The Unspankable Myrtle (and Brown)

Our attention today is devoted to ‘The Girl and the Ghoul’, a 1957 story in the light-hearted private eye strip Romeo Brown. But before we meet Miss Myrtle Pendower, it is as well to begin with a disclaimer, and a warning, not to mention an apology for making heavy weather of things. If Myrtle were real, she wouldn’t be appearing here; but because she is made of ink, rather than of flesh and blood, there’s room for ambiguity. She’s not a little girl (though she is addressed in those terms at her first appearance), but she’s not a grown woman either, nor is she altogether consistently drawn from panel to panel. My sense is that she is just about big enough for her story to be interesting, but it’s a borderline case that someone else might call the other way. Take it as you find it, so long as you don’t imagine that I endorse any practice or attitude or ‘message’ that might be embodied in the story, or read into it.

Myrtle is the first person Romeo Brown meets when he arrives for his new assignment at Pendower Towers. The first thing she does is to play a prank on him involving a stick-up and a toy pistol that turns out, when Romeo confiscates it, to squirt ink backwards. The next thing he does is to tell her:

‘You need a good spanking! You’re a very naughty little girl!’

To which Myrtle retorts that she is ‘just going through a phase’, adding:

‘And don’t you dare talk about spanking! It makes children repressed, you horrid, horrid man!’

And to show how unrepressed she is, she kicks him in the shin.

The primary problem of the story is that Mrs Pendower has received a series of letters, signed ‘The Ghoul’, threatening the theft of her famous diamonds when she wears them at the family’s annual fancy dress ball; without telling her husband, she has engaged Romeo to investigate and protect the stones from the mysterious jewel thief. The secondary problem is Myrtle, and more particularly the fact that she is unspankable.

This is a minor genre of stories, sometimes about bratty teenage girls, from the middle of the last century when spanking was an ordinary and accepted domestic practice. In the play Child Wonder (1940), it’s the brat’s movie star status that keeps her safe, but the rise of child psychology after the Second World War created another obstacle that is the mainspring of the play Family Crackers (1960). And you’ll have gathered from the way Myrtle talks about a difficult ‘phase’ of her development and the dangers of repression, that this is her shield too. As her father puts it:

‘My wife’s current enthusiasm is child psychology – and I find it best to let these whims fade away in their own good time.’

So that sets a predictable trajectory for the tale. While we’re waiting for it to mature, let’s meet the story’s fifth and final major character, Monica Lee:

She too gets a taste of Myrtle in her first scene, though in her case the prank is a lot more spectacular and dangerous:

This confirms Romeo in his opinion that Myrtle ‘wants a good tanning’, a thought shared by Monica and promptly disavowed by them both when Mr Pendower remarks that he knows exactly what they’re thinking.

If only they were able to read one another’s minds, the story would have been so much more straightforward. As it is, that night, Monica slips out of bed to examine the safe:

Romeo catches her snooping and draws a reasonable conclusion, which she promptly turns back on him:

They are both distracted by Myrtle, who also pretends to be sleepwalking and lures them out to the swimming pool, with watery consequences:

As the day of the costumed shindig approaches, Monica keeps dropping loaded remarks about the Ghoul, which convinces Romeo that she is the crackswoman he seeks, but even with this knowledge he fails to prevent the theft. Mrs Pendower goes to the party wearing the diamonds and not very much else: her outfit is that of a harem girl.

Myrtle, incidentally, goes as the fairy queen in a tutu and crown.

The lights go out, the sparklers are lifted and Monica leaves the room. Romeo gives chase, and they both end up locked in Myrtle’s den.

Revelations follow, and not just because Romeo works out a way to escape that happens to involve Monica taking her clothes off.

Well, that’s par for the course in the Romeo Brown stories…

But more to the point, Monica isn’t the Ghoul: she too is a private detective, secretly hired by Mr Pendower at cross-purposes with his wife, and she is convinced that Romeo is the Ghoul. But as each tec’s prime suspect disappears from the frame, Romeo discovers the truth when leafing through one of Myrtle’s comic books.

There he finds a sensational and improbable story about a daring jewel thief known as the Ghoul – which was where Myrtle got the idea from.

By preventing this stealthy exit, Monica discovers the diamonds hidden in Myrtle’s fairy crown.

Mrs Pendower seems disinclined to accept this as merely the ‘happy-go-lucky prank’ that Monica sarcastically calls it (with, perhaps, just the slightest of subliminal rhyming hints). Mr Pendower observes:

‘I think my wife’s going to erupt at last! This could be the end of her fad for child psychology!’

Myrtle doesn’t catch on so quickly: ‘You can’t blame me! I’m just going through a phase, that’s all!’

And the outcome is what we’ve been expecting all along:

Mr Pendower is delighted: ‘Thanks to you the diamonds are safe, my wife is a new woman and Myrtle can hardly sit down!’ So he doubles the detectives’ fees: a happy ending all round, with the notable exception of one sore rear end.

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