Friday, June 23, 2017

The Book You Have to Read:
“Beverly Gray in the Orient,” by Clair Blank

(Editor’s note: This is the 148th entry in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books. Today’s contribution comes from mystery and suspense author Carmen Amato, who writes the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series set in Acapulco [and optioned for television]; Pacific Reaper—released in April—is the newest book in that series. Emilia Cruz is the first female detective on the Acapulco police force, confronting Mexico’s drug cartels and legendary government corruption. Amato, originally from New York, pens books that draw on her experience living in Mexico and Central America, as well as her various travels around the globe. Learn more by visiting her Web site or following her on Twitter @CarmenConnects.)

It’s 1937.

She’s an investigative reporter for the New York Tribune.

She lives in New York City with her three best friends.

She has “a knack of attracting adventure and a flair for solving mysteries.”

Her name is Beverly Gray, and every girl wants to be her.

Including me.

Over the course of 26 novels published between 1934 and 1955, girls from all over the United States thrilled to Beverly Gray’s adventures, first as a freshman at Vernon College (a thinly disguised Bryn Mawr) and then as an intrepid reporter, novelist, and playwright. Written by Clair Blank, the pen name of Pennsylvania native Clarissa Mabel Blank Moyer (1915-1965), the Beverly Gray series galloped across the globe as Beverly and friends clashed with villains, exposed imposters, escaped kidnappings, and inherited cursed castles and haunted ranches.

In Beverly Gray in the Orient (1937), the dark-haired and indomitable Beverly cruises her way through danger in India and China. Blank grouped novels within her series, making Orient the seventh book in the sequence but also the second of three set aboard the yacht Susabella. Beverly and her roommates Lenora, Shirley, and Lois—all Vernon alumni and members of the Alpha Delta sorority—are guests of yacht owner Roger Garrett. Three male friends and Roger’s aunt Miss Ernwood, their chaperone, complete the travel group.

The Susabella first visited England in the preceding, 1936 novel, Beverly Gray on a World Cruise, in which another of our heroine’s touring companions, Jim Stanton, found half of a treasure map. A bogus bit of European royalty, Count Alexis, proved he would do anything to get his hands on it. A mystery man named Black Barney had possession of the map’s other half.

Now, as the Susabella continues her voyage, Blank delivers another dose of her signature blend of dreamy descriptions, realistic dialogue, and campy drama. First, Beverly chases off stowaway Count Alexis with a jar of cold cream. He escapes. The yacht arrives in India. In Bombay, Beverly meets up with Larry Owens, a “government agent” boasting “reckless blue eyes and [an] engaging grin.”

Wanting to experience all that India has to offer, Beverly and friends take a river boat ride. In an authentic and terrifying scene, the craft sinks. Beverly is plunged into a watery vortex of panicked people and thrashing cattle. She survives, only to then be chased through the jungle by a tiger. Luckily, she finds a famous American explorer’s camp and is reunited with her friends aboard the Susabella.

Count Alexis then abducts Beverly and Jim as they buy souvenirs. But in another stroke of luck, the Count’s driver recognizes Beverly from a previous encounter in New York. Rescued again!

The Susabella proceeds to Hong Kong and Canton, China. Pirates attack and hijack Beverly and Shirley. The two women are thrown into a Chinese junk and taken to a pirate camp. Who is the leader of these pirates? Why, the elusive Black Barney.

Sporting a convincing disguise, agent Larry Owens has infiltrated the gang. For the next 40 pages, Beverly and Shirley spy on their captors and in the course of it discover that Count Alexis and Black Barney are in cahoots. After Beverly surreptitiously traces Black Barney’s half of the treasure map, Larry steals the Chinese junk and delivers the girls back to the waiting Susabella.

(Left) Author Carmen Amato.

The big showdown with Count Alexis and Black Barney occurs in Shanghai. In a pitch-black cellar under a famous restaurant, Beverly teams this time with Roger Garrett, and the villains are finally arrested.

Now in possession of the full treasure map, the gang votes to go after the concealed riches. Larry comes aboard the Susabella, bringing a guide named Shanghai Pete. The yacht sets sail for Fiji and the next novel in the series.

