Robin Kane #2: The Mystery Of The Phantom By Eileen Hill

It was impossible to tell just what it was, but they were certain it wasn’t the rain this time. Something looking like a great black ghost moved stealthily, steadily through the studio…

It’s still fall, and I still have a few Whitman girls’ series on the docket. Lost Classics hasn’t revisited the Robin Kane series since Year One, so that seems like a good idea…

OK, about 2 pages in I remember why I gave up on Robin Kane.

The Plot:  Well, the good news is that 13 year old Robin seems to have suffered no ill-effects from her adventure capturing cattle rustlers, including the notorious bandit El Gato, in the last book.

Robin and her BFF Mindy Hunter, who has acquired a brother named Michael in this volume, are all swooning over the arrival of a British import at Pacific Point High, Joe Turner:

Conversation was buzzing around them. Everyone seemed anxious to find out all about Joe, and he was being besieged with questions. “What is your favorite sport?” “Do you go out for track?” “Do you play any instrument?” “How about amateur theatricals?”

Robin began to suspect that the questioners were not so much interested in what Joe did as in tooting their own particular horn so he would know what they did.

Sorry, amateur theatricists! Joe is mostly interested in hoboing:

“I came over from England and hitchhiked out here from New York. Now, to try and answer all of your questions at once, let’s say I’m a jack-of-all trades and a master of none.”

It’s 1966! Just hitchhike across the country to your uncle’s house, you’ll be fine!

Next we have to be re-introduced to Robin’s family, including her older brother, Kevin and her younger sister, Amy “Sugar” Kane (ugh). Mr. Kane draws a thinly-veiled version of Family Circus, about a family with three kids named Danny, Muggins and Fatso (Robin is Fatso) (THERAPY); Mrs. Kane carves gnomes out of driftwood, which is what she is doing when The Gang shows up demanding hamburgers.

“Goodness me! How time flies! I began working on a fascinating piece of driftwood and completely lost track of time.”

But a pall is cast over the meal when Mindy and Mike receive a call from their father, Big Time Hollywood Producer Maxwell Hunter, that a valuable prop has been stolen from the set of the documentary TV series he is working on.

What is the prop? We learn that it is an articulated fish, made out of gold. We also learn how to pronounce articulated, and several definitions of the word articulated. Everyone constantly refers to it as The Articulated Fish, to the point where the word articulated starts to lose all meaning.

So that is our mystery. Yay.

The next day the box that The Articulated Fish was shipped in turns up in The Heap, the Kane’s station wagon, because the Kanes are unable to let anything go by without a cutesy nickname (Mr. Kane’s studio is called The Huddle).

So mysterious! Time for a lengthy description about making fruit punch. Now a lesson in scuba diving! Afterward we can have a cookout and a make-your-own sundae bar, but remember to list each kind of topping and who picks which one… oh wait is there still a mystery? Well, let’s wrap that up by finding the fish tied to a pier near where Mr. Hunter’s TV crew is taping and returning it unharmed to Mr. Hunter. All in a day’s work, gang…

Whoa, there is still like 80 pages left? Dammit, Robin! Can’t you solve your mystery a little more efficiently!

While at least initially, this volume tones down the Mexican stereotypes of the Hunters’ servants (we don’t get reminded how lazy Mamacita is every time she appears), when an intruder breaks into the Hunter’s mansion, seemingly in search of something, the other servants pack up and flee in the night:

Mios Dios!” Mamacita replied dramatically. “They leave. Packed up their belongings and left. Didn’t even wait for the taxi cab to come for them.”

“Moaning, like the wind. That’s what they tell me, but there is no wind tonight. No! They say it was a ghost trying to get into the house. But it could have been a man, for always it stay on the ground, running fast, not flying through the air like a true ghost.”

Robin dubs the mysterious not-true ghost The Phantom, because the title for this book is even blander than the story. Also it might be a giant duck:

“And what a bird!” Michael cried when he, too, had a chance to look at the prints.  “Those marks must be a foot long!”

“It beats me,” he said. “The owner of those webbed feet must be as big as an ostrich! But ostriches don’t have webbed feet. And besides, whoever heard of an ostrich in Pacific Point?”

(Mamacita: “Muy horrendo!”)

Robin’s theory is that these incidents are targeting the TV production and trying to slow it down and put it over budget, because Mr. Hunter has invested is own money in it. In order to catch the Phantom, Robin suggests a very complicated scheme involving an art contest to create a painting to run behind the main titles of the TV show, to be held at The Huddle. Robin’s parents (both arty types, with their comic strips and driftwood gnomes, like CRAZY, MAN) will be the judges. Obviously, The Phantom won’t be able to resist stealing the winning entry, so Robin and her friends will rig up a complicated series of curtains to hide behind and burglar alarms which they will trigger every 5 minutes UNLESS the thief arrives. You know, for safety.

Robin’s parents and the local constable agree to this plan, and sure enough they ensnare the thief who turns out to be… Joe’s Uncle! No! Wait! Joe arrives on the scene with his REAL UNCLE who had been in the hospital with a compound fracture of his wrist, so he sent this random dude he met to meet his hitchhiking nephew in Pacific Point. Makes perfect sense! It was 1966! People were handing their minor children off to randos all the time! That’s basically how the Manson Family got started! CALIFORNIA!

Random Dude has the awesomely random dude-name of Ned Osborne, and when he confesses he would have gotten away with it if not for the meddling kids, etc. we learn that he had been an actor in one of Mr. Hunter’s previous productions, but had been fired for excessive hamming, and then could only find work as an extra so he vowed very complicated revenge. Mystery solved!

Personally, the most frustrating thing about this series is that it is such a missed chance: most Whitman series are either set in the suburbs of New York (Trixie Belden, Donna Parker, Ginny Gordon, Kim Aldrich) or in generic “Anystate, USA” settings- this series does take a stab at giving it some real regional flavor, and mid-60s California has the potential to be a great time capsule for the modern reader. Even the demi-bohemian artist parents, with their constant dining “al fresco” could be fun supporting characters… if they just weren’t so dumb.

Also I really don’t remember Mindy having a brother in the first book. He seems like he was dropped in so Robin and Mindy could have crushes on each other’s brothers. So, weird.

Not Sure That’s How It Works Department: The Gang keeps the burglar-alarm plot secret from Joe, since he’s new in town, but Mike and Kevin assure Robin he won’t feel left out because he has to study for a big “football test”.

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