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Literature / Nina Tanleven

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Nina Tanleven is a series of juvenile supernatural mysteries by Bruce Coville and released from 1987 to 1990 by Bantam Books under their Skylark imprint, with a short story released later. The books follow eleven-year-old Nina "Nine" Tanleven and her friend Chris Gurley, who find themselves solving a series of mysteries involving ghosts and hauntings when they discover a ghost in a theater in their hometown of Syracuse, New York.

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The series consists of:

  • The Ghost in the Third Row (1987)
  • The Ghost Wore Gray (1988)
  • The Ghost Let Go (1995, short storynote )
  • The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed (1990)


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    General 

The overall series contains examples of:

  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: All four stories end with the titular ghost ascending to Heaven, guided by another ghost in The Ghost Wore Gray and The Ghost Let Go, and accompanied by the ghost of someone who’d died during the events of the book in The Ghost in the Third Row and The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed.
  • Backup from Otherworld: In books 2 and 3, Nine and Chris are threatened by a gun-toting villain and are saved by a ghost whom they’ve been trying to help - Captain Gray and Cornelius Fletcher, respectively.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Occurs in all three main books.
    • In The Ghost in the Third Row, a bellowing Pop comes to Nine’s rescue.
    • In The Ghost Wore Gray, a furious Captain Gray himself comes to aid Nine and Chris when they’re threatened by a gun-toting villain in the graveyard.
    • The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed, Cornelius Fletcher appears inside his house for the first time since he’s died when he’s called, and saves Nine and the others from another gun-toting villain by stripping the wallpaper from the bottom floor of the house and using it to bind the villain.
  • Does Not Like Spam: Nine’s dislike of coffee is brought up more than once, and she notes that she can't understand how “something can smell so good and taste so gross”.
  • Hero's Classic Car: Henry Tanleven’s antique “Golden Chariot”, an enormous Cadillac (identified as a 1964 model in The Ghost Wore Gray and a 1959 model in The Ghost Let Go) that’s yellow and white, has large fins, and is longer than almost every parking space in Syracuse. According to Nine, it also breaks down about once a month, but Mr. Tanleven doesn’t mind - he says the repair bills are no worse than most people’s car payments, and it’s worth it to have a car with class.
  • I Should Write a Book About This: The Ghost Wore Gray reveals that Nine kept a sort of diary of their adventures in the first book, and editor Mona Curtis, after reading some of it, offers to help her turn it into a book for kids; further discussion on it is involved in The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed. Coupled with the way the narration goes (the first book alone includes lines like “Her actual words would probably burn this page” and “He also said several other things, but I had better not put them on paper”), it gives the implication that Nine eventually did turn her adventures into books.
  • I See Dead People: Nine and Chris can see ghosts. In the case of the Woman in White, young women who truly love the theater can also see her (but lose the ability with age), and other ghosts have shown that they can make themselves seen by humans.
  • Kid Detective: Nine and Chris, who are eleven years old. However, they only get involved in cases that also include ghosts.
  • Leaving You to Find Myself: Nine's mother left two years before the series started “to find her own life”, as described in The Ghost Let Go (she was mentioned as having left as far back as the first book, but the exact cause was left unsaid until the fourth story).
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: Nina's friend Chris Gurley is the only girl in a family of seven children, which doesn't amuse her - she complains that it's "like living with a football team".
