Many years had passed since Kathleen Hannigan had died in a tragic accident, but her ghost was still said to haunt the old mansion…
Background: From the 1950s through the 1970s Whitman published a huge number of these squat, dust jacketless hard covers, separately targeting boys and girls. Some of these were based on TV shows, some were based on celebrities having imaginary adventures and solving crimes (Annette Funicello! Patty Duke!), and some were original series about plucky eponymous girl-heroines solving mysteries, having adventures and learning valuable lessons: your Trixie Beldens, Ginny Gordons and Donna Parkers.
While Julie Campbell’s Trixie Belden series is probably the only one of these that can be considered a certified classic, the others are, at least by reputation, satisfyingly solid efforts.
Again this year, we’ll be looking at these series over the next few weeks, starting with tweenage suburban sleuth Meg Duncan.
The Plot: “Holly Beth Walker” is a Whitman “house name” for an unknown number of ghostwriters- while Gladys Baker Bond has been identified as the author of the first book in the series, the other writers are unknown and the books sometimes vary wildly in terms of content and tone.
To add to the confusion, the series was re-ordered when it was released in paperback by Golden in the late 1970s, with volumes 3 and 5 flipped in the continuity (I use the word loosely).
I bring all this up because when last we met Meg Duncan and her BFF Kerry Carmody they had just solved a genuinely spooky mystery while on vacation in Maine with Meg’s dashing bachelor uncle; this time around we return to suburban Hidden Springs, Virginia dealing with age-appropriate and mildly mysterious happenings.
Meg’s Uncle Hal is making one of his frequent visits from Washington DC, where he works as a museum curator and Meg is working as his assistant in taking photographs of the abandoned Hannigan House, a once-luxurious mansion whose owner recently died.
Amelia Hannigan was a noted local eccentric, kindly towards the village children, but shying away from the adults. Adding to the mystique were rumors of the ghost haunting the place, supposedly, Miss Amelia’s younger sister who died in a tragic accident around the turn of the century. But the adults in town are reluctant to discuss the matter, leading Meg and Kerry to their first order of sleuthing, when Meg and Uncle Hal find signs of life in the “abandoned” mansion.
Meg and Kerry know that Mrs. Partlow, the grande dame of Hidden Springs likely has the answers, and they pay her a formal call, complete with a gift of lemon cake. With some prodding she reveals the tragic story of the Hannigan family:
“Kathleen Hannigan was about fifteen when her family came here from New York.
There were still many people in the South who were suspicious of northerners- especially wealthy ones. They felt bitter because the Hannigans had bought the old plantation house. The ladies of Hidden Springs didn’t call on Mrs. Hannigan. They didn’t invite her to their homes. In fact, they quite ignored newcomers- except for little Kathleen. She was such a bright, happy girl that people couldn’t help but smile when they saw her on the street.”
The Hannigans throw an elaborate 16th birthday party, complete with an orchestra, for Kathleen and invite the entire town. But when the big night arrives, everyone is a no-show and Kathleen is heartbroken:
“Then little Kathleen began to cry. She ran out of the house… the ground was slippery from the rain,” said their hostess. “Kathleen must have fallen over the bank. When her father reached her, he found her with her face in the water. She had struck her head on a rock and drowned.
Nobody ever wanted to talk about that night again. Those who had snubbed the Hannigan family wouldn’t even tell if they had been invited or not.”
The plot thickens when Meg and Kerry return to the Hannigan House and Kerry’s twin brothers lock themselves in the cellar. When the girls are unable to free them they run for good ol’ Constable Hosey for help, but run smack into a teenage girl who has a striking resemblance to Mrs. Partlow’s photograph of Kathleen Hannigan!
Later the girls see the mysterious stranger at the local soda fountain, and when they hear her addressed as “Kathleen”, Meg boldly forces an introduction.
It turns out that she is the grand-niece of the late Miss Amelia, and potential heiress to her fortune; however Miss Amelia’s will had some peculiar stipulations. First Kathleen must live in the house for a full month, at the end of which she will give a party to Miss Amelia’s exact instructions.
The residency of the younger Kathleen and her mother coincides with an uptick in paranormal activity at Hannigan House: mysterious footsteps on the stairs, a player piano that starts and stops on its own, and that pesky cellar door that has a mind of its own! After Kathleen’s mother takes a bad fall on a stair that was deliberately loosened, they’re ready to forfeit the inheritance and go back to California. But Meg’s father reminds her (via cablegram from Europe, where is on secret government business) that GHOSTLY SHENANIGANS ARE USUALLY THE WORK OF HUMAN HANDS.
But who could it be? The late Miss Amelia’s devoted servant, Miss Jenny? Those pushy realtors who want to buy the property to build tract housing? The unknown back-up heir? Kathleen Hannigan’s ghost?
In a mildly surprising twist, they discover it is Miss Jenny’s son, who works for the phone company and has planted electronic devices all over the house to simulate ghostly happenings. He feels that he and his mother should be awarded the house for her years of devoted service. Miss Jenny is not impressed, reminding him that it was Miss Amelia who paid his way through “electronics school” in the first place.
HOWEVER, Meg gets to solve an even better mystery the night of the party the Martins throw to fulfill Miss Amelia’s last wishes and win the estate. Meg notes the oddly-composed guest list: only direct descendants of Hidden Springs’ oldest families. With a flash of inspiration she runs to the old window seat she and Kerry had found mysteriously nailed shut upon their initial search of the mansion; prying it open, they find the 70 year old stamped and addressed invitations to the original Kathleen’s birthday party: jealous of her younger sister’s popularity, Miss Amelia had never mailed them! The unusual party was her way of atoning to both her sister and the entire town.
Kathleen Martin decides to return to California, but the Hannigan House will become a local museum under the direction of Mrs. Partlow. Meg and the Carmodys speculate that Kathleen Hannigan’s ghost will now finally rest easy in Hidden Springs.
Sign It Was Written In 1970 Department:
“I heard in Washington that some real estate people are trying to buy the property for a subdivision. That’s why I was anxious to get down here and take my pictures. These fine old buildings sometimes disappear overnight. Men bring in bulldozers and push them down. They build modern uglies in their place.”