Susannah and the Poison Green Halloween by Patricia Elmore, 1982.
This is the second book the Susannah Higgins mystery series.
Halloween doesn’t start out well for Susannah’s best friend, Lucy. Her father accidentally threw out her costume, thinking that it was trash because it was mostly made out of tin foil. (She was planning to be the Death Queen character from a comic book.) As she desperately tries to put together a last-minute costume for Susannah’s Halloween party, her father tries to buy her a costume at the discount store. Unfortunately, all the discount store left was a Little Bo Peep costume. Lucy thinks that she’s going to be mortified, showing up in something so childish when she told everyone her costume would be really cool. When another girl from school, Carla, comes by and teases her about her costume, Lucy gets the idea to make it a kind of double costume, painting her face an evil green so she can rip off her sweet Little Bo Peep mask and be the sinister Death Queen underneath.
Carla says that the secret identity costume idea is pretty good, but before she can go to the party, she has to buy a costume of her own. She had to wait for her stepfather’s pay day because her parents bought a new dress for her older sister, Nadine, for a high school dance earlier. As Carla explains about her delay in getting her costume, she mentions her sister’s social worker coming to dinner. Susannah asks why Nadine has a social worker, and Carla says that her sister got into trouble with drugs a couple of years before, but she’s not really supposed to talk about it. Lucy and Susannah want to do some trick-or-treating before the party, and Carla asks if they’ll wait for her to get her costume first. The other girls aren’t willing to wait, but they say that they’ll get some extra candy for her when they start out, and they’ll meet her at her family’s apartment at the Eucalyptus Arms apartment house. In her recounting of that Halloween night, Lucy says right out that it was at the Eucalyptus Arms that someone gave them poisoned candy.
When they reach the Eucalyptus Arms, Carla isn’t home yet, but they meet up with Knieval Jones (Lucy’s nemesis and Susannah’s occasional helper from the previous book), who is dressed like a vampire, and get some stale granola bars from Carla’s sister, Nadine. A nice lady name Mrs. Sweet gives them homemade cupcakes, and Mr. O’Hare, who is a vegetarian and thinks that sugar is poisonous, gives them organic treats from the natural food store. However, the strangest experience they have is in Mr. Mordecai’s apartment. Mr. Mordecai is a strange man with whitish eyes. He insists that they come in and pay their respects to the deceased “Jeremiah.” There is a coffin in the room with a wreath on it. The kids are spooked, but Susannah notices something odd about the wreath, which gives her an idea of who/what “Jeremiah” is. Mr. Mordecai gives them popcorn balls, and they leave.
They meet up with Carla, and Susannah’s grandfather, Judge Higgins, drives all four children to the party. However, Knievel and Lucy get into a fight over their treat bags, spilling both of them into the gutter and ruining their candy. Lucy is mad at Knievel, but then Knievel suddenly gets sick. At first, Lucy thinks that he’s just eaten too much because he’s been sampling his treats and stealing some of hers. Knievel misses the party because he’s sick, but it turns out to be much worse than that. The next day, the police come to the school to tell them that Knievel was poisoned and to interview the children about everything that happened the night before.
Because Lucy and Knievel spilled and ruined their bags of candy, it’s hard to say exactly what Knievel ate before he got sick, and Lucy never ate any of it. Carla had the same treats as the others, and she is also ill and being examined by a doctor, just in case she was also poisoned. Susannah turns her treat bag over the police for analysis. She never touched her candy because she had more than enough to eat at the Halloween party.
By process of elimination, they determine that the poisoned treats had to come from one of the apartments at the Eucalyptus Arms, and that it must have been in something homemade or unwrapped, not wrapped, commercially-made candy. Lucy says that they really know better than to eat unwrapped treats from a stranger, but Susannah points out that Knievel was hungry and ate treats almost as fast as he got them, regardless of whether they were wrapped or not. There are only a handful of suspects who could have handed out the poison in homemade or unwrapped treats, but which of them did it and why?
The title of the book is based on the fact that the apartment house is painted an ugly shade of green and all of the questionable treats the kids received were colored green.
The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).
One of the best things about this book for me is that it was originally published in the year I was born, and it’s a Halloween story, and I happened to be born only a few days before Halloween. Even if I hadn’t already read and liked the first book in this series, that would have endeared me to this book right away. I originally read the first book in the Susannah Higgins series as a child in elementary school, but I think that’s the only book in the series that I read at the time. It might have been that the library didn’t have the full series and the first book was the only one I could find or that book was one of the many that I found at a used book sale and the others weren’t there. It’s been so long that I can’t remember. I just remembered one scene from the first book for years, and it took me a long time to figure out what I was remembering.
