“He can’t do that!” Robin exclaimed. “I’m no lawyer, Mr. Lodato, but this is the United States of America and no one can take anyone’s child away from him like that!”
Background: Usually, fall means a look at the “girls’ series” published by Whitman in the 1940s through the 1970s: those thick, cellophane-clad hardcovers featuring teen girls sleuthing around Westchester County or California’s Bay Area.
You can tell that after 10 years of this, I have really started scraping the bottom of the Whitman barrel around here, having run through all of the Ginnies, Donnas, Kims and (ugh) Pollies that Whitman unleashed on the world. Who does that leave us with? Well, boys series and authorized editions of TV shows (watch this space), two of the remaining Nurses Three… oh, and the California Bay Area’s favorite teen sleuth/perpetrator of ethnic stereotypes, Robin Kane.
The Plot: Even Robin seems to be running out of steam by this volume, in a very simple mystery that only four aggressively white children can solve.
As usual, all the gang’s previous friends have been memory-wiped from the universe as this book starts, just leaving the bohemian Kane family (Cartoonist father, driftwood-carving mother, and siblings Kevin, Robin and Amy “Sugar” Kane) (ick); and the tragic, poor-little-rich Hunters (dead mom, big-time movie producer dad, and children Michael and Mindy).
As the book opens, the Hunter children have been left in the care of their housekeeper, Manuela, a Spanish aristocrat fallen on hard times who agrees to become Mr. Hunter’s servant in order to save her ancestor’s ranch. Wait, didn’t we already have a Mexican-American housekeeper working for the Hunters, rendered with all of the delicacy of the Frito Bandito?
Ohhhhhh, that was Mamacita (¡MUY HORRENDO!), who has now been shipped off to take care of said fallen Spanish aristocrat’s ranch:
“And wouldn’t you know Mamacita and that worthless dog, Perro, would be sleeping on the patio?” Michael laughed.
The extremely thin plot involves the teenage daughter of one of Manuela’s old friends coming to visit the Hunters in Pacific Point just before Christmas. Word of Robin’s alleged prowess in solving mysteries up and down the west coast has reached as far as Los Angeles, and Pilar is eager to recruit the whole gang to come back with her to Olvera Street to solve the mystery of why the new owners of the local candle shop are being so freaky.
Mr. Maxwell Hunter lends Michael the good station wagon, and chaperoned by Manuela, the five older teens set out for L. A.
The excitement (I mean, sort of) begins immediately upon their arrival, when Senor Garcia’s candle shop, which is now being run by the Lodato family catches fire, and when Robin tries to butt in, she is rudely shoved aside by an adult and told to mind her own business.
All she could remember later was that he wore very thick glasses, was dark-skinned, and had on a pinstripe suit. Robin was near tears, not only from the abrasion when she struck the showcase but also from anger at the man’s rude behavior. After all, she had only been trying to help!
After the fire is put out, Robin gets the idea to look through the ash pile for “clues” and is chased away by Senora Lodato. Geez, these people are not grateful for help from this pint sized girl detective at ALL.
However, Robin does manage to rescue Senor Garcia, the shop’s original owner, who lives in the room above the store while he hands off his business to the Lodatos: the smoke came in directly through his vent and he was overcome. This will be important later.
Also important: the shard of pottery that Robin managed to grab out of the ash-heap before Senora Lodato chased her away. Kevin and Michael, two notable adolescent experts in antiquities are convinced the characters on the piece are ancient Greek, but the gringos, decide to keep this information secret from Pilar.
HOWEVER, when the gang joins Pilar at El Charro, her family’s restaurant for dinner, Robin is convinced that another diner is the man who so rudely pushed her out of the way during the candle shop fire. And what’s more, he is dining with an another swarthy man with an EYEPATCH. Robin stares at them, using her powers of Phrenology:
After studying the man a bit longer, Robin was sure he wasn’t of Spanish extraction. She couldn’t say why she was so certain , unless it was the shape of his nose or the set of his features.
Dude’s just trying to enjoy his meal, and Robin is practically sneaking up behind him with calipers.
Also they decide to keep the discovery of the found pottery shard a secret from Pilar. Up to getting her to take them to gallery of antiquities to consult an expert and make her wait in the car. The gallery owner calls in his expert in ancient artifacts, Mr. Molefetas who is…. the first swarthy dude in the loud suit, introduced as just having returned from Greece… despite the fact that he has been eating at El Charro for weeks. Initially oozing obsequiousness, Molefetas flies into a rage when he examines the pottery shard, declaring it a cheap imitation that is just wasting his time.
Later, Robin casually whips out the pottery shard in front of Pilar (who despite being their hostess, they continue to keep in the dark about the mystery) and Robin closely observes her shocked reaction, which she immediately covers with a dismissal that it must be part of a plate.
Because this is a time when children are allowed to roam about all night, Robin and Michael plot to put a tail on Molefeta’s pal with the eyepatch, following out of Olvera Street, over to Chinatown and finally on a bus to Pasadena, where, losing his eyepatch, he tell Robin and Michael he’s been hip to them this whole time and he is actually Det. John Abdullah, LAPD. Hot on the trail of a gang of counterfeiters of Greek antiquities that he suspects are coming out of Olvera St. Could the Lodatos be involved????
Michael comes up with a completely practical plan to obtain a rare Italian Lerici camera, designed to take pictures inside of tombs through the use of a reverse periscope [Google offers no evidence this is a thing that actually exists- Ed.]; sure enough, his father is able to obtain one through a contact a UCLA. Can the gang clear the Lodato’s name before Christmas morning?
Did I even mention that this is a Christmas story? With the exception of Olvera Street’s nightly La Posada processional, there is not a lot of Christmas stuff happening.
Robin lowers the camera down the vent from Senor Garcia’s room and snaps three Polaroid photos before whoever was lurking down there starts beating Michael to a pulp
The Lodatos are still reluctant to explain their role in the counterfeiting, but Robin suggests:
“Do you think I might talk to your father or mother? Perhaps it would be easier for them to tell me.”
“That’s a good idea,” Ramon answered after a moment. “It’s hard to admit our mistakes to people we know real well. Maybe with a stranger it will not be so difficult.”
The Lodatos explain that Molefetas sponsored them to come from Mexico to make handcrafted pottery in the candle shop, then blackmailed them into doing the forgeries by threatening to send Ramon back to Mexico for being in the U.S. illegally.
Robin and Michael get to ride along on the stakeout to bust Molefetas, though, so it seems like everything will be ok after all. Mr. Hunter sends a seaplane to fly them back to Pacific Point Christmas morning, the end.
The Californians! Department:
“We’re trying to decide which route to take down to Los Angeles… we can go down U.S. one-oh-one, which is probably the most direct way, or we can take the state road along the coast.”
MYOB, Kevin! Department:
“He lives comfortably with his daughter and her family. Everyone loves him, and every year during La Posada he begs on the street.”
“What a racket!” Kevin said disgustedly. “Why should he take people’s money if he doesn’t need it?”
“I happen to know why,” Pilar said softly. “He believes that his blindness is a reminder to others that sight is a precious gift… he gives every cent of it to a home for blind children.”