“Heavens, so many things to worry about. I don’t want to tell Mom and Dad any of it. They’ll tell me to go to the Police. We don’t want to to that. Not yet anyway…”
Striving for some semblance of normalcy, this fall we shall again look at the girls’ series published by Whitman in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. I feel like in the course of eight years, I have burned through both the better Whitman series and the real dogs released by the publisher, and am now stuck muddling through the middling series.
I have expressed my frustration with the daffy Kane gang bungling through the Bay Area and interacting with various ethnic stereotypes (¡MUY HORRENDO!) as a waste of characterization of uniquely Californian characters (Dad is the creator of a Family Circus-type comic strip, Mom carves gnomes out of driftwood)… but this haunted house mystery is so incoherent I can’t even feel like that was a missed opportunity. Also, the gang is off to Chinatown, so you know that will play great in 2020.
The book opens with the Kanes hosting a Spook Party for Robin’s classmates to plan the school’s Fair Day. Yes, first they have to have a party, which includes Robin’s brother Kevin going all Kingston Trio with his guitar (“Where are you, my pretty one?/Leaving me lonesome/ Sad and forlorn/Drowned in the ocean/Washed out to sea….”) and also Kevin and his father putting a fake corpse in the family pool wearing Mrs. Kane’s evening gown, which she is very “boys will be boys” about.
In addition to Robin’s brother and younger sister Amy, present at the party are Robin’s BFF Mindy Hunter (daughter of big-time Hollywood producer Maxwell Hunter) and HER brother Michael (the girls have crushes on each other’s brothers, which thankfully is played down in this volume) and younger sister Judy, and their friends Brenda and Ted.
Wait, who? It is assumed that the reader totally knows who Brenda and Ted are, but I spent the first half of the book thinking that Ted must be the hitchhiking newcomer to Pacific Point, he of the imposter uncle and Big Football Test, but nope, that was Joe. I have no idea who Brenda and Ted are. They are “very poor.”
Back to the spook party-slash-fair planning committee. But first, dinner, because Mom was a good sport about her evening gown winding up in the pool, but now she’s getting HANGRY:
The crowd of young people gobbled up food like a scourge of hungry locusts. The party had to be planned after dark so the ghosts could walk. Eight O’clock was way past eating time.
“Just give me a chance to get a bite myself before I faint,” Mrs. Kane called as he handed over a third platter of hamburgers.
Seriously, Mom doesn’t get to eat until the kids are on THIRDS? Brian Belden would never stand for Moms to be treated like this!
Robin and Mindy offer exposition: Maxwell Hunter, big time Hollywood producer, has recently purchased Glengary Castle to use for filming his various movies and TV series. I feel like I could make a joke about steak knives here, but it hardly seems worth the effort. Robin fills us in with excruciating detail about how the castle is DOUBLE HAUNTED:
“A woman in white; old Mrs. Gary I guess. Do you know of any more ghosts, Robin?”
OF COURSE she does, telling an extremely long and detailed story about a shipwreck and a haunted rocking chair. Later a THIRD ghost will come into play, when we learn that the castle’s most recent owner, Mrs. Gardineau, also had a tragically dead son who drowned in Italy.
“Maybe someone saw Mrs. Gardineau wandering around and though she was a ghost.”
“If they did they must have seen a Chinese ghost, too,” Robin said. “I mean old Sing, their houseman. He guarded her like an FBI man.”
The gang decides that they have to go investigate the castle that very night, which is mostly the opportunity for Robin and Mindy to have crushes on each other’s brothers:
[Kevin] always took Mindy’s side just as Michael always too Robin’s. It started that way when the Kanes and Hunters first knew each other, and went on that way. It might have been because Kevin thought girls with long golden hair and dark brown eyes were super. It might have been because Michael liked a girl with spirit, especially if she had a shock of unruly brown curls, freckles on her nose, and round blue eyes full of wonder.
