In May of 2000, Phyllis A. Whitney gave a testimonial to fellow members of the Mystery Writers of America, providing a glimpse into the window of her childhood and some of the literary works that sparked her interest in mystery stories. At a time predating technological innovations that we take for granted today, it was common for families to spend quality time together making their own entertainment. In young Phyllis' household, this included reading-aloud some of the literary classics of the time that would eventually inspire her to craft her own stories, and to embark on her journey towards becoming the master storyteller of mystery and romantic suspense that we know and love today.
-- Philip Tyo, Founder and Webmaster of The Official PHYLLIS A. WHITNEY Web site
Rickshas to a Man on the Moon
It's a long way from 1903 to 2000. In my lifetime, I've gone from rickshas to a man on the moon. The changes and developments in the field of mystery writing have been tremendous, as well, and the present trends seem exciting and stimulating although I can only write about them from a personal viewpoint.
Sometimes it's interesting to examine what it is that has made us mystery writers. Not just writers—the answer to that is easy—we can't help it. I know why I am a mystery writer and a mystery reader. I was exposed at an early age and the virus has stayed with me.
When we lived in Kobe, Japan, my mother gave me a subscription to St. Nicholas Magazine, and I began to read, in serial, Augusta Huiell Seaman's mysteries for young people. I could hardly wait for each issue to arrive by boat from the States. And I had my very own copy of The Secret Garden.
My father worked for a shipping company, but our evenings were spent as a family. Radio and television were far in the future, and there were no libraries. However, there was a boarding house for foreigners next door to the bungalow we rented, and English visitors often discarded their books when they left. We borrowed these, and most were mystery-adventures that we read aloud, taking turns through long winter evenings.
I was introduced to The Prisoner of Zenda, the Graustark novels, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Rider Haggard's She.
I can still remember the warmth of a coal fire, the snow falling gently on a little Japanese pine tree outside our window. That was a happy, loving, wonderfully satisfying time. So now, when I become engrossed in a good mystery novel, with bodies falling and blood flowing, I have a lovely, cozy feeling that all is right in my little world.
Somewhere along the way I began to make up stories of my own. Mostly exciting beginnings that I could never bring to a conclusion. Later, when we lived in China, I was sent to a missionary school in the mountains above the Yangtze River. One of the teachers took an interest in my writing and her praise went to my head. I've never wanted any road but writing ever since.
After my father's death in China, my mother brought me to Berkeley, California—my first taste of America. I was fifteen, and now there were libraries! I wonder how many of us look back with gratitude to the librarians and English teachers who encouraged us on the way to becoming published writers? Our next move was to San Antonio, where my mother died. I was sent to Chicago to live with an aunt whom I didn't like. Culture shock! But a library was close and I could escape the gray streets of Chicago's near West Side.
After high school I worked in libraries and bookstores (and got married), always making up stories, and beginning to send them out. Mostly I collected rejection slips, until I discovered that I wasn't a short story writer, and sold my first book—a teen age novel.
Mary Roberts Rinehart, the reigning queen of mystery at that time, was a favorite of mine. She was a far cry from Zenda, Graustark, and that tricky Pimpernel! So for my fourth book I ventured and wrote a "grownup" murder mystery—with a detective. (My first and last.) Of course, Rinehart took over and I went heavily into the land of had-I-but-known. The book received surprisingly good reviews, but nobody bought it. Sales were under 3,000 copies, and I decided, as the motto of Mystery Writers of America says, that "crime does not pay—enough." In fact, when MWA was born and I was invited to join, I declined, never expecting to write another mystery. Now, all these years later, this book has been reprinted many times, and still sells. A lesson for writers in holding on to rights because one never knows what will happen.
During this time the mystery novel was being shaken up by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The hard-boiled detective was in the ascendancy, but that wasn't for me. I closed my eyes to such goings-on and stayed safely in my juvenile field.
Today, writers of mysteries can go in any direction they please. Their number and excellence continue to increase. Women writers are coming to the fore and may write anything from hard-boiled to cozy. Often mystery writers escape labels altogether and go straight into mainstream. Tony Hillerman, with detectives, and Mary Higgins Clark, without, are widely read by all types of readers. Ruth Rendell, P.D. James and Anne Perry write remarkable novels that dispense with limiting categories. Elizabeth Peters, writing about Egypt, occupies a niche of her own; Dorothy Gilman, Joan Hess, Charlotte MacLeod and other make us laugh. Sharyn McCrumb writes notable folk mysteries of the Appalachians. There are a great many regional writers, both men and women. Among the women writers their books run from Elisabeth Ogilvie's charming Maine stories to Sara Paretsky writing about a tough aspect of Chicago. And, of course, Patricia Cornwell, who has carved out (no pun intended) her own place in Virginia.
Our numbers grow because readers like us. We are the storytellers and we swim well in the mainstream.