It was a dark, stormy night when Meg Duncan saw the mysterious figure in white entering the Haywood house. Who could it be?
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, generally, 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.
An unusually feminine and retiring girl-heroine (at least for Whitman), Meg has been left home alone with the Wilsons, her housekeeper and gardener, for the summer. Her widowed father, as usual, jetting around the world on top secret “government business” and her BFF, Kerry Carmody, is away with her family on an epic road trip:
Lucky Kerry. There were two girls and five boys in that family. Now the whole family were on a trip to California. They had a real bus, all fitted up with bunks and a kitchen and everything.
Meg and her unsociable Siamese cat, Thunder, are awake watching a an exciting summer thunderstorm roll in, when she spots a car pull into her neighbors’ driveway and a mysterious white-clad figure emerge.
Meg is immediately concerned, both because it has been about 5 minutes since the last bout of MYSTERIOUS HAPPENINGS arrived in Hidden Springs, and because the orphaned Haywood siblings have left town for the summer to seek employment; brother Bud in an Alaskan salmon cannery and sister Sally as a tour guide at Yellowstone Park.
Meg decides to investigate the next morning, and sees a face at the window of the Haywood house. But when she alerts the Wilsons, they brush off her concerns, especially after she mentions the figure in white, accusing her of chasing down more ghost stories.
Nonetheless, the summon Hidden Springs’ perpetually annoyed law enforcement, Constable Hosey, to check it out. He stops by on the way back to let the Wilsons know that those ditzy Haywood siblings went off for the summer and left their doors unlocked, so he padlocked them, but there appeared to be no sign of disturbance at the house, and now will you please stop looking for mysteries, Meg Duncan, he has a whole lot of storm damage to inspect today!
Meg continues investigating on her own, and promptly finds an unfriendly teenage girl digging through the Haywoods’ overgrown garden.
After questioning Meg about the owners of the property, she introduces herself as Abby James and shares her family’s hard-luck story:
“Well, we got off the main road. When we came to that place where the bridge was out we had to turn around. This was the first driveway we came to, and we came in here to see if we could use the phone. Our car was acting up. Daddy was beginning to be real sick, and we were afraid we weren’t going to make it to the next town. He knocked and knocked but nobody came.
“My father lost his billfold when we were coming through Indianapolis. We’re from Oklahoma, and Daddy was coming east to talk to a man in Washington about a job. He’ll get the job, all right. He’s very smart and I’m not worried about that-“
“Oh, I know.” Meg said it quickly. “But first he does have to get well.”
Kindhearted Meg just knows that Bud and Sally would be fine with a family of Okies camping out in their house all summer, but it does pose a moral dilemma when Abby makes her promise not to tell anyone that they’re there.
Meg takes the care and feeding of the family onto herself, with a generous side of tact:
“Mrs. James, I brought you some things. Just- just in case you couldn’t get to the grocery store. You know, people always take presents to people when they’re sick.”
Mrs. James looked down at her for a moment and then laughed. But Meg saw tears in her eyes.
“Why, thank you, Meg. Mr. James is better this morning. But you’re right; it is hard for me to get to the grocery store.”
But the Jameses are concerned, because during the night, they heard someone roaming around the downstairs. Mr. James, who owned a college bookstore in Oklahoma before the college went bust, also identifies a volume in the Haywoods’ copious library as a rare Edgar Allan Poe first edition. Could somebody be after the rare book?
The Wilsons are also suspecting that SOMETHING IS UP, after Mrs. Wilson notices all of her cans of pineapple have disappeared from the pantry and catches Meg trying to place a person-to-person call to Sally Haywood in Montana.
There is also a mildly humorous subplot when Meg uses her chalk pastels to give herself spots and dunks a thermometer in her hot cocoa in the hopes that Mrs. Wilson will send for “miracle drugs” that she can in turn take to Mr. James.
Is there even a mystery here? I guess who is roaming around the Haywoods’ after dark? It is the shady antiques dealer who snottily informed Bud and Sally that their library was worthless. You knew he was a bad egg because he was observed throwing a rock at Sally’s dog.
Meg and Jameses catch him in the act, Constable Hosey arrests him, and the Jameses are clutched to the bosom of wealthy grande dame Mrs. Partlow.
The most striking thing about this book is it seems to have been cobbled together from other, better Julie Campbell plots: the “face at the window” and genteel squatting are straight out of The Secret of the Mansion, and the Jameses are doppelgangers of the Red Trailer Mystery’s Darnells. And for good measure, the sinister, effeminate antique dealer seemed to have been borrowed from Ginny Gordon and the Mystery of the Disappearing Candlesticks.
Continuity Department: When Golden reissued the series in the late 1970s, #3 and #5 were reversed, which actually corrects a continuity error, when Meg joyously plans to visit Maine with her beloved bachelor Uncle Hal, a trip that she has already returned from!