‘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.
There are a lot of books in our house. I have no idea how many, but thousands, certainly. That is what happens when two academics marry and when they read a lot outside their subject. Our books are a kind of biography, marking different points in our lives when we bought them and when we read them. Peter tended not to use book marks, but instead would use whatever was to hand: a train ticket, maybe, a flyer for some event. So sometimes I am ambushed when I open a book and find evidence of when or where Peter read it.
The other day I was gazing absentmindedly at a shelf of books, when I realised I was looking at a copy of Antarctic Adventure by Sir Vivian Fuchs. I was surprised because I was nearing the end of the second draft of my new novel set in Antarctica and I had no idea that I had a source so close to hand. Peter must have forgotten all about it. Inside it was a gift tag: To Peter Wishing You a Happy Christmas from Auntie Maisie and Uncle George.’ Both of them are long dead. The book was published in 1959 and I imagine it would have been given to Peter not long afterwards. I felt a pang at the thought of Peter opening it on that long ago Christmas Day – and all these years later I was opening it and thinking of him. It is strange the way our books survive us.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve been ambushed. I picked Empire and Local Worlds, by Mingming Wang off the shelf. It’s a work of Chinese anthropology. In it I found an invitation to a concert in memory of our friend, David Mellor, the designer and silversmith in London in 2009. Peter must have been reading it on the train in preparation for his own book, Architecture and Ritual.
No doubt there will be more reminders. The stories of our lives in books . . . in both senses of the word.
Who would have thought I’d be stricter than a Victorian mama?
One of the pleasures of getting older is rereading old favourites and finding that you see them from a different angle. I am currently listening to Timothy West reading (superbly) The Small House at Allington, which I first read in my twenties. I naturally identified more with the two young women, Lily and Bell Dale, than I did with their widowed mother, Mrs Dale. The family live in the eponymous Small House and Mr Dale, the girls’ uncle, lives in the Great House. When the novel opens their cousin, Bernard, and his friend, Adolphus Crosby, are staying with Mr Dale. Crosby is there for a few days only, but he gets on well with the family at the Small House and returns for a month of his two months leave from his Civil Service office (those were the days, when civil servants had two months off a year!). By the end of that month he is engaged to Lily.
What were you thinking, Mrs Dale! That is the question I find myself asking. Lily is only nineteen and she has known Crosby for rather less than five weeks. All they know of Crosby is that he is Bernard’s friend and has enough money to support a wife. I don’t think we are given his age but I guess it to be around thirty. We are privy to Crosby’s thoughts and are aware from the start that he is already beginning to have – if not regrets – then is at least not quite satisfied to learn that there will be no money coming with Lily. He has a comfortable life in London, but will have to make economies and will have give up the enjoyable life of a successful man about town.
Mrs Dale is too delicately minded to question Crosby, to offer her daughter any advice, or to insist (as she had a legal right to do) that they wait longer before getting engaged. I would certainly have something to say to a daughter of mine, who wanted to marry a man that she’d known for only a few weeks, especially if she was just nineteen. There is of course trouble ahead – serious trouble – and to my mind Mrs Dale has to take some, perhaps much, of the blame for this. I found myself thinking something similar when re-reading Middlemarch a few years ago. Why didn’t Mr Brooke at least insist that Dorothea came of age before she married Casaubon? But Mr Brooke is presented as being negligent, too lazy to make a fuss about anything, whereas it’s clear from the way Trollope describes Mrs Dale that he regards her as a good mother.
Often in Trollope’s novels stern parents or guardians do stand in the way of young love – and are invariably forced to relent in the end. So perhaps the truth is that parents can’t win whatever they do. No change there then . . . Nevertheless I do think that Mrs Dale should not have allowed such a rapid courtship. So there you: stricter than a Victorian mama and as I write this, I can picture my daughters rolling their eyes and agreeing. What’s your view on Mrs Dale?
I was going to write that it is a long time since a book review made me cry with laughter. But on reflection I don’t think a book review has ever made me cry with laughter. Not until I read a review of I Actually Wore This: Clothes We Can’t Believe We Bought by Tom Coleman with photographs by Jerome Jakubiec in the i newspaper a couple of weeks ago. The review was titled ‘Taste Takes a Holiday.’ Coleman wanted to put together a funny book about fashion and he has succeeded. He persuaded 80 brave souls to chose a garment that represented a disastrous lapse in judgement, explain how they came to buy it and then – genius! – to be photographed in it. I am laughing all over again at the photographs that illustrated the review. It is hard to pick a front-runner, but the yeti suit worn by Tim Convery to go clubbing is a lulu.
