Penny Allen and the Mystery of the Haunted House By Jean McKechnie

I know, I know! Every other week I’m like “I picked up this book because it looks totally normal but it turns out it totally is not!”

In this case, it appears to be a volume in a standard Girls Mystery Series…

Penny Allen Haunted House

…but apparently its origins are actually the stuff of high controversy!

Background: I didn’t discover the controversy until I attempted some research to find out why this book is so weird (we’ll get to that in a minute).

It turns out that most of this volume (published 1950) has been copied wholesale from a much earlier series of books. You can read about the controversy on the Series Books for Girls blog, but in short, it is unclear whether it is a case of blatant plagiarism or if the rights to the earlier series were purchased by a new publisher and the stories stitched together into a new series.

The Plot: The end result being that this is a mystery that is extremely difficult to follow, and in the end, almost entirely nonsensical.

Also it doesn’t have much to do with a haunted house and Penny Allen isn’t even really the main character.

The orphaned Allen children- college-aged Philip and Penny, 16-year old Jimmy and 12-year old Marjorie, are reunited after the death of their guardian Uncle John, who had sent them away to many far-flung boarding schools. Upon their uncle’s death, Phil has inherited his uncle’s luxurious hunting lodge on Michigan’s upper peninsula, and the book opens with the family’s arrival to inspect the property.

They meet the caretaker, Patrick Ryan, and his fiancée, Ann Mary, who hint at a local legend of the house being haunted by the “Green Lady”, a ghost of a baroness who used to own the property.  Marjorie immediately begins seeing a girl appearing and disappearing around the house, which the older siblings are infuriatingly unconcerned about, even after they also start seeing her:

Next, Penny rubbed her eyes and looked again. Had there been a flicker of light? How strange. There it was again. She was sure this time!

“Nonsense!” she told herself. “Just because Marjorie lets her imagination work overtime is no reason for me to start seeing things, too!”

The first 2/3 of the book involves the Allens seeing something mysterious and then not caring enough to investigate the mystery.

For unexplained reasons, Uncle John apparently hid a lot of his assets before his death, so his lawyer is constantly writing with news of a newly-discovered “inheritance” at the most convenient times possible. It’s too expensive to maintain the lodge during the winter months? Good news, you have also inherited a yacht! Now you can cruise to South America in the off-season! Not sure that is practical? Well, surprise! You also have been bequeathed a house in Florida!

Pat and Ann Mary (no, not Mary Ann, that would be too easy to say) also hint about the disappearance of a girl in the area which may or may not be tied to the lodge. But they refuse to divulge any details because… I don’t know, because that would make the book shorter.

However, a mysterious Mr. Spencer shows up on their doorstep, claiming that he is the father of a girl who ran away from home after she was released from a sanitarium and has been missing for a undetermined amount of time. He is very insistent that he believes that she is hiding out in the Allen Lodge, although a search of the place turns up nothing.  Oh, except that Penny and Marjorie found a fancy evening bag with a diary in it describing a girl-with-amnesia’s escape from her nurse. They don’t mention that, though.

Eventually the Allens remember that they keep seeing a ghost in the house and small quantities of food keep disappearing from their icebox. Showing an unprecedented amount of initiative, they turn out all of the lights and lay in wait for the ghost to appear, which she does, appearing from behind a hidden door and dressed in the baroness’s green silk gown and mask.

The ghost of course turns out to be merely human, a young woman who has no memory of who she is or how she got to Michigan, and claiming to have escaped from a man who was holding her hostage. She broke into the lodge and has been hiding in a hidden room for an unknown amount of time. Could she be the owner of the purse and diary? Is she Spencer’s missing daughter? Ugh, Allens, of course she is! You are the worst amateur sleuths ever! The girl thinks her name is Adra, but she has no explanation as to why she’s been dressing up for the Mardi Gras to do her sneaking around.

Spencer comes back around, demanding to search the house again, but Phil just doesn’t care for the man and sends him away:

“Somehow I just didn’t like him much, though I’m sorry for him, of course. He looked pretty sinister. Like the villain in an old melodrama.”

Hmm, I’m not sure that Phil should rely on his detective instincts. He’s been pretty bad at detecting so far. Nobody calls the authorities or anything, they just hide Adra away in a back bedroom and let her drink tea and read movie magazines.

Instead, because of a vague feeling she has that she is “from the east”, they decide to sneak her out of the house and cruise the yacht to New York, stopping at the major port cities along the way so she can see if anything looks familiar. Since Pat has finally married the long-suffering Ann Mary, they can make it their honeymoon! Because I’m sure they totally wanted to take five dimwitted children with them on that!

This trip is the only thing this book has going for it- a leisurely yacht trip across the Midwest, with stops in places like Detroit and Cleveland is an amiably goofy idea.

Finally, the Allens dock in Buffalo. There is a lot of extremely confusing intrigue as Spencer shows up and demands to have the yacht searched, Adra dons a blonde wig and assumes the identity of “Grace Rogers”, and everyone constantly pretends to check into hotels, duck in and out of drug stores, and flash secret signals to one another.

It’s all to no end, however, as the “mystery” is solved through a coincidence, when Penny notices a man in a restaurant who bears a close resemblance to AdraGrace. Father and daughter are reunited when her memory returns when he addresses her as “Polly”, and explains what has happened:

“You see, this girl was taken from a hospital, just as she was well enough to be dismissed. Her friends were to call for her. The Spencer crowd came instead, with a similar car- I will not enter into details, they are harrowing enough.”

Oh, well, ok then. Like the Allens, I have zero curiosity about why AdraGracePolly was kidnapped. Ho-hum.

The Allens arrive in New York and meet AdraGracePolly’s father who insists that they accept a reward for her return. AdraGracePolly has been packed off to California, because who wants to hang around her home with her stupid old father after having been kidnapped?

The Allens are off to Florida or Mexico or Africa or something. The end.

The writing style is extremely odd, often in an “I-don’t-think-that-word-means-what-you-think-it-does” way:

Pat Ryan and Mr. Prentice arrived and Penny introduced the boys. Mr. Prentice warmly wrung their hands.

The cocoa was giving forth a delicious odor and the eggs were done.

So he offered to direct his energies toward bringing home the bacon, otherwise the denizens of the deep.

There are also some glaring editorial errors, such as misnumbered chapters (they seem to be in the correct order, however), and characters that mysteriously teleport into scenes: Penny answers the door and has a conversation with the neighbor that is delivering the milk, and halfway through the paragraph it is suddenly a pair sisters making the deliveries.

Sign It Was Written in 1950 Department: “Oh, Marjorie, you’re the limit!”

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