Posts Tagged ‘Johnston, Velda’

Tthe etruscan smile velda johnston 001he Etruscan Smile by Velda Johnston ~ 1977. This edition: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1977. Hardcover. 181 pages.

My rating: 6/10

I had read several of Velda Johnston’s mildly thrilling and sometimes simplistic “novels of suspense” before, so had tempered my expectations for The Etruscan Smile accordingly.

1975’s A Room with Dark Mirrors generally pleased me; the period detail of the heroine’s stewardess career and the doesn’t-miss-a-beat flow of the story kept me engaged enough to award it a thumbs-up and a 5.5 rating.

The Girl on the Beach, 1987, felt rather more awkward in plot and style; the author was a quite venerable 75 years old when it was published, and I theorized that perhaps she feeling rather tired of the whole writing-a-book thing. I panned the Beach Girl badly, mentioned that I was almost ready to cross Velda Johnston off my “light reading” list, and gave her a dismissive rating of 4.

Two years have passed, and the memory of my disappointing second encounter with the author has faded; enough so that when I came across this novel recently I was moved to give her another chance. And I am happy that I did; The Etruscan Smile was nicely done for its sort of thing, and reading it was no hardship at all.

A perfect sort of book for a waiting room sojourn; engaging but not challenging. It rocketed right along, and handed me a few surprises in the way of plotting that I wasn’t expecting, though I’m not quite sure that these worked out story-wise all that well. I did give the writer points for creativity; I could tell where she was going and the big picture she was attempting to embroider, even if she dropped her threads a bit here and there.

Mary Stewart this soundly second-rank writer isn’t, though there are bits here and there which remind me favourably of Stewart’s style. Our heroine is nicely independent and capable; but she does end up in the arms of a man, and one that she hasn’t known terribly long or particularly well – a favourite Mary Stewart closing scenario. Those brushes with death do tend to speed along romantic acquaintanceship, is all I can assume.

And I found this much more readable than anything I’ve experienced by Phyllis A. Whitney (see my last post, wherein I hand poor Phyllis her walking papers out of my personal book collection), though Velda Johnston was nowhere near as prolific or (apparently) as popular. Still, she (Velda) did manage to produce something like 35 romantic suspense novels, and so far out of the three I’ve read two have been acceptable; she’s now back on my list of promising minor writers, though I won’t be searching her out specially or paying more than bargain basement prices for any more of her books that I come across in my travels.

So – the actual storyline of The Etruscan Smile. Here it is, such as it is.

Samantha Develin has flown to Italy from New York, accompanied by her devoted German Shepherd, Caesar. Samantha has just learned that her older sister,  Althea, an accomplished artist who has gained a certain reputation as a painter-to-watch, has unaccountably vanished from the small rented farmhouse she has been living in for the past several years. No one seems to know where Althea has gone; the assumption is that she is off with a man; but Samantha immediately finds some clues that her beloved sister may not have planned her departure in a typical fashion.

A dashing Italian count – an old flame of Althea’s – appears out of the blue and puts himself rather unexpectedly at Samantha’s service. Another of Althea’s ex-lovers, an English archeologist, living close by, makes himself conspicuous by his continued presence, zipping in silently on his bicycle at the oddest hours of day and night.

These two men in particular and, to a lesser degree, everyone else she questions regarding Althea’s recent activities are rather cagy and evasive; everyone obviously knows something that they’re not divulging to Althea’s little sister. But what?

Samantha persists in her quest to track down her sister, and she soon comes to sense that perhaps something rather final has happened to Althea, though there is no evidence to support an act of violence or misadventure. Samantha must revisit her own past to unravel the tangled web which her sister had become bound up in; what she discovers is more bizarre than she (or we) could ever have imagined…

A hidden statue of an ancient Etruscan goddess plays an important role in the quest for Althea and the climactic scene; kudos to the author for not doing the expected with that particular clichéd suspense novel scenario. And kudos as well for not making everything all sunshine and light and picturesque Italian travelogue; there are some darkish situations in this short novel which add a certain depth to what could have been pure fluff. And the dog was a nice touch, and well portrayed. (Total super-dog; too good to be true, really. Hint: one may require a Kleenex near the end.)

An adequately engaging story to while away an hour or two on a summer afternoon; a long lunch hour today was sufficient to polish this one off. I must confess that the strongest impulse I felt upon completion was to revisit one of Mary Stewart’s Greek novels, to enjoy the next level up in this particular cozy-escape-lit genre.


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The Girl on the Beach by Velda Johnston ~ 1987. This edition: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1987. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-396-09190-3. 189 pages.

My rating: 4/10

A few days ago I reviewed an earlier Velda Johnston book, A Room with Dark Mirrors (1975), which I had mildly enjoyed, enough so that I did a library search for more of Johnston’s titles on the odd chance that I’d find a few. There were two books listed, the one I’m looking at right now – 1987’s The Girl on the Beach – and a 1968 title, House Above Hollywood, which I was unable to locate on the shelf.

