Saturday, December 8, 2012
Tale of the Witch Doll (A Penny Parker Mystery #1)
Mildred A. Wirt
Cupples & Leon, 1939
Louise, Penny Parker’s best friend, has promised her mother that she would buy a doll for the child of a poor family. She and Penny decide to go to Nellie Marble's shop. Both Penny and Louise are sophomores at Riverview High. Nellie had attended the school with them for only two years. As the girls walk in to the doll shop they are shocked to see that everything is in disorder. Nellie was hoping they were the police, as when she opened up this morning she found the shop ransacked. Some vandal broke in and smashed her most extensive China dolls. Nellie is not sure how anyone got in as both the front and back doors were locked and no windows were open. Nellie says that the business has been good lately and two days ago she had a chance to sell it. The offer was tempting. An old lady named Mrs. Farmer said she would pay $1,000 for her dolls and her shop. However, she declined the offer as she felt she could make more by keeping them in her shop.
The girls leave and stop by the garage to pick up Penny's car which was being worked on. As they drive away a large black automobile whizzes past them going too fast. A little ways up the road, the black car sideswipes a large gray limousine which swerves into a ditch. The girls stop to check on the people in the limousine. It turns out that the female passenger is Helene Harmon, a popular actress. Penny offers to drive her to the theater where she is in a dancing act and is supposed to be there for a show. Helene, grateful for the girls, hands them passes to the show and asks them to stick around because she would like to talk to them later.
The girls enjoy Helene’s show and are asked to visit her backstage. While they are chatting, Helene receives a package expecting flowers but instead finds “a queer doll with a pointed black hat, a long flowing dark cape, a horrible, grotesque face.” It is a witch doll. Felice, her assistant, tells Helene that to get a doll like that is bad luck. Penny finds the card that says to accept the doll as it may prove inspiration for new dance but to be aware that once the doll is accepted it can never be given away. Helene is excited because she's been looking for inspiration. Penny is curious because of the uniqueness of the doll and the box it arrived in, Penny has a feeling that it came from Nellie’s shop and that Nellie sent it herself.
Penny’s father is the editor of the town newspaper. Her mother died a long time ago and they also live with Mrs. Weems, their housekeeper. Mrs. Weems tells Penny that she has been visiting at Melvin Osandra's establishment because a friend of hers took her to a séance there. She received a message from a cousin of hers who died ten years ago. Mrs. Weems is hooked and won’t let Penny talk some sense into her.
Penny receives a letter from Helene which includes two tickets to her performance of her new witch doll dance. Unfortunately, Louise can't make the performance and tells Penny to take someone else, so “Penny gave careful thought to the companion she should choose for Saturday night's entertainment, and finally decided that her father would be more fun than any of her girlfriends.” During the performance a man dressed in shabby clothes spends half the time hissing at her and yelling that the dance is evil.
Penny and her father go backstage to see Helene. After they chat for a while and Mr. Parker says he’ll write a good review of her show in the paper, Helene decides to walk Penny and Mr. Parker to the stage door. As they're walking towards the stairway, Helene, slightly ahead of the others, suddenly halts as she looks towards the window near the foot of the staircase. As Penny and her father glance toward the window Helene, with a scream of terror, falls down the stairs.
Luckily, Ms. Harmon only suffers a cut on the head and no broken bones. Penny asks Helene what she saw in the window that frightened her and she replies that she thought she saw a shadow or some grotesque human figure outlined against the window. So many bad things seem to be happening to her. Felice blames it on the doll. Mr. Parker thinks it is superstitious rubbish: “A man of brief patience, he had no tolerance for persons who professed to believe in the supernatural. He had made up his mind that the maid either stupidly or deliberately was playing upon the feelings of her mistress.” The doorman comes back into the room requesting Mr. Parker's presence outside. He did not find a person lurking but there is something on the wall.
On the wall outside near the window is painted a black silhouette that resembles the sinister figure of a witch just like the doll that Helene received. Underneath the figure written in large bold letters is the message, “H.H. Beware!” Penny touches the message and notices that it is wet paint. Penny says that this is what must've scared Helene and Mr. Parker, judging Helene to be a woman easily upset, says that there is no need for her to hear about this and that it should be cleaned up. Soon they are surprised to see Helene in the alley and Mr. Parker tells her that they found just some footsteps. As Helene is turning to leave, Felice sees the drawing on the wall and screams. Mr. Parker says that if he were Helene he would throw the doll into a garbage can and forget about it. Penny thinks something sinister is going on but her father refuses to take the witch doll seriously in absence of any proof.