This set me thinking about my own crimes against fashion. There have been a fair few over the years, but the garments have all been discreetly disposed of in charity shops and I was careful not to be photographed in them. Except, yes, a rummage in a box of photographs turned up one of me wearing some very unflattering striped dungarees sometime in the 1980s. I looked like a giant toddler – or maybe a deckchair. And, oh dear, those enormous glasses.
I would love to hear about the memories that make you cringe. Kipper ties? Shoulder pads? Hot pants? Bring them on . . .
Attending what seems to be a routine break-in at the home of artist, Zoe Grant, Detective Garda Cathy Connolly makes a grisly discovery: an old wedding dress with a baby’s bones sewn into its hem. And then the dress’s original owner, Zoe’s grandmother, is found dead in a Dublin suburb. Cathy and her team struggle to untangle a crime that goes back generations. Meanwhile, a killer has already left two dead in the States – and now he’s in Dublin. They must find him before he kills again. It’s a strong and intriguing opening to Sam Blake’s first novel, Little Bones, which I received as a review copy.
I liked the strongly drawn female characters – especially the kick-boxing Cathy Connolly – and I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that at the beginning of the novel she is horrified to discover she is pregnant after a one-night stand with an old friend. What should she do? She’s had a Roman Catholic upbringing, this is Ireland, and abortion is illegal. But what would single parenthood do to her cherished career?
There’s freshness to the setting and the characters and a warmth to the writing. The strong plot lines are skilfully woven together. I did find a coincidence late on in the novel a bit hard to swallow, but nevertheless this was a gripping and well-paced read from a promising new writer.
Bodies from the Library has become an annual event. I went for the first time last year and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I was delighted to be invited to speak this year. Sarah Ward and I will be talking about ‘Forgotten Women Authors’. Sarah’s choice is Elizabeth Daly and mine is Ethel Lina White.
I’ve already mentioned Ethel Lina White on the blog: here and here and I have plenty more to say about her. I love the fact that she didn’t publish her first crime novel until she was fifty-five and yet her third novel, Some Must Watch, became a Hollywood movie and her fifth, The Wheel Spins, was filmed by Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes. She was a best-seller in her day and wrote the kind of suspense that sets your heart racing. Yet she is little-known now. If you want to know more, come along on the 17th June!
It’s a great pleasure to have Margot Kinberg as my guest on the blog today. Margot’s wonderful blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, is a must-read for me and many other fans of crime fiction. Her knowledge of crime fiction is encyclopaedic, she blogs every day – yes, every day! – and yet her standard never slips. I have picked up so many books for my TBR list from her and she has started some fascinating debates. She sets some killer quizzes, too!
She is also the author of the Joel Williams series of crime novels. The latest, Past Tense, combines two things I especially enjoy, a campus crime and a cold case when, during the excavations for a new building, the body of a student who disappeared forty years ago is discovered. It’s a splendid read.
Welcome to the blog, Margot.
Thanks so much for inviting me, Christine. It’s a privilege and an honour.
The honour is all mine, Margot. Let me begin by asking how you carve out time to write fiction? What’s your writing routine?
I’ve found that I write best in the morning, so I try to commit some time each morning to my fiction. I must admit, there are days when I can’t. I’m in higher education, and, as you know, academia doesn’t really keep a regular schedule. But I do make an effort. And my thinking is, even twenty minutes and a few sentences is progress. I try to guard my writing time jealously, too; when I’m writing, I don’t answer email or check social media. I write. I also jot down notes if I get an idea when I’m not at home. Later, I look back on those notes when I’m actually writing.
Things are a bit different when I’m not teaching. Then, I try to focus as much as I can on my writing, because my non-teaching schedule is a bit more flexible. So, that’s when I do those major revisions that require a lot of extended attention.
What comes first for you, plot, characters, or theme?
For me, it’s always character first. I write crime fiction, so my first stop is always the victim. I think about who that person is, and what that person is like. That leads me, then, to the people in the victim’s ‘inner circle’ – those who might have the most likely motives for murder. Then, I move to other people who know the victim.