I hate to pan any book, because I realize that literary tastes differ wildly and something I find marvelous the next person might shudder at, but, sadly, this second Velda Johnston was deeply disappointing. Formulaic, poorly worded, with nothing like the narrative flow of Dark Mirrors. Dark Mirrors was hardly high literature, but it was an easy, pleasant read. Girl on the Beach was painful to finish. I kept waiting for it to get better, but it quite simply didn’t.

New York advertising artist Kate Killigrew comes to an ocean-side house on a North Carolina island to recover from a car accident and the break-up of her engagement. Her first night there, she wakes in the wee hours and sees a beautiful young woman wandering on the beach and staring at the house; Kate finds this a bit unusual but shrugs it off. The next day a good-looking and obviously troubled young man shows up; he too stares at the house in a strange manner before he realizes Kate has seen him and comes to the door with the explanation that he once lived there.

Turns out that the young woman of the night before is the sister of the murdered wife of the man. The murder took place twelve years earlier, in that very beach house; the man, Martin Donnerly, had been convicted of the crime, and has just finished his prison sentence and returned to the island; the sister has been mentally unbalanced since birth and wanders at will, hence her rambles after midnight.

Of course Kate and Martin fall in love. Due to some inner intuition (wishful thinking?!)Kate insists that Martin could not have murdered Donna Sue (the dead wife); she is sure that Donna Sue’s twin Darleen Mae holds the key to the mystery. Oh yes, there’s a twelve-year-old armoured car robbery mystery intertwined as well, with $50,ooo in missing money floating around somewhere. Might there be a connection? Maybe. Or maybe not. A few red herrings listlessly flop about muddling the plot line.

Various locals with various issues have an abiding interest in the matter; Kate runs afoul of almost all of them, before the “dramatic” conclusion of a violent altercation with the most unexpected of the locals and his predictable “dying breath” confession.

This book is so badly worked out that it seems almost like a parody of the romantic-suspense novel genre. Velda must have been having a bad case of writer’s block when she penned this car wreck. I’ll somewhat forgive her, as I just did the math and realized she was seventy-five when this was published; she might merely have been getting tired of turning these “suspense novels” out at the rate of one (or more) a year since the 1960s, and  rattled this one off in a hurry.

I may give Velda Johnston one more chance, if I can easily get my hands on House Above Hollywood on my next library run, otherwise she’s probably going to be crossed off my list of possibles to search out to add to my mom’s reading list. I wouldn’t cross the street for this one, though the earlier novel showed some promise.

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A Room with Dark Mirrors by Velda Johnston ~ 1975. This edition: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1975. Hardcover. 184 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10.


I’m always on the lookout for light reading for my elderly, housebound mother; books are one of her last remaining pleasures after a very full and creative life now curtailed by painful and crippling severe osteoporosis and arthritis.

Always a voracious reader, she prefers well-written, intelligent, but not necessarily “deep” books; she readily acknowledges many of her stand-bys to be leaning towards “fluff”, but she does prefer them to be high-quality and mentally engaging fluff. With this recent thrift-store pick-up, I may have tapped into a new “Mom’s author” to keep an eye out for in my rambles.

Velda Johnston (1911-1997) was a prolific American writer of romantic-suspense and light-gothic novels. Doing a bit of internet research on her background, I find her listed as the author of 36 novels dating from 1968 to 1991. If this is correct, Velda Johnston’s published writing career spanned from her fifty-seventh to her eightieth year, leaving me a little curious about her full history and her earlier life.

I was able to find only a few random comments on several of Johnston’s other titles, but the general tone is that they are well-written and surprisingly literary and intelligent for the genre. My experience with Dark Mirrors would bear this out.

The story flowed beautifully and was much more engaging than I had expected from my initial page-through, though the plot was rather predictable, despite Dark Mirrors’ prominent billing as a “novel of suspense.”

Dorothy Lang is a recently divorced stewardess who keeps running into her regretful and apologetic ex-husband Eric on her flights. He hopes to reunite, though Dorothy has a very legitimate reason to refuse his continual offers of reconciliation. This trip, they find themselves bound for the same area of Paris, where Eric has been posted on an engineering contract, and Dorothy has her stopover accommodation. Hurrying down a street, trying to avoid her ex-husband whom she rather suspects is following her, Dorothy is accosted by a strange man with a gun who orders her into a waiting car. Eric appears in the nick of time to act as white knight, and our story is well away.

Does this sound rather trite and possibly a bit boring? Well, it is and it isn’t. Dorothy is a sweetly complex character for this type of thriller-lite; the very 1970s plot requires a certain suspension of disbelief; but I found myself a willing partner in Dorothy’s adventures. The ending left me wryly smiling, with a bit of a “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” feeling, but, on the whole, I’d cheerfully read another of Velda Johnston’s books if it appeared in my reading stack and I was too tired to engage in something more intellectually challenging.

Perfect fare for summer reading for my mom, and anyone else looking for a mild trip down a recent(ish) memory lane; the 1970s setting and the evocation of the “glamorous” life of a an airline stewardess will stir nostalgia to any of us who remember that decade well, and possibly provide a bit of a chuckle for a younger generation. Our heroine Dorothy has enough deprecatory self-awareness and natural wit to be an enjoyable companion for the few hours it takes to get her sorted out and back on track after her Parisian adventure.

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