Because I was very young during the early 1980s, it was a long time before I understood that this was a period when people were especially worried about the possibility of poison and razor blades in Halloween candy. Like other kids of the 1980s and 1990s, I had to watch those Halloween safety videos that warn you to be careful and to inspect candy for signs of tampering before eating it. (Specifically, I saw this video, which I found one day on YouTube. I watched this 1970s film on reel-to-reel when I was in elementary school because they hadn’t yet installed TVs and VCRs in the classrooms yet and they had a library of old films that I’m pretty sure they bought when they originally built the school in the 1970s. The sound quality wasn’t any better when I saw it for the first time, but it still cracks me up that the ultimate solution to the girl’s unsafe Halloween costume turns out to be gradually changing it to be a different costume.) In 1974, a father murdered his own son for the insurance money, hoping that some random sadist would be blamed for the crime because there were already urban legends about such things. Even though it wasn’t long before the truth of the father’s crime came out, this incident added to the urban legends, seeming to confirm the stories of Halloween poisonings. Because of this, my early Halloweens were very different from the ones my parents had in the 1950s. I was allowed to go trick-or-treating, but I never received any homemade treats, like the popcorn balls and candy apples my parents sometimes got. By the time I was trick-or-treating, only fully-wrapped, commercially made candy was considered safe and acceptable.
At first, I thought that the solution to this mystery would be that Nadine had made marijuana granola bars because we were told right away that she was involved with drugs in the past. There have been real-life cases of children accidentally getting into drugs owned by family members, including cases that have become part of the Halloween urban legends. However, that’s not the case in this story. Susannah’s Aunt Louise, who is a nurse at the children’s hospital, tells Susannah that marijuana was one of the first things they ruled out when they were testing to see what had poisoned the children. The children were vomiting and hallucinating, so Aunt Louise says that it appears to be an overdose of some kind of medicine.
Aunt Louise wasn’t mentioned in the previous book in the series, but she comes to stay with Susannah because her grandparents have to go out of town. Again, Susannah’s parents are simply not mentioned in the story. It’s never clarified whether Susannah is an orphan or living with her grandparents for another reason, although I think it’s implied that she’s an orphan by the parents’ absence and the lack of any mention of why.
Carla is a new character who didn’t appear in the previous book, but again, children in these books do not live in conventional two-parent households. Nadine is actually Carla’s stepsister, and the two of them haven’t known each other very long and are having problems adjusting to their parents’ remarriage and living together. Books with divorced parents or blended families were becoming increasingly common in children’s literature during the 1980s and 1990s, and they were a regular staple of books that I read when I was young. It was pretty common for there to be at least one character with divorced parents in the books I read, but this series stands out to me because it seems like every kid in it so far is either from a divorced family or lives with relatives other than their parents, for some reason. A mixture of different family situations is to be expected, but an overwhelming number of kids in almost the same situation just seems a little odd.
The author does a good job of making everyone at the apartment house look equally suspicious. A number of people at the apartment house have secrets, and some of them are truly dangerous. One of the characters in the story, a man Nadine and Carla call “Uncle Bob” because he’s a friend of Nadine’s father, seems to be showing inappropriate attention to the girls. Carla is afraid to be alone with him, hinting that things that he does when she’s alone with him make her uneasy or even frightened. Uncle Bob isn’t the poisoner, but he does seem to have inappropriate sexual interest in the girls. There isn’t anything explicit described in the story, but the way that the characters refer to Uncle Bob and the dirty magazine that Lucy says she found in his trash can along with a bunch of empty liquor bottles imply what Uncle Bob is like when other adults aren’t watching. Carla says that she’s tried to tell her parents about it before, but nobody believed her because Uncle Bob has been such a good old friend of her stepfather, and he can’t picture him doing anything wrong. When she finally confides the problem to Nadine, Nadine confirms that she’s had the same experience with him and that her father didn’t believe her either, but she’s going to make sure that he listens this time. Susannah also says that they are going to tell the police about it and her Aunt Louise, and while Uncle Bob may not have actually done anything that would cause him to be arrested, he’s going to get some severe warnings and maybe some professional help.