  • Missing Mom: The Ghost in the Third Row notes that Nine's mother left (though without divorcing her husband) about two years before the events of the story; The Ghost Let Go adds that it was in order to "find her own life".
  • Narrative Profanity Filter:
    • In The Ghost in the Third Row, Nine tries finding Chris in the phone book, but there are over a dozen Gurleys listed. One is a cranky man who tells her he works nights and she’d woken him out of a sound sleep. As Nine puts it, “He also said several other things, but I had better not put them on paper.”
    • Also in The Ghost in the Third Row, Nine and Chris are trapped in a very small, very dark room, and don't know what to do. Chris points out that "being picky won't get them anywhere." Nine tells the reader that "actually, that was the meaning of what she said. Her actual words would probably burn this page."
    • The Ghost Wore Gray has Nine recall that Edgar Lonis, director of the play from the first book, once commented to her that one of the great secrets of acting was planting a seed in the audience's mind and then letting it grow. He then told her: "Your problem, Nine, is that once you plant the seed, you go overboard with the fertilizer." Except, as Nine also recalls, "He didn't say fertilizer".
    • The Ghost Let Go includes the line "My father said a word I don't get to use."
  • Not a Morning Person: Chris, who is shown sleeping until noon in the first book.
  • Parent with New Paramour: Nine doesn’t react well to any woman who shows an interest in her father, feeling that he doesn’t really notice if they’re interested and that this makes him an easy target for the kind of woman who would be willing to take advantage of him, and also because he’s still married. While she does lighten up towards Mona Curtis in The Ghost Wore Gray and Norma Bliss in The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed, she’s still not thrilled by their interest in her father.
  • Punny Name: Nina "Nine" Tanleven (as in nine-ten-eleven), who has to explain it to at least one person in just about every book.
  • The Silent Bob: The majority of the ghosts in the series make no sounds, or at most a cry of rage or sorrow, getting their points across by mere gestures and expressions. Played with by Alida Fletcher in The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed, the first ghost whom Chris and Nine have met that actually speaks - they hear her calling for her father, but she never speaks directly to them, instead again relying on gestures and expressions. Also played with by Phoebe Watson, Alida’s younger sister, whose ghost speaks a single word right after she dies but otherwise just communicates through action.
  • Spirit Advisor: The ghosts in the series tend to be this, leading Nine and Chris to critical information that will eventually help the ghost in question resolve their unfinished business and pass on.
  • Throw It In!: In-universe example - Slopnuggets are cookies that rely on this trope. They're made by taking whatever the baker thinks will make a good cookie and tossing it in a bowl; the only rule is to include the basics like eggs and baking powder, and go light on things like pickles and peppers. Results vary, and while the results are a little weird sometimes, Mr. Tanleven and Nine have never made a batch they can't eat.
  • Tomboyish Name: "Chris" Gurley. Whether it's short for something or not hasn't been said.
  • Unfinished Business: The majority of the ghosts in the series have some - Captain Gray’s is to see that the treasure he buried goes to its rightful owner, Alida Fletcher’s is to reunite with her father, Cornelius Fletcher’s is apparently to get back into his house one more time and reunite with Alida’s spirit (which is noted as being odd, since he actually lived in the house for a while and died there - it was only after he died that his ghost was trapped outside), and Mrs. Smiley’s is to see that her daughter got her dying message. The only one without a specified goal is Lily Larkin, who’s just hanging around the Grand Theater after her death.