Beverly Gray in the Orient is completely improbable and shows little regard for geographic accuracy, yet it is surprisingly well-written, with engaging characters and romantic descriptions. Author Blank lends emotional heft to places most of her readers will never see. As one example, here is her description of Beverly visiting India’s 17th-century Taj Mahal at night: “She stood bareheaded in the moonlight and feasted her eyes on the white marble of the tomb … Probably next year she would again be in New York working. But the Taj Mahal would remain peacefully at rest beneath the indigo sky, changeless as the flow of years.”

Beverly’s “voice” is engaging, full of hopes and dreams. Her heartstrings sing, for instance, when she receives a copy of her newly published novel and “held something of her own creation, something that would endure, something she had molded from nothing at all.” Blank, who published the first four books in this series while still in high school, likely drew on her own feelings for that line.

Friends are vitally important to Beverly and every reader could imagine herself a member of the tight circle; joking with Lenora, drawing with the quiet Lois, or dreaming of success on the stage with Shirley. Lenora is the most well-developed character besides Beverly in Beverly Gray in the Orient, with a saucy attitude and peppery banter that is genuinely funny. She trades jibes with soul mate Terry Cartwright, a Brit given lines such as “Rot,” and “Oh, I say!” In the 1940s, midway through the series, Blank’s only nod to World War II will be Terry in uniform and his friends worrying for his safety.

Romance is always a series subplot. Like Lenora and Terry, eventually all the characters are paired off. Indeed, Beverly Gray in the Orient establishes the romantic tension between Beverly, Larry Owens, and Jim Stanton that will unspool over the next few books. When Jim declares his love for Beverly she walks “on moonbeams,” but is unsure if she feels the same about him. She’ll ultimately choose Larry, who in a few books will morph from footloose secret agent to Long Island-based aeronautical engineer.

In addition to the Beverly Gray series, Clair Blank produced the three-volume Adventure Girls series and one adult novel, Lover Come Back (1940). All featured characters closely resembling Beverly.

Blank never enjoyed Beverly’s free-spirited adventures, but instead lived her entire life in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She attended secretarial school and worked for a pipeline company. During World War II, she served in the American Women’s Voluntary Services. In 1943 she married George Elmer Moyer, an Allentown welder, and reared two sons.

I was a teen when I first encountered Beverly Gray in a used bookstore. Over the years, I’ve found all but one of the 26 novels, many crumbly and brown with age. Never reprinted, the series faded into obscurity after the last installment, Beverly Gray's Surprise, was published in 1955 by Clover Books. Previous publishers were the W.L. Burt Company and Grosset and Dunlap. The latter found greater success with the Nancy Drew series.

Deep down I know that Beverly inspired me to be a writer. Like her, I went to college, had some thrilling adventures around the world, and fell in love with a man named Larry.

And possibly inherited her “flair for solving mysteries.”


Carmen Amato said...

Thanks so much for the chance to introduce Beverly Gray to your readers!

Anonymous said...

I'm delighted to have found a fellow Beverly Gray fan. I never have understood why Nancy Drew was more popular, and why it is almost impossible to find anyone who has ever heard of Beverly Gray. Thank you! And I'm anxiously awaiting your next Emilia book - things have GOT to start looking up!

Unknown said...

Someone once asked what book influenced me the most. I thought of all the classic literature I’d read (I was an English major). And realized it was Beverly Gray. The whole series. She was the greatest inspiration of my life. Recently someone else asked me to list ten favorite novels. The Beverly Gray series was included, of course. I had read the Nancy Drews and the Judy Boltons. But Beverly Gray was more personal. I felt I knew her. And wanted to be her. I went to Hollins College (now Hollins University) in Roanoke, Virginia, a girls’ school. Have travelled much of the world, working for a newspaper in Tokyo and New York. Have done magazine writing, though unlike Beverly never wrote or published a novel, alas. It was so special to come upon your piece tonight. And interesting to know about “Clair Blank”, who created these cherished books so young. And who never saw the world. And yet seems to have experienced it deeper than many who have trotted the globe. I salute her. And you too! Thanks - you’ve given me many thoughts tonight. p.s. My books are stored far away but I have one with me here in my remote cottage: Beverly Gray in the Orient.

Anonymous said...

Beverly Gray was my favorite and role model!