Penny keeps hearing more and more about Melvin and his awesome séances. She convinces Louise to act as reporters for the newspaper and go interview Melvin. Penny fails at interviewing him and he says that he's had experiences with reporters and slams the door in her face. They decide to go and see Nellie who informs them that she turned over the shop to Mrs. Farmer that morning. As the girls leave Penny comments on how Nellie seemed afraid of something and had been sewing a witch doll.
The next morning Penny is informed by her father that Helene has finally made the front page because her diamond necklace was stolen. Mr. Parker asks Penny if she would like to talk to Helene and interview her as she may be more willing to talk to her than a reporter. Helene tells her about the evening and how she discovered the necklace missing and that, unfortunately, the necklace is insured for only half its value at $5,000. She is certain it was stolen. Penny and Helene visit Nellie’s shop where Mrs. Farmer tells them no sure ugly doll came from her store. Poor Helene is distraught. As they are driving away, Penny tells her that she can easily get rid of the doll and opens up the taxicab window and throws the box out over the railing of the bridge toward a grave in the river. Only moments after getting home, Helene calls to inform her that as she stepped into her dressing room she discovered the witch doll was sitting on her table.
Mrs. Weems takes Penny to see Melvin in action. As they're waiting for message from the spirit world a great snarling voice booms out the message of “Melvin Osandra beware! Your hour will come next.” After everyone leaves Penny talks to Melvin who tells her that he was shocked because he wasn't expecting it—he is a fake but he didn’t do that voice. As Mrs. Weems and Penny are leaving the building they are shocked to notice a new arrival who happens to be Helene. Helene clearly is coming to see the medium. Penny asks her how the doll could've been recovered from the river and delivered back to her as it doesn't seem possible. Penny reflects that either someone is playing a cruel hoax on her or sinister forces are at work. She still doesn't understand how Nellie fits into the picture. As they part ways, Penny is pretty sure that Helene is not going back to the theater. Leaving Mrs. Weems at the corner, Penny silently follows Helene and sees her going back into the medium's establishment. Knowing that Helene had purposely deceived her, Penny begins to wonder if the young woman has made any other misrepresentations. Penny's father agrees with her and says that she should be cautious in her friendship with Helene. He tells Penny that the insurance company is having doubts as to whether the diamond necklace was stolen as Helene's story is very wishy-washy. Mr. Parker also shows Penny an anonymous note he received saying that if he wants a tip on the diamond necklace he should ask Melvin. Looking at the note, Penny realizes the handwriting seems to be the same writing that was on the note that came with the witch doll.
Penny is summoned to the theater where she learns that Helene dropped the doll in a rubbish can and about a half-hour later found it in her dressing room again. Soon a police man shows up to talk about the stolen necklace. He tells Helene that her story does not satisfy the police and that they checked her story and that she did not visit the nightclub on that night. They found out that she was visiting the medium. She admits to going there but is certain that Melvin did not steal it. Helene does not want Melvin arrested. Penny tells Helene that she will take the doll for a while on the condition that Helene does not tell anyone what has become of it. Penny takes the doll home and locks it in a bureau drawer and puts the key around her neck. Penny stays in that night and guards the doll. In the morning, Helene calls to tell Penny that her idea did not work because the doll is back. Penny discovers the doll still locked in her drawer. She's convinced now that someone is replacing the dolls. Mr. Parker drives Penny to the theater. Penny tries to get Helene to confess what she is hiding about the medium. She says she hid the truth because she didn't want bad publicity—Melvin is her brother.
As she's leaving the theater, Louise drives up and the girls go to visit the Slocers, the poor family Louise’s mom likes to help out. The girls are shocked to find a girl in a tattered dress, her eyes dazed, hands and face scratched by thorns begging for food—it is Nellie. Nellie says that she's been wandering around ever since she left the doll shop. Mrs. Farmer never did pay her for her shop. Penny tells Nellie that she will come home with her but Nellie feels she doesn't deserve it since she hid things from Penny. Penny knows that she's referring to the witch doll. As Nellie begins to tell the story, a rock is thrown through the bedroom window. On it is written the word “beware” with a drawing of an old witch. Clearly someone followed Nellie to the cottage but Nellie, now terrified, doesn't want to talk. Penny takes Nellie home where she finds out that her father will be attending a séance to observe Melvin. Penny informs her father about what Helene told her and decides to join him.
