From my bookshelf: Phyllis Whitney

Recently I stumbled across a treasure trove of immaculate hardcover copies of several Phyllis Whitney titles. They are thin volumes, probably Doubleday book club editions, and missing their dust jackets, yet they have been well cared for and look–and smell–brand new. I circled them, debating within myself–should I pounce or were they too out of date for today?

I first learned of this author when I was a professional writing student at the University of Oklahoma. My teacher, Jack Bickham, was a huge fan of Ms. Whitney’s works. He considered her a master of suspense writing and always spoke admiringly of how she would write two books–adult and young adult from a research project.

Finally, I pounced. I’ve read a few of her novels in the past, and while I never became a huge fan I recalled that her books were competent reads. I remembered Bickham’s admiration so I knew they were sound in craft. They weren’t musty. They were $2 each, and they would make a welcome change from what’s currently in the bookstore.

Phyllis Whitney was born in Japan to American parents in 1903. She died in Virginia when she was 104. Her first book was published in 1941; her last in 1997, when she was 94. She authored 39 adult suspense novels; 14 young adult books; 20 children’s mysteries, and several books on writing in addition to numerous short stories. At the height of her career, she sold millions of copies and was published in 30 languages. And although she died in 2008, she still has an active Web site. It is not difficult to find her books, and many are available in electronic format.

Over the weekend, I sat down to read one chosen at random. Without any blurb copy off the missing jacket, I had no idea what it would be about. Title:  THE WINTER PEOPLE. And I rediscovered how smooth and lyrical Ms. Whitney’s prose is.

By today’s standards, the suspense element of the story is mild, and yet the characters are psychologically complex. Modern readers know the terms:  sociopathic, schizophrenic, neurotic, pathological, border personality disorder, etc. However, Whitney doesn’t use labels. She just creates the characters and lets them take action. The evil that’s depicted seems more sinister because it lacks the terminology. As I read, I found myself thinking, I’m glad I’m not having to deal with these people in real life.

The second aspect of the story that struck me is that Ms. Whitney relies so heavily on narrative. Her scenes are short and intense by comparison to long passages of summary. I think this reliance on narrative is reflective of mid-twentieth century style. (THE WINTER PEOPLE was published in 1969.) Narration is a mode of discourse that holds readers somewhat apart from the story action, and yet it moves quickly. Today’s genre fiction tends to be more focused on dramatic scenes and their emotional aftermath, moving in sequential order, with narrative taking a back seat to them. Both ways of approaching story are viable, but styles have changed.

The third thing I noticed–with great pleasure–is how Ms. Whitney sets her hooks. They are as precisely placed as a laser cut, and even if they are merely foreshadowing they are inserted exactly where the story’s interest begins to flag. Click, and she has your attention caught once more. I believe her hooks and their placement are what generated Bickham’s greatest admiration. When I read Ms. Whitney years and years ago, I wasn’t yet good enough at writing to share that admiration. Now, I see her mastery of craft at work.

I am delighted I stumbled across these half-dozen or so books. I look forward to reading the next one in the stack.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “From my bookshelf: Phyllis Whitney

  1. Thanks for the review, Deb. 🙂

    I feel very awkward addressing you in that fashion, BTW. I ‘m probably close to your age, but my instincts tell me to call you “Ma’am”. So sorry!

    I love to hear about writers who may be overlooked in the present age. I’m be no means a luddite (at least I hope I’m not) and I’m currently reading a number of comics/graphic novels (Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Mike Carey’s Lucifer and Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing) and trying to wrap my head around where illustrations or comics are best and when pure prose will better tell the story. On the other hand, my favorite author of all time is George MacDonald—and, yes, I love his novels as much as his fantastic works.

    In any event, I’ll be reading Ms. Whitney’s work and continuing to follow your wonderful blog.

    All the best,

    Steve

    • Steve, as you know, there are wonderful authors of all types out there to discover and rediscover. I love introducing people to writers who are becoming forgotten.

      Thanks for following my blog, and enjoy those graphic novels!
      🙂 Deb

  2. GH

    Deborah!

    I have a series of books by Ms. Whitney that I purchased while finding books for a friend who is 86 and loves to read. She absolutely LOVES Whitney’s books (and she is a very voracious reader).

    As it would happen The Winter People is one of those books, so I’m going to give it a whirl now that I know that you enjoyed and Mr. Bickham was a fan.

    You say in your post that Ms. Whitney had a way to set her hooks: “They are as precisely placed as a laser cut, and even if they are merely foreshadowing they are inserted exactly where the story’s interest begins to flag.”

    Can you provide a couple of examples of the hooks you mentioned. I would like to see how they were treated in the book from your standpoint.

    Thanks so much and keep up the good work! I love your blog and your books. 🙂

    G.

    • Congratulations on finding some Phyllis Whitney books! I hope that you’ll enjoy them. They have such a different tone and pacing from so many currently published books. I find them a refreshing change from time to time.

      As for the hooks, I think it’s better if you read THE WINTER PEOPLE first, and then we can compare notes.
      -Deb

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