Yeah, sorry Brenda, but you’re new in town, so you’re just going to have to date your own brother. Everyone else is taken.
Various mysterious happenings happen at the castle, but the gang does find a bunch of mysterious Chinese puppets, which reminds them that they are supposed to be planning for the school fair, so they decide to put on a puppet show. Brenda comments that there is something strange about the puppets… no, they’re not haunted, they are just all boys. And as we have established, everyone including puppets is supposed to pair off here in Pacific Point. They decide to drive into San Francisco and buy materials to make some girl puppets.
The descriptions of San Francisco are too cutesy-poo to be believed. I could just quote and quote and quote, but here is the anthropomorphized cable car:
Robin and Mindy led the way with flying heels to the sturdy little car. It was helpless to reverse itself after the downward trip, so it waited, a bit patronizingly, while passengers laughed and pushed it into position for the upward ascent. Indignant at the delay, it clanged angrily like the ancient tyrant it was.
But beware! Danger also lurks in Fog City:
“There are good things and bad things about San Francisco. Like every other big city, I guess. Why, there are beatniks here and joints where you might get popped on the head just for keeping your face clean or for not wearing a beard.”
In Chinatown, they visit the shop of Sing’s cousin, Sing Ho, and how long is it going to take for someone to be described as “inscrutable”?
Sing Ho’s face bore the same inscrutable expression.
Ok, literally five seconds. The gang does learn that the puppets they found at the castle are valuable antiques made for the empress, and Sing Ho offers to pay them $1000 apiece for them, which Mindy declines. It also occurs to them (finally) to inquire after the whereabouts of Sing, since he is due part of Mrs. Gardineau’s estate once the will goes through probate, but Sing Ho is not forthcoming.
Outside a few minutes later, Kevin said, “He’s just as cagey as all the Chinese.”
“Dad’s lawyers may have been here inquiring about Sing,” Michael said. “Try and get any Chinese to give out information, though. They have the world’s best poker faces. Sing Ho knows where Sing Huang is. You can bet on that.”
Robin ventures that Sing may be visiting relatives because he’s grieving the death of Mrs. Gardineau.
“You may be right,” Kevin admitted thoughtfully.
“If we’d only realize that people from other countries have feelings the same as ours,” Robin began.
“And don’t come from other planets,” Michael added. “It makes me feel ashamed.”
“Yeah,” Kevin agreed. “It does.” After a pause he asked, “Say, is anyone besides me hungry?”
Casual racism is bad, but more importantly: HAMBURGERS.
This is really the point where the plot veers off into incoherency, as Robin and Mindy have various ghostly encounters at the castle- they have been put in charge of inventorying Mrs. Gardineau’s library for the fair’s book sale; the puppets go missing and everyone assumes that the still-missing Sing has stolen them; they visit various pawn shops to try and locate the puppets, but instead find a netsuke that Robin recognizes as belonging to Sing and ALSO IS JAPANESE NOT CHINESE.
In a weird turn of events, Robin finds that there is a hidden room in one of the turrets of the castle, which is where Sing has been hiding out with his pet cat and Mynah bird (the source of most of the ghostly happenings) and is NEAR DEATH DUE TO STARVATION. Once he is recovering in the hospital there are STILL ghostly happenings, and Mindy and Robin run endlessly through underground tunnels only to find that the ghost is… Brenda. Who also stole the puppets. Because she is SO POOR.
Brenda runs up the side of the cliff and for a minute it seems like she is going to jump to her death, but everyone agrees to keep the secret about her stealing the puppets. In fact, Mr. Maxwell Hunter even gives her a job as an assistant art director on his latest motion picture epic!
Brenda does at least go apologize to Sing, who’s kind of not having it:
“He knew what I did was awful and told me so. When I left he told me to always remember what Confucius said: ‘He who steal pebble, steal jade.’”
Her listeners, a little embarrassed, made no comment.
The puppet show is a huge success, everyone celebrates with hamburgers.