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The Newsworthy Tales of Penny Parker

Witch Dolls and Vanishing Houseboats introduced us in 1939 to the world of sleuth Penny Parker. Written by Mildred "Millie" Wirt Benson from 1939 to 1947, the seventeen volume series was Mildred's own creation. Unlike the Nancy Drew® mysteries which Millie had been ghosting under the pen name of Carolyn Keene, the Penny Parker series was published under Millie's own name--Mildred A. Wirt. Unlike the plot outlines and synopses that the Stratemeyer Syndicate provided for Syndicate books, Millie had the freedom to create her own heroine from scratch.

It was with this creative license that Penny came alive for us through the imagination and vision of Millie, who delivered to the reader a mysterious world of dastardly villains, downtrodden victims, newsworthy tales, drawbridges, silken ladders, whispering walls, and ghosts beyond the gate.

Millie often said that her Penny Parker mysteries were her favorite series overall, not only due to creative control over its development but also because Millie felt that Penny Parker was a better Nancy Drew® than Nancy Drew® was herself. I spoke with Millie about her work on the Penny Parker series and she alluded to why she felt this way about Penny being better. The plots of the Penny Parkers were more entertaining and interesting because being able to start from a blank slate allowed Millie to use more unique plots than those she was given to work with from the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Millie notes that the Nancy Drew® plots were often more routine and had been used and recycled in many series books and stories of the time.

Working on her own, Millie's use of Penny Parker titles was quite creative and eye catching: The Tale of the Witch Doll, Clue of the Silken Ladder, The Clock Strikes Thirteen, Saboteurs on the River, Hoofbeats on the Turnpike, Guilt of the Brass Thieves, and The Cry at Midnight, are some of the most memorable of the Penny Parker titles which unto themselves add the perfect atmosphere to a fun and interesting mystery yarn.

In creating a "better" Nancy Drew®, Millie gave Penny a sparkling personality and lots of emphasis on pluck. Both Nancy and Penny are similar in that each has a doting father whose occupation provides ample opportunity for mysteries and help along the way. Each sleuth is motherless of course and both have housekeepers at home to help run the household and provide more "motherly" support when needed. Unlike Nancy's two foil friends, Bess Marvin and George Fayne, Penny has just one chum–Louise Sidell, who is a much more meek and less adventuresome foil to Penny's more strong and brave personality.

Penny's father, Anthony Parker, who is editor of the Riverside Starr newspaper, tries to reign in Penny on many an occasion and is often less encouraging of Penny's sleuthing and risky undertakings than Nancy's father, Carson Drew. As much as her father tries, Penny remains independent and on the go until the end of the mystery, most often getting her way.

Aside from Nancy's powerful and trusty blue roadster which helps to empower Nancy's freedom to go and conquer, Penny is stuck quite amusingly so–with Leaping Lena which is often in the shop. It is through Leaping Lena that Anthony Parker hopes to teach Penny "bitter lessons in finance and mechanics." ( Tale of the Witch Doll, p. 11) Undaunted by Leaping Lena, Penny often ends up walking or being chauffeured by her chum Louise. Both Nancy and Penny are sixteen, yet Penny is still in school. School, however, does not hamper Penny's desire to solve a baffling mystery or work on her reporting skills. Penny, full of pluck like Nancy, is often much more flip but this is mostly, not out of disrespect for others and is a part of Penny's earnest and determined personality as well as her sense of humor and irony.

Millie's wonderfully fast paced style of writing, use of cliffhangers, and descriptive imagery, and colorful characters adds up to a really imaginative story and this is constant throughout the seventeen volume series. While some of the plots or characters may not seem as real looking back through with more mature perspective, that is the world of a children's series book–to take the reader to another place, another time, to another reality and fully capture the timeless moment that is for real to the young captivated reader.

A good example is the first Penny Parker mystery, The Tale of the Witch Doll.

Penny Parker and her chum Louise find their friend Nellie Marble, who runs The Marble Doll Shoppe, in fear and acting strangely due to a queer old woman, Mrs. Farmer who is trying to buy the shop from Nellie. A chance meeting with actress Helene Harmon leads to a mystery involving a witch doll which once accepted cannot be given away. Try as she might to rid herself of the doll, Helene cannot seem to break its evil spell as the doll always reappears and strange things start happening. The medium Osandra and his creepy assistant Spider are up to trickery with their seances and a poor Slocer family is financially affected. This chance meeting with Helene allows the solution to a baffling mystery to be snuffed out by persistent and intuitive "Bright Penny."

Millie's use of imagery in spinning this mystery yarn leads to a vivid and memorable story. The location of The Marble Doll Shoppe and Osandra's in the rundown district of Riverview adds a seediness to the area and the foreshadowing of possible villains who may be lurking ready to commit their dastardly deeds.

The relationship of Penny and her father is one of closeness, admiration, and respect. Anthony often has Penny write stories for the Starr and she gets to write the big scoop at the conclusion of the mystery. As Penny is writing up a story for the Starr about Helene Harmon, Anthony notices, "his daughter helped herself to his desk and typewriter." She starts to work on the story and he notes, "by the way, the reporters' room is just outside. ‘Not for this little reporter,' Penny chuckled." Penny flippantly speaks to her father, noting his comfortable padded chair. "Mr. Parker threw up his hands in a gesture of pretended despair. He secretly considered himself pathetically indulgent with his daughter, but there existed between them a rare comradeship. And Penny's flippant remarks were never meant to be disrespectful." (p. 91) In providing Leaping Lena to Penny, her father hopes to teach her lessons about finance and she works for her allowance which often is used up to repair Leaping Lena. While Anthony is amused and indulgent with Penny and her suspicions throughout the mystery, he is a man of common sense and hard facts, due to his news reporting and editing background.