From all of these interactions and relationships, I can get a sense of what might have happened to cause the murder. And that’s where the plot comes in. The ‘how’ and ‘when’ often come once I’ve worked out who’s killed, why, and by whom. The better I get to know the characters, the better the plot works, anyway.
Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you like to read and why?
I’m very fortunate that there are a lot of highly talented writers out there whose works I enjoy. It’s hard to pin down just a few, as I think I learn something from just about every author I read. But here are one or two.
I’m a fan of Paddy Richardson, whose characters are so beautifully done, and whose writing style I really admire. If it’s by Paddy Richardson, I’m sure I’ll love it. She really does deserve more attention than she gets. I admire Michael Connelly, too, on a few levels, not the least of which is his consistency. He’s been writing for twenty-five years, and has remained consistently strong as an author. There are plenty of other contemporary authors, too whose work I really respect – far more than there is space here. Going back to the classics, there’s no doubt that Agatha Christie is my hero. True, some of her books are stronger than others. But overall, the body of her work is so well done, and what clever plots! I could go on, but I won’t. Let’s just say I learn something new from her every time I re-read one of her stories.
A favourite bookshop?
Sadly, I don’t live anywhere near one of the ones I like best. It’s Baldwin’s Book Barn, located in rural southeastern Pennsylvania. It’s a converted barn – five floors filled with all kinds of books. A person could get lost for days, just browsing. I miss it very much actually.
I’ve another top shop, though, in San Diego, which is about 35-40k from where I live: The Mysterious Galaxy. Its specialties are crime fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy and horror. It’s an indie shop, so it’s got its own distinctive style. I also love the fact that the owners welcome authors – even those who aren’t ‘household names.
What are you writing at the moment?
Thanks for asking. Right now, I’m revising my fourth Joel Williams novel. It’s going well, but not nearly as quickly as I’d like. As you know, revisions can take time, and one small revision in one part of a story has a ‘cascade effect’ in others. I’m optimistic, though (most of the time!).
I’m also working on a standalone – quite different to the Joel Williams novels. In that way, it’s a bit like your choice to write Deep Water, which is different to your Cassandra James series. In the novel I’m working on, a fifteen-year-old homeless girl, Staci McKinney, witnesses the aftermath of a murder. The criminals catch sight of her, too. In part, the novel follows Staci as she tries to stay clear of the murderers and survive. As the novel goes on, she’s befriended by Leo Slater, a thief and fence who has his own past history. Staci decides to work with Leo, who in turn, gives her a safe place to live and some protection against the criminals who are looking for her. The novel follows the murder investigation as well as what happens in Staci’s own life. It’s a bit of a departure for me, as it’s a slightly darker novel than what I usually write. But I’m very much enjoying the process, and it’s ‘stretching’ me as a writer.
And finally: how do you do it, Margot? How do you manage to post every day and keep up such a high standard?
First, thank you. It means a lot to me that you enjoy what you find on the blog. I’m really glad you do. For me, crime fiction is utterly fascinating on so many levels. There’s always something new to discover, always some new perspective from which to look at the genre. And there are so many fine crime novels out there that there are always other talented authors to try. What’s not to love? Besides, keeping a blog is good writing discipline for me. And, I enjoy sharing my passion for the genre, so for me, it’s not an onerous task. It’s more along the lines of excitedly talking about a much-loved film or book with a group of friends.
And that’s the other thing that keeps me blogging: the wonderful group of readers and writers, such as yourself, who share an interest in crime fiction. I learn so much from everyone! The comments I get on my blog are so informative, and I treasure the online friendships I’ve made.
Thanks again for hosting me!
It has been a pleasure, Margot. Good luck with your writing and I look forward to visiting you many more times at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.
Writing a novel is of necessity a solitary occupation. It is important to get out of the house sometimes. So it was that last Friday I headed off to Edinburgh to the Crime Writers Association conference. I was born and grew up on the north-east coast and am always happy to find myself heading north – and what a fabulous city Edinburgh is. And what a literary one: Waverley is the only railway station in the world named after a novel and the Scott monument is the largest monument to an author in the world. It’s the city too of Robert Louis Stevenson and Conan Doyle – and also of the notorious grave-robbers and murderers, Burke and Hare, and of Deacon Brodie, respectable cabinet-maker and town councillor by day, libertine and leader of a gang of burglars by night. He was hanged on a gibbet he had designed himself and may have been the inspiration for Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde.
