Whitney, Phyllis A(yame)

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WHITNEY, Phyllis A(yame)

Born 9 September 1903, Yokohama, Japan

Daughter of Charles J. and Lillian Mandeville Whitney; married George A. Garner, 1925 (divorced); Lovell F. Jahnke, 1950 (died); children: one daughter

Born of American parents, Phyllis A. Whitney first came to the U.S. at the age of fifteen, after living in Japan, China, and the Philippines. She graduated from high school in Chicago. She married a businessman in 1950 and had one daughter, living in Staten Island, New York, and northern New Jersey. Whitney has written more than 50 novels, which she divides into three groups: novels for young people, mysteries for young people, and adult novels. Almost all of the last are gothic romances. During her long career, she has reviewed books for newspapers and has taught courses, lectured, and written widely on the business and craft of writing fiction. Two novels, Mystery of the Haunted Pool (1960) and Mystery of the Hidden Hand (1963), have received Edgars from the Mystery Writers of America, and she received the Grand Master award in 1988 for her lifetime achievement.

The novels for young people appeal to young girls rather than boys. Many of them carry girls' names in the title: A Place for Ann (1941), A Star for Ginny (1942), A Window for Julie (1943), Linda's Homecoming (1950), and Nobody Likes Trina (1972). A majority of these didactic novels have been favorably reviewed by educators and librarians, and Whitney's success in this field has made her an authority. She has also published how-to guidebooks, including Writing Juvenile Fiction (1947, revised 1960), Writing Juvenile Stories and Novels: How to Write and Sell Fiction for Young People (1976, 1985) and Guide to Fiction Writing (1984).

Her mysteries for young people can be easily recognized because, with the exception of The Vanishing Scarecrow (1971), each of them has a title beginning with "mystery" or "secret." These too are primarily written for girls, although the adventure aspect is strong. They are all characterized by vivid backgrounds. Whitney's early life abroad provided exotic background material for many of her novels. For many years, she made each of her many trips serve a double purpose: she used the background material gathered for one juvenile novel and one adult gothic romance. Thus a trip to the Virgin Islands produced both Secret of the Spotted Shell (1967) and Columbella (1966). She has set novels in Turkey, Norway, Japan, Greece, South Africa, and a wide variety of places in the United States.

Whitney's first adult novel was Red Is for Murder (1943), a straightforward mystery novel set in a department store. She did not return to adult fiction until sometime later; the next adult book, The Quicksilver Pool (1955), is a historical novel set on Staten Island during the Civil War draft riots. Although there is a domestic mystery, the most important aspect of the plot is a love story, a pattern she also uses in The Trembling Hills (1956), a novel about the San Francisco earthquake. After Skye Cameron (1957), a domestic novel of 19th-century New Orleans, Whitney turned to modern Japan for the background to The Moonflower (1958). The following three books—Thunder Heights (1960), a novel of the 19th-century Hudson River valley; Blue Fire (1961), a mystery of modern South Africa; and Window on the Square (1962), set on Washington Square in 19th-century New York—are similar to the novels preceding them. All deal with young women trying to make their way in the world and who marry their true loves after a series of dangerous adventures. The novels are competent romantic mysteries, but not nearly so well realized as the books to come.

After the successful contemporary romantic adventures Seven Tears for Apollo (1963) and Black Amber (1964), Whitney only once, in Sea Jade (1964), uses a historical setting for her novels. The mystery element becomes a more important part of the plot than it had been before. Whitney's preoccupation with women and their identities in these novels is often very sophisticated (she has written that she relies on Karen Horney for psychological insight about women). In novels such as Columbella, Silverhill (1967), Lost Island (1970), Listen for the Whisperer (1972), The Turquoise Mask (1974), and The Golden Unicorn (1976), she is increasingly concerned with relationships between mothers and daughters and with questions of feminine identity as they relate to the past—with the problems of women trying both to come to terms with and transcend their family background. In later years, most of her heroines sought their own identities through returning to their ancestral home or through a reconciliation with another woman in the family. The solution of the mystery provides both a conclusion for the plot and an answer to the significant questions asked by the heroine of her past.

Although each of these books ends with clear answers, the process of finding them is arduous and uncompromising. The mystery genre imposes limits on the ambiguity Whitney can allow in the resolution, but it does not keep her from an honest and rigorous development of the issues. Her women make mistakes: they marry the wrong man, they misjudge character, one of them has an illegitimate child; but they are allowed the opportunity to see what they have done and to change it and themselves. Many authors write gothic romances; very few write them with the continuing sophistication and wisdom of Whitney. Further testament to her enduring written powers are that most of her books are still in print, with three dozen or so titles reprinted in the 1990s alone.

Other Works:

The Silver Inkwell (1945). Willow Hill (1947). Ever After (1948). Mystery of the Gulls (1949). Island of the Dark Woods (1951; alternate title, Mystery of the Strange Traveler). Love Me, Love Me Not (1952). Step to the Music (1953). A Long Time Coming (1954). Mystery of the Black Diamonds (1954). Mystery of the Isle of Skye (1955). The Fire and the Gold (1956). The Highest Dream (1956). Mystery of the Green Cat (1957). Secret of the Samurai Sword (1958). Creole Holiday (1959). Secret of the Tiger's Eye (1961). Mystery of the Golden Horn (1962). Secret of the Emerald Star (1964). Mystery of the Angry Idol (1965). Hunter's Green (1968). Secret of Goblin Glen (1968). Mystery of the Crimson Ghost (1969). Secret of the Missing Footprints (1969). The Winter People (1969). Mystery of the Scowling Boy (1973). Snowfire (1973). Secret of the Haunted Mesa (1975). Spindrift (1975). Secret of the Stone Face (1977). The Stone Bull (1977). The Glass Flame (1978). Domino (1979). Poinciana (1980). Vermillion (1981). Emerald (1983). Rainsong (1984). Dream of Orchids (1985). The Flaming Tree (1986). Silversword (1987). Feather on the Moon (1988). Rainbow in the Mist (1989). The Singing Stones (1990). Woman Without a Past (1991). The Ebony Swan (1992). Star Flight (1993). Daughter of the Stars (1994). Phyllis A. Whitney Presents Malice Domestic 5: An Anthology of Original Traditional Mystery Stories (1996).

A manuscript collection of Phyllis A. Whitney's work is housed in the Mugar Memorial Library of Boston University.


Reference works:

CA (1967). Detecting Women (1994). Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994). St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers (1996).

Other references:

LJ (June 1991). NYTBR (2 July 1967). Time (12 Apr. 1971). Writer (Feb. 1960, Feb. 1967).



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