Velda Johnston’s stories are almost always told in the first person by a young career woman who relies on her own resources in solving a mystery that in some way threatens her plans for marriage or brings a temporary halt to a romantic relationship. Often, the young woman was orphaned at an early age or became separated from one parent, usually the father. Reared with few if any siblings by adoptive parents, a single mother, or an aging female relative, the heroine is, by the age of twenty-seven or so, left without the emotional or financial support of family. Forced into an independent lifestyle, the heroine becomes involved in intrigue involving either her own unknown background or that of others. While sex is not prominent in the novels, there is always a man, very important to the heroine, who may or may not participate in solving the mystery. One romantic relationship is often terminated soon after the mystery presents itself, but by the novel’s end marriage is imminent between the heroine and a man who has proved himself worthy by protecting her from physical danger.
All the young women in Johnston’s novels are subject to real human emotions; they are not immune to feelings of doubt, fear, exhaustion, and the like. They are all women of character who serve as good examples for young women readers. In addition, these characters are engaged in a variety of professions. They travel, in many cases alone and always without hesitation, to any setting that might be required to solve the problem that faces them.
Johnston’s own extensive travels served her well in her writings. She used knowledge gained from her foreign travels in novels such as Deveron Hall (1976), which takes place in Scotland, and Masquerade in Venice (1973) and The Etruscan Smile (1977), both set in Italy. She did not limit her heroines to one locale in novels that take place in the United States. Although many heroines are based in the New York area, they may end up in Nevada or New Mexico. Johnston used settings in California, Maine, Cape Cod, and Florida, among others. History was important to Johnston. The siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War forms the backdrop for The House on the Left Bank (1975). This novel’s protagonist, Martha Hathaway, seeks to create for herself a life different from that of her mother, who is the mistress of a French aristocrat. Johnston effectively uses the mystery story to provide fictional role models for young women. Her heroines are women who, in spite of inner struggle, meet the intellectual challenges and the tests of character presented when their lives are interrupted by a personal crisis.
The People from the Sea
In The People from the Sea (1979), Diana Garson, alone and with few prospects, very much wants marriage and a family. She becomes involved, platonically at first, with a neighbor in her Manhattan brownstone. When Diana, an editor of children’s books, suffers a mild nervous breakdown, the neighbor, David Corway, persuades her to rent a house in the Hamptons so that she can recuperate near the sea, away from the city’s hectic pace.
The house Diana rents was once owned and occupied by the wealthy Woodhull family, three members of which had died in a tragic boat accident some twenty-five years earlier. Diana cannot explain why she sees and speaks with the dead victims, whose photographs she has found in the attic of the house. The Woodhulls become Diana’s family, and her obsession with them drives a wedge between her and David. Diana is determined to solve the mystery surrounding the deaths of the Woodhulls—and thereby confirm her sanity—before she will consent to marry David. Her persistence and courage pay off, and the murderer of the Woodhull family is pressured into revealing herself.
The Other Karen
Catherine Mayhew, heroine of The Other Karen (1983), seeks to expose the murderers of a wealthy elderly woman whose closest relative and heir, her granddaughter Karen, left home as a young girl. Catherine, an aspiring New York actress, is hired by the woman’s greedy relatives to impersonate Karen, assuring her that by so doing she will be performing a worthy service: making the old woman’s final days happy. While succeeding in the deception, Catherine soon discovers, with the help of Karen’s former boyfriend, that the relatives have had other motives in hiring her. When the elderly woman dies, Catherine and Karen’s friend travel throughout the United States, following lead after lead,...
(The entire section is 1870 words.)