And talking of crime, what a great bunch my fellow crime-writers are. Perhaps it is because we save our dark side for our writing, but in real life there is no friendly or more convivial group of people. And as always it was lovely to catch up with old friends and make some new ones, like Leigh Russell with whom I shared a table at an event in Blackwell’s. There were fascinating talks by distinguished pathologists, a former head of CID, and a retired Deputy Chief Constable; there was a cracking after dinner speaker, the Rt Hon Leeona, Lady Dorrian, Lord Justice Clerk.
What a pity it is only once a year. Roll on Shrewsbury next April!
Mark Easterbrook goes to see his writer friend, Mrs Oliver, to ask her to open a church fête. Mrs Oliver “in a state apparently bordering on insanity, was prowling around the room, muttering to herself . . .
‘But why,’ demanded Mrs Oliver of the universe, ‘why doesn’t the idiot say at once that he saw the cockatoo? Why shouldn’t he? He couldn’t have helped seeing it! But if he does mention it, it ruins everything. There must be a way . . . there must be . . .’
She groaned, ran her fingers through her short grey hair and clutched it with a frenzied hand. Then, looking at me with suddenly focused eyes, she said, ‘Hallo, Mark. I’m going mad,’ and resumed her complaint.'”
Feeling in need of comfort reading the other evening, I chose an Agatha Christie that I hadn’t read for a while. It’s definitely one of my favourites among her later novels: a feisty heroine, a wonderfully creepy atmosphere, superlative plotting – and it’s funny too. One of the things I so much like about Christie is her ability to laugh at herself. That’s always engaging. For Mrs Ariadne Oliver (brilliant name!) is a thinly disguised version of Agatha Christie (with a tiresome Finn instead of a Belgian as her fictional detective). And what amused me so much is that Mrs Oliver’s struggle to make her plot work is all too familiar to us lesser mortals toiling in the field of crime fiction.
By the end of Mark’s visit he has quite by accident happened to make a remark that offers Mrs Oliver a solution to her problem. And VERY SMALL SPOILER ALERT, she in her turn has shed light on the plot of the novel. It’s beautifully done. Chapeau, Dame Agatha! There is no-one quite like you.
On Wednesday the train I caught from Sheffield to Oxford went through Solihull and I felt a deep sense of relief even after all these years that I didn’t have to get off the train and go to work there. It was a long time ago – so long that people were still allowed to smoke in offices – when, struggling to finish my MA thesis, I decided to take a civil service exam and get a proper job. Coming out of the exam I was aware that I had probably got full marks for the literacy paper and had barely scrapped a pass – if that – on the maths paper. So I still can’t quite understand how I ended up as an Executive Office (Higher Grade) in the Inland Revenue at the Solihull office. I am inclined to think it was a simple administrative error. I was fine on the training course, but when it came to doing the job . . . I had my own allocation of tax cases – you learned on the job under a supervisor. The nadir came when I was out at lunch one day and my supervisor took a call from an unfortunate man whose tax code I had altered. Instead of spreading the extra tax deduction over several months, I’d taken the whole lot out of his pay packet in one fell swoop – and it was a couple of weeks before Christmas, too. It wasn’t long after that that I handed in my notice. Altogether I was there just over four months, but really I had known pretty much from the start that it wasn’t for me.
What miserable months they were (though my boss and my colleagues couldn’t have been nicer). I was living with my boyfriend in Sutton Coldfield and every morning he would drive me into central Birmingham and drop me off at a station where I caught the train to work. It took every ounce of will power that I possessed to get off that train at Solihull, and not be carried on to Leamington Spa.
There was a bookshop near the station and that was where I bought the copies of Trollope’s Palliser novels that carried me through. I worked my way through the whole lot. One of the other novels that I remember from those days was Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. I was hungry for narrative and for richly textured worlds that I could escape into. I read in every possible spare moment.
I went back and finished my MA, then did a Ph.D and embarked on my career of museum work and university teaching and writing. I don’t often think of those days when I was a square peg in a round hole – but on the rare occasions that I go to Oxford and the sign saying ‘Solihull’ flashes past, what a wonderful feeling that it is. I say a silent thank you to Trollope for saving my sanity.