and saves her truly dangerous suspense for the climax of the book.


I probably read Listen for the Whisperer back when it came out (the Mystery Book Club was my lifeline back then when I lived far away from bookstores and didn’t have much money), but I have no memory of it. I enjoyed it this time around, and I have quite a few more waiting on my Kindle.

This ‘n That

Well, I’ve been wildly off kilter lately thanks to an unwelcome Gulf Coast visitor called Hurricane Harvey. My home (located between two lakes and Galveston Bay) suffered no damage, despite 38+ inches in my rain gauge, but I’m still feeling a bit shell-shocked, as is everyone in the area. Four days of nearly uninterrupted rain will do that. We’re still having trouble figuring out what day it is, even though most of us went back to work last week. A few major highways are still under water, so traffic in Houston has been more dreadful than usual. Many people lost homes and cars to the flooding; the rest of us are feeling fortunate, with perhaps just a touch of survivors’ guilt. We’re keeping our fingers crossed and waiting to hear from friends and family in Florida, as Hurricane Irma moves north, and hoping that Jose, Katia, and the rest of the alphabet go off into the uninhabited portions of the Atlantic.


Phyllis Whitney update: When Whitney died in 2011, her novels were not available as ebooks. Now Open Road Media has acquired at least part of Whitney’s list and has begun Hunter's Greenreleasing the novels as ebooks. The first batch came out in July, another at the end of August, and more are scheduled for late October. So far I’ve snapped up The Turquiose Mask and Hunter’s Green at loss leader prices, but the regular price at Amazon is only $6.15. Open Road Media’s daily Early Bird Books often features classic mystery series. If you’re a fan, check out the site at They produce several good newsletters for book and movie lovers. (I get four or five ebook newsletters every morning, and I really shouldn’t even open them. But I always do.)


How I wish Al Franken were my Senator! (Moving to Minnesota is not an option–I spent my childhood in Wisconsin, so I know what the weather’s like up there. I’d rather deal with a hurricane every few years.) It does make me happy to know that the good people of Minnesota re-elected him in 2014, so he’s up there fighting for all of us.


Franken, the one-time comedian and satirist, is still funny, and a good part of this book Al Frankentells of his efforts to avoid being funny, at least on the campaign trail and the floor of the Senate. He doesn’t always succeed there, and he doesn’t even try in the book (don’t skip the footnotes!).


If you don’t like Franken’s politics (he’s a progressive Democrat), this may not be the book for you. I ate it up. Franken hates my Senator (Ted Cruz) and devotes chapter 37 to explaining why. But then apparently no one in the Senate likes Cruz (nor do I). And then there’s chapter 45, “Lies and the Lying Liar Who Got Himself Elected President.” Don’t say you weren’t warned.


But there’s a lot more to Al Franken Giant of the Senate (a very tongue-in-cheek title) than political opinion. The book is also a fascinating and very honest memoir of Franken’s comedy career, his unlikely run for the Senate and incredibly close victory (eight months of recounts), and his discovery of how the Senate actually works. I can’t imagine anyone else explaining the Senate from the inside out in such an entertaining (and often thought-provoking) manner.


A Tale of Two Gothics

When I was a girl, [mumble mumble] decades ago, Gothic romance was very much in style. Two of the leading practitioners of the form were Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart, although numerous other writers contributed. Many of my friends remember those books fondly, while admitting that they haven’t actually read one in a very long time. Gothic novels usually featured frightened heroines (often governesses or poor relations) trapped by circumstance in isolated (and sometimes crumbling) manors dominated by aloof and dangerous lords (usually harboring some tragic secret). Readers loved them. But the appeal of the Gothic faded over the decades. Authors turned to more contemporary romantic suspense, and readers followed.

Now and then an adventurous author puts her own twist on the Gothic tradition. Not long ago I happened to read two such modern twists on the Gothic romance in quick succession, two very different books with shared literary DNA: Dark Angel by TJ Bennett and Heroes Are My Weakness by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

Dark Angel is subtitled A Gothic Fairy Tale, and that is a very good description indeed. The story blends the tale of Beauty and the Beast with folklore and history in lush and elegant prose, producing a most unusual and remarkable paranormal romance.

Dark AngelWhen young widow Catherine Briton is swept onto the shore of a dark, foggy island, the only survivor of a shipwreck in the Irish Sea, she is determined to return to London and her duties there. When her rescuer, the Master of the mysterious island of Ynys Nos, tells her that no one ever leaves, she is determined to discover the secret—or the curse—that holds the land and its people in thrall.

Both Catherine and Gerard, the arrogant and imperious Master, are burdened with secrets and guilt. Catherine soon discovers that the people of Ynys Nos pay a terrible price for what might appear to be a wondrous gift. She finds herself locked in her room in Gerard’s castle, wondering why Gerard only appears at night. When she visits the village, where no one is quite what they would wish her to believe, she learns even stranger secrets. And although she feels duty-bound to return to her old life, both the island and her growing feelings for Gerard may make that an impossible dream.

Heroes Are My Weakness, on the other hand is a totally contemporary novel, but Phillips had me at the dedication—to Mary Stewart, Anya Seton, Charlotte Bronte, Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt, and Phyllis Whitney. Despite the fact that the Heroes Are My Weaknessheroine, a ventriloquist, holds conversations with her puppets, there’s nothing paranormal about Heroes. But Annie Hewitt is trapped on an isolated island, in the dead of winter, with no job and no prospects, by the terms of her inheritance. The owner of the mansion on the island, Theo Harp, is no stranger. In fact Annie has known him since they were kids, and can’t imagine ever forgiving him for what he did then. But it’s a small island, and she can’t avoid him for long. There are secrets from the past, nosy townsfolk, a creaky crumbling mansion—and quite a bit of Phillips’ trademark humor.

