Victoria Holt got me through law school. Phyllis Whitney helped, and Mary Stewart did her part.
Fifteen minutes of romantic suspense every night wiped all thoughts of torts and taxes from my head so I could sleep. (In the case of taxes, they might have done their job too well—least favorite class, worst grade ever. Ah, well.)
Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert (1906-1993) wrote 32 romantic suspense novels as Victoria Holt, oodles of historical novels as Phillipa Carr, and dozens more under Jean Plaidy and other pseudonyms. (Sales of her Holt novels, the most popular, exceed 60 million copies!) I first encountered her on my mother’s bookshelves, devouring her first, Mistress of Mellyn (1960), as a teenager in the mid 1970s. Not long after, I started working in Waldenbooks in Rimrock Mall in Billings, Montana. At that point, Waldenbooks had just begun its transition from a behind-the-scenes company that ran book departments in departments stores across the country to a company that operated its own stores. (I also worked in one of those contract stores, for the Hart-Albin Company, where as a ten-year-old I bought my first hardcover book, Calico Bush by Rachel Field, still a fave.)
The gothic romance or suspense novel was big in the mid 70s, and we sold scores of novels by Holt, Whitney, and Stewart. Hibbert’s Plaidy and Carr novels didn’t pique my interest, but I devoured the others.
“There is no Frigate like a Book / to take us Lands away,” Emily Dickinson wrote. I traveled with Holt throughout England, to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), Egypt, Australia, and other lands away. Hibbert was English, and her books tended toward Empire settings, though one featured Paris and one or two took us to the Far East.
Her American counterpart, Phyllis Whitney (1903-2008), published thirty-nine adult novels and dozens of “novels and mysteries for young people,” as the flyleaf of her Guide to Fiction Writing (1982) calls them. Though she too used exotic settings, her heroines were usually American. I fondly remember Poinciana (1980), set in a mansion on the Florida coast. Vermilion (1981) introduced this Montana girl to Arizona, Spindrift (1975) to the elegance of turn-of-the-century Newport, and The Singing Stones (1990) to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
Some of the conventions Holt and Whitney used, and those of Mary Stewart, may seem dated and melodramatic to the modern reader. The pace was slow, the heroines often young and innocent, as they learned to follow their hearts—often, to the arms of a dashing and occasionally dubious and misunderstood older man. Some of Whitney’s heroines, especially after about 1980, feature women with educations and careers. In lesser hands, heroines of the genre are young and foolish, even TSTL—too stupid to live, hearing a noise in the night and venturing, alone, into the ancient stone cellar wearing only a negligee and carrying a candle. (Oh, for a cell phone on the moors or in the desert canyons!)
I still have the books, even the purloined Mistress of Mellyn. When I first began writing, a friend gave me a well-worn copy of Whitney’s writing book, a wise and wonderful guide. Though I’m not much of a re-reader—too many new novels to discover—I keep them because they are my friends. They were exactly what I needed at that challenging time.
Now that I’m writing mysteries myself, I cherish the notes and e-mails from readers who tell me my books took their mind off a problem or got them through a sleepless night. That is, I think, one of the highest compliments a reader can give: This book was a friend when I needed one.
Do you remember a book or an author that helped you relax or get through a difficult time?
ASSAULT AND PEPPER, March 3, 2015 (Berkley Prime Crime)
Pepper Reece, owner of the Seattle Spice Shop, thinks she can handle any kind of salty customer—until a murderer ends up in the mix…
After leaving a dicey marriage and losing a beloved job in a corporate crash, Pepper Reece has found a new zest for life running a busy spice and tea shop in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Her aromatic creations are the talk of the town, and everyone stops by for a cup of her refreshing spice tea, even other shopkeepers and Market regulars.
But when a panhandler named Doc shows up dead on her doorstep, a Seattle Spice Shop cup in his hand, the local gossip gets too hot for Pepper to handle—especially after the police arrest Tory Finch, one of Pepper’s staffers, for murder.
Tory seems to know why she’s a suspect, but she refuses to do anything to curry favor with the cops. Convinced her reticent employee is innocent, Pepper takes it on herself to sniff out some clues. Only, if she’s not careful, Pepper’s nosy ways might make her next on the killer’s list…
INCLUDES DELICIOUS RECIPES!
Leslie Budewitz is the only author to win Agatha Awards for both fiction and nonfiction—the 2013 Agatha Award for Best First Novel, for Death al Dente (Berkley Prime Crime), and the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction, for Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law & Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books). She lives in northwest Montana with her husband, a musician and doctor of natural medicine, and their cat Ruff, a cover model and avid bird-watcher.
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