A Forgotten Woman Crime Novelist
‘Have you locked up, Nurse Cherry?’
‘Yes, Nurse Silver.’
‘Every door, every window?’
Yet even as she shot home the last bolt of the front door, at the back of Nurse Cherry’s mind was a vague misgiving.
She had forgotten – something.
She was young and pretty, but her expression was anxious. While she has most of the qualities to ensure professional success, she was always on guard against a serous handicap.
She had a bad memory.
If there was one thing Ethel Lina White knew about, it was suspense. It’s no wonder that this short story, ‘An Unlocked Window’ formed the basis for one of the most memorable and terrifying episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
She is an inspiration to late-flowering writers. She didn’t publish her first crime novel until she was fifty-five and yet the third, Some Must Watch, became a Hollywood movie, The Spiral Staircase, in 1946. Her fifth, The Wheel Spins, was filmed by Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes in 1938. In 1945 Midnight House was filmed as The Unseen with Raymond Chandler as one of the script writers.
She wrote fourteen novels between 1931 and her death in 1944. She was a best-seller in her day and was much translated. She wrote the kind of suspense that sets your heart racing. The atmosphere and the build-up of tension in the best of her novels is masterly. The books are rattling good reads and as the trap closes in, they’ve often kept me reading when I ought to have been doing other things. There can be no greater tribute to a writer of suspense.
She was born in Abergavenny in 1876. She was working in the Ministry of Pensions in London when she at last began to earn money from writing fiction in the 1920s. She wrote three mainstream novels in the 1920s before her first crime novel, Put Out the Light, a competent whodunit with Gothic overtones, came out in 1931. It was followed the following year by Fear Stalks the Village, in which she really began to hit her stride. Joan has recently taken up a job as a companion in what appears to be an idyllic village only to find that a series of poison-pen letters reveal an underbelly seething with fear, distrust and disaster. Rereading Fear Stalks the Village I was reminded of what an entertaining writer she is — and what a sardonic sense of humour she had, as here, for instance: ‘The squire turned to his wife. Although he usually bullied her, there were times when he followed her advice; for if he had no positive virtues, he had some rather good faults.’
It was followed in 1932 by Some Must Watch, perhaps her most best-known novel. Helen is the lady help for an elderly invalid in an isolated mansion with a killer at large. She is surrounded by people, the house seems secure, and yet slowly the net tightens. The housekeeper gets hold of a bottle of brandy and sinks into a drunken stupor, the handy-man departs on an urgent errand . . .
Next in 1935 came Wax, the plot of which centres around a neglected and sinister waxworks gallery in the small town of Riverpool where a young woman, Sonia, has come to take a job as a journalist. Here too hardly any one is what they seem and the novel reaches a stupendous climax during a night among the waxworks.
Why did Ethel Lina White slip out of sight? Perhaps in part because she didn’t have a series detective or detectives, like Agatha Christie or Margery Allingham or Ngaio Marsh. And perhaps it hasn’t helped that she didn’t write just one type of novel. Yes, she wrote what might be loosely described as ‘women in jeopardy’ novels, but that wasn’t all. The First Time He Died is a farce about a man who fakes his own death in order to collect the insurance. She Faded into Air is an impossible crime novel much in the vein of John Dickson Carr (and I don’t think it loses by that comparison). The Elephant Never Forgets is in part a spy story set in the Soviet Union.
As for the ‘women in jeopardy’ label, her female protagonists are not helpless little women, who rely on men to get them out of their predicament. They are women who must work for their living and rely on their own resources: a teacher in The Third Eye, a lady help in Some Must Watch, a journalist in Wax. In The Wheel Spins, Miss Froy is not the fussy old spinster of Hitchcock’s film, but intrepid and independent, taking jobs all over Europe as a governess in order to have adventures and learn new languages.
One of the burning issues of the day was the so-called surplus woman question. The 1921 census showed that there were one and three-quarter million more women than men due to the First World War. Deaths were disportionately high among officers, so many middle-class women had little hope of the marriage that their upbringing had lead them to expect. They became teachers, nurses, secretaries, civil servants and this social reality is reflected in Ethel Lina White’s novels. She herself knew what it was to work for a living in a tedious job. Add to that the effects of the Depression. What would become of a woman if she could get neither a husband or a job? Joan in Fear Stalks the Village is supporting other members of her family, and with no welfare state safety net the consequences of losing her job would be dire. There’s plenty to worry the women in Ethel Lina White’s novels even without deranged serial killers roaming the countryside. Ethel Lina White’s sympathy with her female protagonists and her surprisingly tolerant attitude to sexual mores make her an engaging as well as a gripping writer.
Some Must Watch has been reprinted by Arcturus and all Ethel Lina White’s novels are now available as e-books.