The creation of Penny as an aspiring reporter whose father owns and edits a newspaper provides a great setting for many a newsworthy mystery tale. The facts about reporting, the descriptions of the Starr's newsroom, as well as the commotion that goes on in rushing out the latest edition with a delicious story in order to scoop competing newspapers was something Millie knew quite well having been a reporter in Iowa for several years before moving to Ohio. Her husband, Asa Wirt, was an associated press correspondent. It was soon after she wrote the first several Penny Parkers that she began her long association with the Toledo Times, later the Toledo Blade in a long running reporting and columnist career. In pretending to be on staff at the Starr, Penny and Louise go to the medium Osandra's to "interview" him for clues and Louise is not sure how to conduct herself. Penny tells her that "reporters just act breezy and superior and ask a lot of personal questions no one wants to answer." (p. 74) When they do not get very far with Osandra and have the door shut on them so to speak, Penny remarks to Louise about knowledge she has gained from her father, "Dad says a good reporter has to learn to bounce when he's thrown out. This was a good experience." (p. 76) In instructing Penny on interviewing Helene Harmon for a story, Anthony intones to Penny that "the Starr concerns itself with fact, not fancy. Don't strive for the spectacular. Just learn any facts you can from Miss Harmon, and write them up in a simple, interesting way." (p. 82) In discussing the Penny Parkers with Millie, she noted that the newspaper and reporting background made for nice, good stories for the time. She remarked on how the times are quite different now–societal changes as well as changes in reporting overall.

One of Penny's enduring traits is her flippancy and sense of irony that Millie characterized in her personality. When Penny, in the face of being caught by the dastardly villain who is fully revealed in the end, she notes to Nellie, who is held captive, "Not a very bright Penny this time," about getting caught and adds in front of the villain, "The Gorilla got me too!" (p. 197) This flippant remark sets off the villain who tightens her bonds more cruelly. Her flip remarks to her father are part of their comradeship and are not meant to be disrespectful but her sharp tongued remarks to "the gorilla" are designed to provoke. It is her sparkling personality, her pluckiness, and her risk taking that take her where the reader wants to go themselves but can do so safely and vicariously through Penny's sleuthing world. Penny shows modesty when her scoop about Helene and Osandra is front page news and her own name has been played up–something she was not expecting.

An incident at the conclusion of the witch doll mystery is most revealing about her sense of humor and irony. After many refusals to print anything about the witch doll, as her father is smiling over Penny's article, he notices something he didn't catch in the rush of getting the newsworthy edition out:

‘Oh you mean that paragraph about the witch doll?' Penny asked airily. ‘Didn't I warn you it would finally make the front page?' (p. 210)

It is this jest that wraps up the whole tale and enthralls us in reading more newsworthy tales of Penny Parker.

(Copyright 2001 by Jennifer Fisher, originally printed in the December 2001 issue of The Whispered Watchword. )

Penny Parker Mysteries:

  • volume #1, Tale of the Witch Doll 1939
  • volume #2, The Vanishing Houseboat 1939
  • volume #3, Danger at the Drawbridge 1940
  • volume #4, Behind the Green Door 1940
  • volume #5, Clue of the Silken Ladder 1941
  • volume #6, The Secret Pact 1941
  • volume #7, The Clock Strikes Thirteen 1942
  • volume #8, The Wishing Well 1942
  • volume #9, Ghost Beyond the Gate 1943
  • volume #10, Saboteurs on the River 1943
  • volume #11, Hoofbeats on the Turnpike 1944
  • volume #12, Voice from the Cave 1944
  • volume #13, The Guilt of the Brass Thieves 1945
  • volume #14, Signal in the Dark 1946
  • volume #15, Whispering Walls 1946
  • volume #16, Swamp Island 1947
  • volume #17, The Cry at Midnight 1947

Penny Parker Formats

The early format of the Penny Parker series were thicker books and glossy frontispieces. The boards were either shades of red from bright red to maroon in color and and shades of blue from lighter to darker blue. In the mid 1940's the books became thinner and the frontispieces were on plain paper. The dust jackets featured a scene on front in only a few colors with a color background and appear rather cartoonish. The spines featured an image based on the story. For example, there is a witch silhouette on the spine of Witch Doll. Some of the dust jacket's background colors varied over time. I've seen Behind the Green Door with both blue and green background/spines. Shown above are clickable images for various colors, spines, and boards--click to view the larger images.

In the 1950's, the first four volumes were issued in light blue hard covers that were thin with all new art--both frontispiece and dust jacket art. Shown at the top of this page are the two art for Behind the Green Door, volume #4. The revised art is a change from the rather cartoon-like original dust jackets but Penny does not look as proportional on the cover. The best of the revised art covers is Tale of the Witch Doll. These volumes though having the same number of pages as the originals have some updating to the language and other minor details. For example, the last paragraph of Danger at the Drawbridge in the original reads:

"Thanks, Dad," said Penny. "I just hope I won't have to wait too long for the next mystery to come along."

The same paragraph from the revision is:

"Thanks, Dad," said Penny. "I'll be waiting. Let's hope it won't be too long before the next bang-up mystery comes along!"

**Scan above for the second art for Witch Doll, was donated by Troy Horrisberger.


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