    The Ghost in the Third Row 

The Ghost in the Third Row contains examples of:

  • Blatant Lies: At one point, Paula Geller asks Alan if he saw the ghost, and later says that she meant “Did you see something Lydia might have mistaken for the ghost?”. Nobody believes her.
  • Disney Villain Death: Subverted and inverted. The villain, Lydia Crane (real name: Lydia Heron) survives falling off a balcony, albeit with several broken bones. It’s Pop (AKA Edward Parker, the man whom she believed had framed her father for the crime he committed), who tried to pull her back when she was about to fall and went over the edge with her, who dies from the fall.
  • Drama Queen:
    • Lydia, who goes into a fright multiple times when she claims to have seen the ghost of Lily Larkin. It’s all an act.
    • Also discussed when Gwendolyn Meyer, the play’s producer, goes into a rant about actresses falling into this and how she’s sick and tired of it.
  • Falling Chandelier of Doom: One of these is what killed Lily Larkin, turning her into the titular ghost.
  • Frame-Up: The villain of the story tries to sabotage the play and frame the Woman in White for it. She also believes that her father Andrew Heron was the subject of one over the death of Lily Larkin and that Edward Parker was the real killer. She’s wrong.
  • Freudian Slip: When Nine and Chris are in the library’s reference room, Nine gets an immediate crush on Sam, the new librarian, and when Chris starts to say “We’d like to look at your files of local newspapers”, Nine accidentally cuts her off with “At your eyes” instead. Sam either didn’t hear her or pretends not to.
  • Friendly Ghost: The Woman in White, who never causes trouble for anyone in all her years of haunting the Grand Theater (despite what Lydia Crane would have everyone believe) and goes out of her way to help Nine and Chris find information that, together with some other discoveries, leads to the downfall of the real villain.
  • Funny Answering Machine: When Nine finally reaches Chris on the phone, she gets the answering machine, which claims to be their cat, and at the end asks the caller to leave a message at the sound of the meow. Also if they have any spare mice. Then there’s an actual meow instead of a beep.
  • Grass Is Greener: Discussed after Nine's first visit to Chris's house, as while she's happy at home, Nine thinks that she also kind of likes things at her friend's house, since it's always occupied and nobody's ever lonely (in stark contrast to Nine's own home where it's just she and her Dad). However, after some consideration, she decides she'd probably go crazy if she had to live there for real.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: Andrew Heron, who doesn’t appear at all but is revealed to have filled both his wife and daughter with stories about how he was innocent and was set up to take the fall for Lily Larkin’s death, and unwittingly inspired Lydia to try to shut down the play based on the story of he, Lily and Edward Parker.
  • If I Can't Have You...: In the backstory, the Woman in White was the actress Lily Larkin, and was murdered by a jealous would-be boyfriend after she fell in love with his rival instead.
  • Love Triangle: Lily Larkin was in one with two members of her acting troupe - Edward Parker and Andrew Heron. When she chose Edward, Andrew was furious and killed her.
  • Motor Mouth: Costume designer Eileen Taggert, who has a tendency to babble on and on.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: "Pop", the old man who keeps the Grand Theater in shape and does prop work for the plays. His real name isn't given until after he dies saving Nine, when it's revealed that he's Edward Parker, who'd vowed to stay in the theater until he could be reunited with his dead love Lily Larkin, the titular ghost of the book.
  • Open Mouth, Insert Foot:
    • When one of the costumes for the play is damaged, one of the people involved says that "Does it make sense to think it was done by a ghost? Or is it more likely that it was done by one of our local looney birds?" He remembers too late that the script writer Alan Bland, who's right on stage with him, had spent time in a mental hospital the year before and starts to blush and stammer. Nine and Chris are confused at the time, but learn why he reacted like he did the next day.
    • After learning about Alan's history, Nine unwittingly tells the man's writing partner Paula Gellar that "You guys are crazy!" after finding out how much material they'd written and discarded while writing the play and music, then looks horrified when she realizes what she just said. Paula figures out what she'd learned, and gives her a patient lecture about everything Alan had gone through and how much effort and courage it'd taken for him to put his life back together.
  • Potty Emergency: At one point, while Nine’s waiting for her father to come pick her up, she realizes she has to go, bad. She winds up running back into the theater and upstairs to use the restroom in the mezzanine, leading to her second sighting of the Woman in White when she’s on her way back out afterward.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Some of the actors wind up quitting the play out of fear of the ghost.
  • Stage Mom: Toned down version - Melissa Clayton wants to be a star, and it’s said that her mother really wants her to be a star. The toned-down part comes in that Mrs. Clayton is off-screen the entire book; the most she can be credited with is encouraging Melissa to audition for The Woman in White and stay in it, despite her unending string of complaints about the theater and insults towards her fellow performers and the others around.
  • Together in Death: Pop, AKA Edward Parker, and Lily Larkin, who are seen sharing one last dance on the stage the night after Edward dies and then ascend into Heaven together.
  • Woman in White: The titular ghost is called the Woman in White, and was an actress who had been murdered in the theater fifty years ago. The fact that the protagonists in the book were putting on the play of her origin story gets her attention...
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    The Ghost Wore Gray 

The Ghost Wore Gray contains examples of:

