Phyllis Whitney’s The Ebony Swan
by Francine Paino
Still a favorite and should never be forgotten.
I was inspired to read The Ebony Swan, after reading Kay Hudson’s, Remembering Phyllis A. Whitney, a master of the mystery genre.
I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed her stories, years ago, and I hadn’t read all of her works, which added up to an impressive 77; the last three or four when she was in her nineties—Wow! What an inspiration to us all. Her numerous works included 39 Adult mysteries; 4 On Writing; 20 in Juvenile Fiction, and 14 YA.
Whitney was not only a prolific writer but also a force for advancing women’s recognition in the mystery genre. In the late 1980’s she wrote an open letter to Mystery Writers of America, admonishing them for their refusal to take women in the genre seriously. She pointed out that in their forty-one-year existence only seven women had been awarded the Edgar for best novel. Yes. It was time to become reacquainted with Phyllis Whitney.
I chose one of her last works, The Ebony Swan, a story that encompasses a subject dear to my heart: ballet.
With a light touch, Whitney draws the reader into the worlds she creates. In the Ebony Swan, it is the lush backdrop of the Virginia Tidewater, where we meet Alexandrina (Alex) Montoro, now in her seventies, once a world-renowned ballerina. Alex was married to the late, distinguished author, Juan Gabriel Montoro; they had one child, Dolores.
The mystery: Why was Alex’s daughter dead? Twenty-five years earlier Dolores, died when she fell down a flight of steps, and Alex’s granddaughter, Susan, witnessed the tragedy at a very young age. Ruled an accident, Alex feared the unknown truth and remained silent.
Did Susan, in a fit of childish rage, push her mother? Juan Gabriel, still alive at
the time, was found unconscious on the hall floor above where Dolores’s body lay. Was he somehow responsible, or was there someone else in the house that day?
After Dolores’s death, the unspoken turmoil and competing passions in the Montoro family exploded. Susan’s father took her away from Virginia and forbade her to have any contact with her maternal grandmother, but after his passing, Susan found herself at a crossroads and decided to return to Virginia.
Despite her grandmother’s joy to be reunited with her only grandchild, Susan is not welcomed by all. On the surface, her reception is friendly, but there is an undercurrent of fear and resentment. Could a return to the scene of her mother’s death jog Susan’s memory and what will she remember? Who is friend and who is foe, she wonders, while getting to know Alex?
A hint of romance adds another dimension, but anger, jealousy betrayal and danger drive the story as the impact of one deed crosses two generations.
Some say Whitney’s books start too slow for today’s reading public because she spends time and words immersing us in location, atmosphere, and historical data, making them relevant to her character’s lives and the story; for me, it was a breath of fresh air. Phyllis Whitney’s gift for spinning a yarn with gossamer threads that weave together in beautifully crafted storytelling is still compelling.