Dark Angel was nominated for an RWA RITA Award in 2014. I will be amazed if Heroes isn’t nominated this year. These two very different Gothic tales are both delicious books.

The Influence of Books, part 2

A few days ago I wandered through the works of three authors I remember fondly from my earliest reading days.  I moved into the adult section of the library when I was about twelve.  If there was much of a Young Adult market back then, I don’t remember it.  My parents were constant readers, and nothing on their bookshelves was off limits.  They figured if I was interested in a book, and understood it, I was old enough to read it.

I read mysteries (I remember reading a Perry Mason novel on an airplane trip to visit my cousins when I was eleven), romantic suspense, historical novels, science fiction, pretty much everything.  Looking back, I still couldn’t say that this author or that influenced me (or my future interst in writing) more than another.  But I do remember my favorites.

I suspect I share my most-remembered romantic suspense triumvirate with untold numbers of (mostly female) readers and writers:  Phyllis Whitney, Mary Stewart, and Victoria Holt.  When I did a little research this evening, I was struck by the fact that all three of these ladies lived–and wrote–for a long time.  I love to discover things like that.

Victoria Holt (whose real name was Eleanor Hibbert) wrote under several pseudonyms, perhaps because she wrote so many books, and perhaps to separate them by genre.  As Victoria Holt, she was famous for gothic novels like Mistress of Mellyn and Bride of Pendorric, from 1960 through 1993; those were my favorites.  As Jean Plaidy, she wrote an astounding number of novels based on the lives of English royalty, published from 1945 through 1996.  As Phillipa Carr, she wrote another series of English historical novels between 1972 and 1993.  She published under at least five other names, too, before she died in 1993, at the age of 86, on a cruise ship somewhere between Greece and Egypt.  Probably planning her next three books at the time.

I was surprised but pleased to learn that Mary Stewart, also an English writer, is alive and living in Edinburgh, where she recently celebrated her 96th birthday.  My own favorite Stewart books were her Merlin saga, beginning with The Crystal Cave in 1970.  Ask around, and you’ll hear titles like Nine Coaches Waiting, My Brother Michael, and The Moon Spinners listed as favorites.  Stewart “only” wrote about twenty-five novels, published between 1954 and 1997.

Phyllis A. Whitney, the American of the trio, died in 2008, still reportedly writing at the age of 104.  She wrote dozens of novels between 1941 and 1997.  I remember reading her books regularly in the 60s and 70s, but I had missed quite a few when I read her obituary.  I went out and picked up several of her later books, written in the 1990s, and they were just what I remembered, suspenseful stories steeped in setting and locale.  She also wrote an excellent Guide to Fiction Writing, much loved by at least two generations of writers.

Did my love for the work of these three writers set me on the path toward writing romance?  None of them would have considered herself a writer of genre romance.  Holt wrote more historical fiction (an entirely different genre than modern historical romance) than anything else.  Stewart wrote historical fantasy in the Merlin series and contemporary suspense in the majority of her novels.  Whitney won the Grand Master Award of the Mystery Writers of America in 1988.

But there was romance in all their novels.  The romance may not have been the main plot, or the main selling point, but it was always there, and generations of readers and writers still read and love them for it.

Shopping, Reading, and Random Thoughts

I was going to stay home and nurse my cold today, but the weather was so pretty (after a dreary, rainy day yesterday) that I found an excuse or two to go out.  When I stopped by Office Depot for a box of my favorite pens, I found myself unable to resist buying a pair of 8 gigabyte flash drives, on sale for $9.00 apiece.  I don’t need them.  I have flash drives all over the place, in my purse, on my desk, little ones in a box, more on my desk at work.  I remember when the first flash drives (I think most people referred to them as thumb drives then) came out–they held 128 megabytes of data and cost a hundred dollars or more.  I had friends who carried them around like talismans, their novels-in-progress safely hanging from lanyards around their necks.  Heck, not too many years ago I was working on a computer with a hard drive that only held 2 gigabytes.  Nine bucks–how could I pass them up?

Office Depot is located next door to Half Price Books, and how could I pass that up?  I went in looking for a copy of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, a book I remember fondly from my childhood (mumble mumble) decades ago.  A new movie version is just coming out, reminding me of the book  (although the movie, an animated Japanese film redubbed in English, is called, for reasons I can’t explain, The Secret World of Arrietty, after the protagonist of the book).  There were no copies of Norton’s books in the store, but I did stumble across a biography of L. Frank Baum, Finding Oz by Evan I. Schwartz, a bargain at two bucks, and I picked up another of Phyllis A. Whitney’s novels, Woman Without a Past.

Full shopping disclosure:  last week I ordered Deader Homes and Gardens, the latest comic mystery from one of my favorite authors, Joan Hess, from Amazon.  Being no fan of shipping charges, I found something else to buy (The Help on DVD) to bring the total up to the free shipping level.  Just made it, at $25.20.  Never mind that I’m working on a couple of Amazon gift cards that will keep me in books and movies for a while.  I’m still too cheap to pay for shipping if I can avoid it.  Yes, I know, I bought something instead, but it was something I wanted.  And we all know perfectly well why Amazon offers free shipping–so we’ll buy more stuff.

Sigh.  More books for the To Be Read Shelf.  You may have noticed I’ve had the same three books on my “What I’m Reading” sidebar for the last ten days or more.  I haven’t forgotten to update it.  I’ve really been that slow.  Busy at work, on day 50 of the current writing challenge (mostly editing on Bathtub Jinn lately, and I still need to work on that tonight).  The last book I finished was Haywood Smith’s The Red Hat Club, a funny, charming, and touching novel well worth reading. 

 We need a t-shirt, or a bumper sticker: She who dies with the most books wins.