Phyllis A. Whitney Essay - Critical Essays


In the essentially moral and virtuous worlds of Phyllis A. Whitney’s adult and young-adult mysteries, secrets, thefts, or murders are temporary departures from the norm. Once the air is cleared, the characters can live in peace. For example, in the Mystery of the Hidden Hand, Grandfather Thanos confesses his crime and returns the stolen artifact to the museum authorities. In Amethyst Dreams (1997), the housekeeper and daughter-in-law confess to Hallie Knight and the murdered girl’s father that they covered up what was actually an accidental drowning. Whitney’s books are as much Bildungsromane as they are clever, fast-paced mysteries. Whitney’s final young-adult mystery appeared in 1977, and the young-adult worlds she created seem dated: The young people dress for dinner and respect their elders, and their elders never miss a chance to teach them a life lesson. However, like the adult mysteries, the characters reflect the four decades of change in the roles available for women in the United States and abroad that Whitney witnessed. Her early heroines might wear kid gloves, but they are as independent as the later heroines. The heroines in both the adult and young-adult novels are determined to find themselves as well as save a family, a marriage, or a home whose harmony is threatened by secrets.

Mystery of the Haunted Pool

Mystery of the Haunted Pool (1960) is Whitney’s seventh young-adult mystery and the first to win an Edgar Award. It typifies Whitney’s young-adult mysteries. Most of these mysteries are narrated in the third person from the point of view of the protagonist, a teenage girl who has been separated from her family. In this story, Susan Price moves to upstate New York from New York City to live with her aunt for a month. Her mother, her ailing father, and her three brothers will follow if she can help her aunt persuade a former Hudson River boat captain to rent his family’s mansion to them. The mansion, like the spotted shell or golden horn of later mysteries, holds the clue to a family secret. In this story, the secret is the fate of priceless jewels supposedly lost at sea a century ago by the family patriarch who had been hired to deliver them. Repaying the debt impoverished the family for generations; therefore, when the captain’s grandson is hit by a car, the captain must give up his home to pay the medical bills. Susan is the touchstone. She hears the bumps in the night, sees the face in the pool, and recovers the beads that provide clues to the location of the treasure. She is also the glue that holds the families together. She befriends the captain and his grandson as well as the mysterious neighbor who is also bent on discovering the family secret and perhaps destroying the fragile bond between generations. Her older brother arrives in time to help her, but she is the one who solves the mystery, reunites her family, and brings the captain and his grandson closer.

Mystery of the Hidden Hand

Mystery of the Hidden...

(The entire section is 1245 words.)