  • Angry Chef: Dieter Schwartz, the short and hot-tempered cook at the Quackadoodle Inn, who treats his food “as an artist treats his paintings” and is furious when the man he asked to help inadvertently ruined a pot of cream sauce, to the extent of throwing knives at the man. He also flips out when dust gets in the air from Mr. Tanleven making a hole in the wall in his kitchen - sure, the space that was revealed as a result has historic value, but Dieter doesn’t care about that, he wants people to stay out of his kitchen while he’s trying to cook. Fortunately, he’s better-tempered around people who aren’t causing him trouble, like Nine and Chris.
  • Apocalyptic Log: Captain Gray kept a diary of his journey to New York, which Nine and Chris find in a secret compartment of the chest he’d used to carry the treasure he’d been entrusted with. The last entry is his requesting writing supplies so he can make a map and a will; Nine and Chris later find, via a book about Samson Carter, that Captain Gray had to be hidden from his enemies on the same day of that last entry, and died in his hiding place.
  • Are We There Yet?: Nine teasingly asks her father this when they’re less than a block from home. His irked response is “Did I tell you I found a kennel that takes kids?” She asks it again more seriously four hours later, having gotten sick of riding by that point, and gets a reasonable response that they’re “About an hour and a half” away.
  • Disney Villain Death: Subverted - while Porter Markson falls into what was believed to be Captain Gray’s grave, he survives the fall itself, turning over and trying to climb forward to get out. He’s finished off when the tombstone falls forward onto him.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Baltimore, when introduced and learning Nine’s own nickname, cheerfully says that Nine can call him Baltimore, or his own nickname - Balty, which he quickly admits that he doesn’t care for since it sounds too much like “Baldy”. Nine quickly agrees to call him Baltimore.
  • Haunted Headquarters: The Quackadoodle Inn where the Tanlevens and Chris are staying, which is haunted by the ghost of a Confederate army captain.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: The elderly Arnie and Meg Coleman. Arnie is six-foot-five, and Meg is about Nine's height (four-foot-ten).
  • Impossibly Delicious Food: Jokingly mentioned when Nine suggests that Captain Jonathan Gray is hanging around as a ghost because he'd had one of the cook's pastries and decided he'd already made it to heaven.
  • Iron Lady: Gloria Cleveland is always shown as stern and controlling - nobody, not even her husband or the short-tempered Dieter Schwartz, dares disobey her when she gives an order. The only time she’s shown being softer is when Baltimore is hurt and she rushes to his side.
  • Ironic Name: Discussed - Nine notes in the narration that “Dieter” might seem like a funny name for a cook, but then adds that it isn’t said like it looks (the actual pronunciation is Deeter).
  • Loose Lips: Baltimore unwittingly shares the secret of Captain Gray’s diary with the villain of the book. He admits later that he’s paid dearly for his mistake (the villain knocked him out and stole the diary).
  • Lost Will And Testament: Played with in that Captain Gray’s will, which left the jewels he was safeguarding to Samson Carter, was found shortly after he died - he’d written it on the wall of the room where he was sitting when he died. It’s the protagonists in the present day who have to find it in order to confirm that yes, Captain Gray did indeed leave the treasure to Samson Carter, and Carter’s bequest of the jewels to the college he founded is thus legitimate.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: The villain of the book tries to kill Nine and Chris and make it look like either an accident or a suicide, via forcing them off a cliff.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Captain Gray was subjected to a one-man version of this, and was unconscious for two weeks as a result. He eventually died of his injuries. Later, during a trip to the South after the end of the Civil War, his doctor Samson Carter was also subjected to one by a group of men who didn’t even know who he was - he was black, and that was reason enough for them to beat him to death.
  • Treasure Map: Captain Gray left one to where he buried the jewels he’d brought from South Carolina to New York. It’s mistaken for a map to his grave, and a tombstone is subsequently erected over the spot.
  • Underground Railroad: The trope-naming real life Underground Railroad is discussed, and Captain Gray had to use a similar method in order to get from South Carolina to New York so he could meet with a Canadian contact. He winds up having to hide in a room that was part of the actual Underground Railroad to avoid his enemies at a few points.
  • The Voiceless: Martha, one of the staff members at the Quackadoodle, never says a word where Nine can hear it - the most noise she makes is a snort.
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: Nine reacts with incredulity that someone exists with the name “Baltimore Cleveland”.