Melvin has agreed to reenact the scene from the night of the second robbery. As the lights go out after a few moments of silence a piercing scream is heard. As Penny gropes her way to the door she notices that it's locked. Once they get the lights on they notice that Melvin has vanished. Both her father and the police chief felt Melvin jerk himself free before he screamed and Penny informs them that Spider, his assistant, has disappeared. Penny examines a large decorative cupboard and sees a footprint. As it turns out, it has a false back that opens into a secret exit. A narrow hallway leads to door that opens into a fire escape outside. Penny finds a street urchin and asks him if he saw anyone emerge from the fire escape. He says he saw a large man was carrying a heavy sack, which he dumped into a car and drove away.
Helene says that only one person could be considered an enemy of Melvin's. When they were living in New York with their parents a man stole money from their father and Melvin had him arrested. He was tried largely due to the testimony of Melvin and Helene and sentenced to 15 years in prison. That was about seven years ago. The man's name is Ivan Lavelle. Mr. Parker says that that man escaped from jail about six months ago and was never recaptured. Penny arrives home to find Nellie missing. Mrs. Weems said she left with a man who claimed to be relative not more than 15 minutes ago. Nellie left Penny a note saying that it was best for both of them if she left now. Penny's father comes home and shows her picture of Ivan, who, Penny notices, has the same type of eyes that Spider had. She feels as if she should recognize him. In the morning Penny shows the picture to Mrs. Weems and discovers that Ivan is the man who took Nellie away. Penny finds Louise to update her on the case. They're both fearful for Nellie and feel they must find her because there is only one angle that has never been investigated which is the fact that Nellie was very afraid of Mrs. Farmer. Penny thinks that Mrs. Farmer knows Ivan. The girls stake out the doll shop. It appears to be vacant and they notice a sign saying “out of business” posted on the door. Penny is pretty certain now that Mrs. Farmer never intended to use the shop as business.
Penny remembers Nellie saying one of the back windows would never lock properly and the girls gain access to the shop through the window. They notice the living quarters in disarray, yesterday's newspaper with the story of the second robbery marked up on the table, and a pair of men's shoes roughly the size of the footprints found at the cottage after the rock was thrown to scare Nellie. Soon the girls here a key in the lock and hide behind a counter as Ms. Farmer comes in. They see Mrs. Farmer reach into a cupboard and pull out a box that holds six witch dolls. Mrs. Farmer lovingly croons over them and says that they will avenge the great injustice done to Ivan. Penny is now certain that Mrs. Farmer is responsible for sending the doll to Helene. They watch as Ms. Farmer makes a bunch of food clearly intending to take it to someone. They then see her wash her face at the sink and pull off her gray wig—Mrs. Farmer is really Ivan! He soon moves toward the stove and pushs it towards the side revealing a trap door. Penny is certain that Melvin is being held captive below. Penny rushes towards the bedroom where Ivan put his disguise in a suitcase. She quickly rummages through the suitcase and finds other disguises, including a hunchback proving that Ivan is also Spider. She hands the suitcase to Louise and tells her to run to the police station as Penny will stay behind and watch.
After waiting minutes with Ivan not returning she decides to venture down into the trap. Chained to posts Penny discovers the captive Melvin and Nellie. Ivan is there threatening them. As Penny retreats she is caught halfway up the ladder by Ivan’s accomplice, Felice. Penny is captured. Due to all the thunderstorms lately the river is overflowing and he plans for them to drown in an underground passage underneath Nellie’s shop. After an agonizing amount of time, Louise, Penny's father, and five policemen show up. Mr. Parker informs them that Ivan and Felice have been arrested. Louise actually got the police there right as they were leaving but they took up quite a chase so it took a while to capture them.
As a reward, Penny’s father lets her write the article for the newspaper.
Thoughts and Nuggets of Wisdom for Research
Penny Parker was the heroine of a series of 17 books written by Mildred Wirt Benson published from 1939 to 1947. Penny is a high school student turned sleuth while irregularly working as a reporter for her father's newspaper. Her mother, similar to Nancy Drew's, had died some years before, so she was raised by the Parker housekeeper, Mrs. Weems. On her cases she is sometimes aided by her close friend, = Louise Sidell, and occasionally by Jerry Livingston or Salt Sommers who are a reporter and photographer for her father's paper.
Benson is best known for having written a number of the original Nancy Drew books as a ghostwriter for the Syndicate. Benson, who was a newspaper reporter herself, commented many years later that she favored Penny Parker over all the other books she wrote, including Nancy Drew. She was quoted as saying, "I always thought Penny Parker was a better Nancy Drew than Nancy is.” The main reason for this is because Benson was rather forward thinking for a “girl” in her time—she was a highly respected journalist when women rarely had aspirations to be anything but a wife and mother. She liked the concept of Nancy Drew but never was comfortable with the edits. The original Nancy Drew books were more feministic—they featured a very independent and strong Nancy. Most of the world never got to meet her though as when Harriet Adams began her major revising of the series she made sure to curb some of Nancy’s unladylike manners. This is one reason why Benson created Penny Parker—she was the Nancy that Benson wished she could have created if she had the creative control.
