Whitney, Phyllis A.

Whitney, Phyllis A.
Sep. 9, 1903-Feb. 8, 2008
American novelist and short story writer

Phyllis A. Whitney was born in Yokohama, Japan, the daughter of Charles Joseph Whitney and Lillian (Mandeville) Whitney. After living in Japan, where Charles Whitney was an American shipping line representative, the family moved to the Philippines and then to China, operating hotels in both countries until her father's death. Phyllis Whitney was fifteen when she came to the United States with her mother, who was terminally ill with cancer; they lived in Berkeley, California, and San Antonio, Texas. When her mother died two years later, she went to live with an aunt in Chicago, where she graduated from McKinley High School in 1924. Lacking money to attend college, she worked at the Chicago Public Library and then in bookstores while dabbling in writing. It took her four years to place her first work, a short story, in the Chicago Daily News. Over the next three years she sold four stories to pulp magazines and Sunday school publications, which led her ino the field of children's writing. Whitney's first book, A Place for Ann, was a juvenile title published in 1941. From 1942 to 1946 she was children's book editor at the Chicago Sun and held the same position at the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1947 to 1948. She also taught juvenile fiction writing at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, in 1945, and at New York University from 1947 to 1958.

For over thirty years, the careers of Whitney the children's author and Whitney the master of adult romantic suspense were entwined. Since the late 1970s her output has been mostly adult. Her juvenile fiction falls into two categories: novels about growing up and mysteries. Whitney addressed serious issues like racial prejudice, divorce, stepfamilies, and the plight of migrant workers. Given the nomadic nature of Whitney's own childhood, it is not surprising too that dislocation and the longing for domestic stability are among her favorite themes. In 1975 Whitney described her characters to Parade magazine as "out solving their own problems. They've always been women's libbers because I've always been a liberated woman…I've always done whatever I've wanted to do."

Whitney's first adult novel, Red Is for Murder, published in 1943, was a conventional mystery. Will Cuppy in the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, called it a "nicely written and sufficiently exciting yarn about two murders at .…a Chicago department store." Overall it was not "sufficiently exciting" enough to lure Whitney away from her successful juvenile career. She did not return to adult writing until the mid-1950s, but by the 1960s and 1970s she had become a best-selling writer of romantic suspense.

Settings are just as important in Whitney's adult novels as in her juveniles. According to Nancy Regan, in Twentieth Century Romance and Historical Writers, she chooses locales "for their romantic possibilities. Yet she avoids the predictably romantic American locations, those places which resonate loudest in the American psyche: the South, Los Angeles, New York." Whitney's young women find themselves enmeshed in danger in the Catskills, the Hamptons, New England, New Jersey, and the Poconos. Not all her suspense is domestic. Turkey, Japan, England, and the Caribbean are some of the exotic locales she has used. In Listen for the Whisperer a young woman journeys to Norway in search of her reclusive actress mother, who bore her illegitimately and then abandoned her. "This is a strongly plotted novel, and the background material on Norway is excellent," Marcia Muller wrote in 1001 Midnights. "Whitney has the ability to make her reader see the scenery, feel the crispness of the air, taste the national foods; this wonderfully titled book makes the reader feel he has really been there."

Whitney's adult books are formulaic, and her readership knows exactly what to expect, while eagerly anticipating the details. Whitney calls this the "dear familiar landscape," and, judging by her popularity, it is not a familiarity that breeds boredom.

In Hunter's Green, Best Sellers reviewer Sr. M. Marguerite, RSM, found all the "required ingredients" for a typical gothic novel: "an ancient and history-crammed English estate; a gruff, dedicated and misunderstood owner; an elderly woman, a few characters that may or may not lead the reader to guess which one is the villain; and of course, a newcomer, an outsider, innocent and victim of intrigue." Sr. Marguerite noted, "One must admit that though the pattern is in general as unvarying as the rules for a sonnet or the recipe for a cake, there are always fresh approaches and the reader's attention is held."

In some of her later work, Whitney has attempted to bring modern issues to her tried-and-true format with mixed results. In 1984, Jane Stewart Spitzer wrote of Rainsong in the Christian Science Monitor, that current moral standards and the gothic formula don't mix. "The contemporary aspects of the plot and some of the characters' involvement in the music industry, in drug use, and in illicit sexual relationships are superimposed over the traditional elements—assumed identities, a past tragedy, a brooding mansion, and a heroine in distress," she stated. "The effect is jarring, and Rainsong simply doesn't work. The contemporary aspects rob the story of any possible fairy-tale qualities the traditional elements might provide." But certain basic elements of Whitney's fiction seem to be timeless in their appeal. In her 1992 novel The Ebony Swan, Whitney again takes the reader to that "dear familiar landscape." After the death of her father, Susan Prentice returns to her childhood home, where she witnessed her mother's death in a fall twenty-five years before. What she encounters are people fearful of what she will remember, and the possibility that her mother's death was not an accident. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it one of her best efforts: "The suspense never falters, and Whitney wonderfully enriches her storytelling with the lush background of tidewater Virginia and well-integrated historical commentary."

Phyllis Whitney has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Agatha Award from Malice Domestic Teapot, and two Edgar Allan Poe awards from the Mystery Writers of America for best juvenile mysteries in 1960 (Mystery of the Haunted Pool) and 1963 (Mystery of the Hidden Hand.) She was also named grand master by the Mystery Writers of America for ther lifetime achievements. She lived near her daughter in Nelson Country, Virginia. Her manuscript collection is housed in the Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University.

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