Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Mildred A. Wirt Mystery Stories #1, The Clue at Crooked Lane

Mildred Wirt Benson is best known as a ghostwriter for the Nancy Drew series. However, she was extremely prolific and wrote for many other series, such as Ruth Fielding, Dana Girls, and Kay Tracey, as well as several titles in her own name. One of these series is the Mildred A. Wirt Mystery Stories, published by Cupples and Leon in the 1930s, of which The Clue at Crooked Lane is the first.
There's no illustrator listed, but the expression on Peggy's face reminds me of the early Tandy artwork for Nancy Drew. Something about the profile and the tucked chin, looking up.

The Clue at Crooked Lane fulfills pretty much every series book stereotype ever: amnesia, missing person, missing will, a secret drawer, gypsies, a miser, motherless girl with motherly housekeeper. It's all very Mildred Wirt. The motherless girl in question is Margaret "Peggy" Palmer, the daughter of Major Palmer. Her best friend Rebecca convinces her to come with the other girls to a gypsy camp to get their fortunes told. While there, the police raid the camp, and the old gypsy gives a bracelet to Peggy. Naturally, it's the stolen property of an actress, and the police immediately accuse Peggy of stealing it. When the actress, Marilyn Marlowe (yes, really), is asked to identify Peggy as the thief, she does so, even though it's clear Marilyn has no clue who took it. Peggy is only released when her friends track down the old gypsy and get her to confess. She now has an enemy in Miss Marlowe, who was shamed before the police.

Peggy's Uncle Jack sells antiques, and she sometimes helps him unpack shipments. While doing so later that night, she discovers a secret drawer in a desk, which contains a locked onyx box. Her uncle says it needs to be returned to the original owner--it was purchased at an estate auction at Sleepy Hollow, some 100 miles north. She and Rebecca drive up the next day and meet Linda, the only person living on the estate. Her uncle Elias disappeared three years ago with a ton of money belonging to a charity and has now been declared dead. He left all of his money in an old will to a distant cousin, in spite of the fact that he had been caring for Linda for several years since her parents' death. Peggy is convinced that the onyx box must hold a newer will, and Linda promises to come down to visit Peggy and see the box.

The next day, Peggy discovers that a clerk has inadvertently sold the box to Marilyn Marlowe, who denies it when questioned. Uncle Jack sends her and Rebecca to pick up an old clock in the mountains, but they get a flat along the way. When they go for help, they stumble across an old miserly recluse living on Crooked Lane. He's kind, but clearly confused and not remembering his past. I'm sure you can guess who he is, but we've still got more than 100 pages to go. Peggy goes back to visit him weekly, because she's concerned that he's not eating, and she senses a mystery about him.

Linda comes in and is disappointed about the box. While with Peggy, they interrupt a hold-up at a jewelry store and get the police--the thief sees Peggy and promises revenge as he's captured. Peggy attempts again to get Miss Marlowe to give up the box, but she throws Peggy out. Peggy's solution? Breaking in to the house. Sweet. She has no luck with the box, but overhears two maids talking about it. Afterward, the gardener tells her that Miss Marlowe is at her mountain summer home. Conveniently, Rebecca's parents invite her and their friends to a house party up a their own mountain lodge. Peggy goes over for attempt #2. Again, Miss Marlowe tosses her out, and again Peggy breaks in. Just, wow. To throw in one more stereotype, she's forced to hide in a closet and is discovered. She escapes with the box, blows the fuses--which kills the lights, and absconds on a high speed automobile chase. For real. It's pretty amazing.

She turns in at Crooked Lane and discovers a robbery in process--the thief from earlier has escaped and is hitting the miser over the head. She leaves the box in the car and runs. The thief captures the miser and Peggy, but they gain control of his gun in struggle. She locks him in a wardrobe (see the frontis), but the miser has been injured. At this point, her friends are searching for her. Once found, they send for an ambulance and the police. Of course, the knock to the head causes the man's memory to return, and when Peggy asks if he's Uncle Elias, he says yes. The thief robbed him three years earlier and hit him over the head. He's had amnesia and the delusion that he must make enough money to make up the loss, which is why he's a miser. He and Linda are reunited, and Marilyn Marlowe, who is the distant cousin and has destroyed the will by now, gets absolutely nothing.
  • The book blatantly says, "Rebecca liked whatever Peggy liked. However, she found it difficult to keep up with her more energetic friend." This is almost always the definition of a secondary series book character, but I've never seen it so blatantly stated.
  • The book is very Nancy Drew in that, once the police find out who Peggy's father is, they immediately back off and are worried.
  • Uncle Jack has a Chinese cook named, I kid you not, Squint. Ouch. I have to admit a secret fondness for Chinese cook characters, though. The Adventure Girls at K Bar O, for example.
While there's no romance or fashion, The Clue at Crooked Lane makes up for it in adventure. The mystery is pretty lame--it's obvious to anyone who reads these kind of books who the miser is--but it's better written than most. I'm still on a hunt for good sleuthing chums, though! Next up, I did decide to go with an old favorite: Judy Bolton and Seven Strange Clues, to be followed by The Mysterious Half-Cat.

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