Descriptions of people are a huge part of this Penny Parker book. When it first opens, readers are introduced to Penny through the narration of Louise which reads, “Raising her eyes to the slim figure above her, Louise felt a warm wave of admiration for her chum. Penelope Parker—Penny—to all her friends, had that indefinable thing called personality. Her deep blue eyes, golden ringlets, clear skin, the one an impression of beauty; and besides, she had sparkle and vivacity. Louise reflected that nearly all the world's prized packages had been dropped on Penny's casual little shoulders.”
Penny, like Nancy Drew, has a car “variously known to the girls as the 'Leaping Tiger, the bus, the junk wagon,' which had been purchased secondhand with money faithfully earned by doing sundry unpleasant tasks about the Parker home. In outward appearance, the shiny blue coupe looked very nearly like a new model, but had a disconcerting way of breaking down at inconvenient intervals. Penny's father, Anthony Parker, editor of the Riverside Star, had spoken pearls of wisdom when he declared that the car would teach his daughter bitter lessons in finance and mechanics.”
From character descriptions one easily can tell who is a good guy and who is a bad guy. When Louise and Penny meet Mrs. Farmer she is described as “an old woman with a dark cape over her hunched shoulders, her misshapen felt hat pulled low over her wrinkled face.” Penny says that the old lady was so pleasant she was unpleasant and Nellie agrees saying that Mrs. Farmer gives her an uncomfortable feeling. As Penny and Louise leave the shop they see Mrs. Farmer. Penny thinks that Mrs. Farmer's eyes held “a very wicked and evil expression.” She also finds that Mrs. Farmer's comments about not taking too long to think over her offer of buying the shop because “so many things could happen” sounded a bit threatening.
When the girls meet Helene’s new assistant, Felice, the girls note that she is slow and fumbling: “The woman might have been 30 years of age. She had a plain face, but it was the expression of the dark eyes which held the girl's attention. Unaware that she was under scrutiny, the maid regarded her dancing mistress with a look of undisguised hatred.” After the performance the girls are invited to Helene’s dressing room where they learn that Felice is “shiftless”. When Felice enters the dressing room she glances “at the girls with an expression which easily might have been interpreted as hostile.”
When Penny meets Melvin for the first time she is shocked by his appearance but even more shocked by Melvin's assistant who is a man with a hideous scarred face. He is dwarfish, probably about 50 years old and walks with a pronounced hump.
There is also a little talk of economics with the Slocer family who are clearly very poor. Penny and Louise visit the Slocer family often taking them food and their daughter toys. As Louise and Penny well knew, “Darrel Slocer had never provided well for his family. The man worked in nearby factory, but money slipped easily through his fingers. He spent summers in many foolish ways, often leaving his wife and child without proper food or clothing.” The daughter actually informs the girls that her father is only working part-time and takes most of his money and his time down to Melvin’s establishment.
Penny is a daring heroine of her times. She isn’t one to let people walk all over her and she’s not afraid of danger. When Penny goes to visit Nellie and is confronted by an angry Mrs. Farmer who accuses her of causing Nellie to runway, Mrs. Farmer threatens to get her back and Penny tells her that slavery went out of vogue directly after the Civil War. The woman slams the door so hard that it catches Penny's hand. Later, when Penny gets together with Louise to go visit the Slocers again they learn that Mr. Slocer is straightening up and has been bringing home his money instead of going to the medium. They then take the little girl, Jeanie, on a picnic. As they are having fun Penny notices someone who appears to be spying on them. Instead of running away, Penny takes a hold of their grapevine swing, makes a bold leap, and let's go landing in the lap of a man who is hiding in the bushes. The man was wearing a black suit and a felt hat and he got up and ran towards the river. Penny failed to get a close look at his face. Jumping into the lap of a possibly dangerous person isn’t something every girl detective of the 1930s would do!
As Penny submits her article about the case to the newspaper, she decides that it's fun being a reporter but is too exhausting. Enter here the obligatory comment about Penny’s next adventures: “However, the future files of the Star were to carry still another remarkable tale, and mystery yarn might be proclaimed under the name, 'The Vanishing Houseboat,' but this, of course, Penny could not know.”