    The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed 

The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed contains examples of:

  • Adult Fear: Discussed. Nine's been put in danger multiple times, and while this marks the first time a ghost has potentially endangered her, her father talks to her afterward about how while such things do concern him, it's the more mundane dangers that tend to worry him the most, such as her near run-in with an apparent prowler, being out after dark or being out where she can be hit by a car.
  • An Arm and a Leg: Cornelius Fletcher sustained major leg injuries in World War I. A few years later, his wounded legs were further damaged to the point of no return from frostbite, and subsequently amputated.
  • The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes: Referenced when Nine's father, who restores old buildings for a living, decides that after years of being too busy, it's time for him to restore their own house, starting by stripping the old (and ugly) wallpaper from their stairwell and replacing it.
  • Crazy Homeless People: Jimmy, the bum who Nine knows from the feeding program where she and her father volunteer, comes off as a little crazy, but he’s really a nice guy. Also, he’s only part-time homeless; he lives in Phoebe Watson’s cellar when it’s too cold or wet outside, declining an upstairs room despite her offering.
  • Death of a Child: The titular character is a young girl who died of influenza a few years after World War I.
  • Driven to Suicide: In the backstory, the titular ghost died after her father Cornelius Fletcher was beaten and left to die, eventually making it to the wall of their home but unable to get inside and bring her the medicine that would have saved her life. The ringleader of the group that did the beating was Hiram Potter, and afterward discovered that not only had an innocent child died because of him, Potter's own first-born owed his life to Fletcher, who'd been badly injured while saving the young man during a battle in World War I. These two discoveries led a horrified Hiram to hang himself in his barn.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Lawyer Stephen Basset winds up representing Carla Bond during the final chapter, but is willing to stand aside and let her confess when it's clear what kind of person she is.
  • Evil Lawyer Joke: Downplayed version - Chris remarks at one point that her father says "You shouldn't believe anything you hear from a lawyer."
    Nine: "I thought your uncle was a lawyer."
    Chris (laughing): "He's the reason my dad says that!"
  • Frame-Up: During the climax, the villain decides to kill Nine, Chris and Phoebe, and intends to make it look like the result of a break-in. Fortunately, they’re stopped.
  • Haunted House: Phoebe Watson’s home is the first haunted house in the series (preceded by a haunted theater and a haunted inn), occupied by one ghost upstairs and a second outside. Nine also thinks for a while that there’s a third ghost in the cellar, but it turns out to be a very much alive elderly man.
  • Hollywood Heart Attack: Phoebe Watson is clutching her chest, sounding like she’s being strangled as she tries to get out a few words. She lives long enough to rise out of her wheelchair and fall forward before dying.
  • Left for Dead: Cornelius Fletcher, after being beaten by a mob. He survives and manages to crawl home, but can’t get into his home because of the stone wall and iron gate around it, resulting in his being trapped outside overnight and consequently losing his legs to frostbite.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Cornelius Fletcher was jumped by a mob, beaten bloody and Left for Dead because they didn’t like what he was painting - it had gotten very political since he came back from fighting in World War I.
  • Red Herring: During Nine’s first visit to Phoebe Watson’s house, she sees one ghost and hears signs of another, whom she confirms the identity of in her second visit. She also hears singing coming from the cellar, and suspects there might be a third ghost. The climax reveals that no, it’s a local street person whom Phoebe lets stay there when it’s too cold or wet outside (she’d offered him a regular room, but he refused).
  • Relative Error: Unusual variant - Nine goes to Phoebe Watson's home to feed her cat while Phoebe is in the hospital, and while she's upstairs, a man also unexpectedly enters the house. Nine avoids being seen by him, but does hear his voice and, afraid that he's a burglar, manages to sneak out in time to meet up with her father, get home and call the police. The next day, while she and Chris are in the hospital visiting Phoebe, the "prowler" also turns up to visit and turns out to be Phoebe's cousin Byron, whom Phoebe didn't expect to arrive until that morning. Fortunately, Byron is somewhat amused by the misunderstanding after Nine explains herself, and accepts her apology; it helps that Phoebe keeps his picture on her dresser, which he was able to use as proof that he really did belong there when the police came by.
  • The Resenter: Phoebe Watson was married, has a big old house, and family who loved her, even those she never met. Carla Bond lost her father to suicide, her brother to the streets as a bum, and was raised on the dole through the Great Depression by her mother. She had to work for years to make something of herself, all while blaming the Fletcher family for her family's hardship and vowing to one day get what she felt she deserved.
  • School of No Studying: Subverted - this marks the first book where Nine’s adventures conflict with school (the previous two books took place over the summer), and while her time there is mostly off-screen, her focus on the mystery at Phoebe Watson’s home leads to her being distracted and unwittingly neglecting her schoolwork, even while she’s actually in class, and getting in trouble with her teacher for it.
  • Secret Keeper: Jimmy Potter, for the location of Cornelius Fletcher’s Lost Masterpiece. While his sister and Nine both figure it out, Jimmy still keeps his mouth shut until the ghost of Cornelius himself unveils the painting.
  • Starving Artist: Byron Fletcher is specifically referred to as one, and identified as "following in the family tradition" because of it.

