The Newsworthy Tales of Penny Parker
‘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)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.