Jenny Milchman

milchman_jennyA meta-mystery is solved


I was often alone as a child. There were patches of time when I had a gang of kids to rove around with, solving mysteries about the strange feathers floating in the pond, or why Mr. Devlin’s mailbox was open when it wasn’t even time for the postman. But there were just as many days when my friends all avoided me, and that was the greatest mystery of all.

Books were my respite. A branch of our town’s library lay within biking distance, and I used to go there on summer days, escaping the heat and everything else.

The usual suspects applied. Nancy, Trixie, the Oz series. And then one day I discovered a mystery writer named Doris Miles Disney in the stacks.

Her book Winifred had the spookiest skull on the cover—reason enough for a child who liked scaring herself to pick it up. But as I got lost in the pages of this story, I discovered it had much more than that.

It was about a woman named Rita who never quite fit in. She wanted to be liked, but wasn’t sure how to go about it. The scant souls who filled Rita’s lonely days, including a co-worker at her secretarial job, reached out, but only rarely. And then Rita’s mother, like some pre-Internet social media engine, connects Rita with a woman a few years younger who comes from her hometown.

disney_winifredThe antiheroine of Disney’s 1976 novel tries to make this new girl like her. Rita tells a lie or two to nudge things in that direction. The accretion of tiny details—a jaunty decoration in her home, the report of plans for the weekend—eventually adds up to a whole new persona. Someone brighter, more confident, social. And then one day the woman learns that Rita has been lying.

I won’t ruin Disney’s book by saying much more about this chilling tale. But I will tell you two things. First, Winifred has the most jaw-dropping last line of any mystery I’ve ever read, as a child or till this day.

And two, there was a meta-mystery about it. Why, good as it is, did I read it so many times, taking it out of the library over and over, hardly able to return it on time?

Until I wrote this piece, I didn’t realize that the lonely character at its core was in some ways me.

Jenny Milchman is the author of the Mary Higgins Clark Award-nominated debut Cover of Snow and the forthcoming Ruin Falls. Jenny is about to set out on a four-month, 20,000-mile book tour where she will hit most of the great mystery bookstores, and many libraries, too.

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews March 2014 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

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