    The Ghost Let Go 

The Ghost Let Go contains examples of:

  • Beware of Hitchhiking Ghosts: Nine, Chris and Nine's father get in an accident because of what they initially suspect might be a hitchhiking ghost, with Nine and Chris theorizing that she caused them to crash rather than ask for a lift because the driver wasn't alone. The "ghost" later turns out to be the very much alive Dolores Smiley. Her mother is a ghost, who was accidentally struck and killed by a car almost identical to the Tanleven's (Dolores mistook their car for the one from long ago, which is why she ran out in front of them and caused their accident), and Dolores goes out every year on the anniversary of Mrs. Smiley's death, hoping she'll find her spirit wandering the road where she died so that she can finally apologize for the last, hateful words she ever said to her mother.
  • It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: “A Dark and Stormy Night” is the name of the first chapter of the story.
  • Not in Front of the Parrot: Inverted - as a ghost, Mrs. Smiley taught her parrot a phrase that she wanted to get out, but nobody understood it for the longest time. The phrase is "Go to Jeremiah", which ultimately leads Nine to the Book of Jeremiah in Mrs. Smiley's old bible, where she'd left the letter to her daughter that she'd written as she was dying.
  • Parting Words Regret: Dolores Smiley's last words to her mother were "I HATE YOU!", before Mrs. Smiley and Dolores' boyfriend (the cause of the argument) were killed in a car crash, while Dolores was horribly disfigured. The regret at those words, and the fact that ghosts can't communicate with the living (except the protagonists), is what is causing Mrs. Smiley to stay, hence the title.
  • Rule of Three: Dolores Smiley took the words "What I tell you three times is true." from The Hunting of the Snark very seriously as a child, and so, when she wanted her mother to believe her, would always make her statement three times. Mrs. Smiley also used it occasionally, including in her farewell letter. It proves the key to letting her move on.
  • Spooky Séance: An atypical version occurs when Nine and Chris, who can already see Mrs. Smiley’s ghost, work to bring Dolores Smiley into the link so she can see and communicate with her mother’s spirit and, by making peace with her, allow her to pass on.
  • You Have GOT To Be Kidding Me: When Nine, her father and Chris come across a spooky house with the name “B. Smiley” on the mailbox, Chris’s reaction is “They’ve got to be kidding.” Nine’s snarky reply is “I don’t care if Smiley shares the house with Dopey, Doc and Grumpy, as long as they let us in out of this rain.”
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