‘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.
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!
One of the unexpected pleasures of becoming a crime writer has been the friendship of other crime writers. I first met Martin Edwards through the Crime Writers Association and we found we shared an interest in golden age crime fiction – though Martin knows far, far more than I do. We’ve had many absorbing conversations over the years. I’m especially pleased to welcome him to my blog today and to celebrate the publication of his new book, The Golden Age of Murder, which I know will be an enthralling read.
I asked him, What are the golden age crime novels that you first read and enjoyed?
The very first was The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie, swiftly followed by After the Funeral and then all the rest. I loved them, and in particular I loved being fooled by those ingenious final twists! Once I’d worked my way through all the Agathas I could find, I turned my attention to Dorothy L. Sayers. Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham. Anthony Berkeley and Henry Wade came later.
Is there any one writer that has been unfairly neglected and that you would
like to see back in print?
It’s rather sobering just how many writers who were once very popular have
been neglected over the past half century. I’ve very much enjoyed my role as
Series Consultant to the British Library’s Crime Classics series, which has
resurrected some very interesting writers, including the splendidly named
Christopher St John Sprigg, who was also a poet and a committed Marxist
prior to his tragically early death at age 29 while fighting in the Spanish
Civil War. Of the writers who remain to be rediscovered, several names
spring to mind, but I’m going to highlight Richard Hull, one of the few
crime writers who was also a chartered accountant. He is best known for his
first book, The Murder of My Aunt, but I’ve got a very soft spot for
Name half a dozen golden age crime novels that you wish you had written
There are many more than six, but naturally I have to start with Agatha. And
Then There Were None and The ABC Murders are brilliant, in very different
ways. Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case is another classic I’d
love to have written. Under the name Francis Iles, the same chap wrote the
marvellously ironic Malice Aforethought. Henry Wade’s Lonely Magdalen is a
terrific police novel, not in the least ‘cosy.’ And even darker is Hugh
Walpole’s splendidly macabre posthumous chiller, The Killer and the Slain.
I must get hold of The Killer and the Slain. You and I have been reading golden age crime for years. Why do you think everyone else has suddenly caught on?
Like so many interesting puzzles, this one has, I think, a rather elaborate
answer. As I was growing up, Golden Age fiction seemed very unfashionable
(something that could be said of many of my enthusiasms, I must admit!) and
even when I started publishing my Harry Devlin novels, which have a very
modern urban backdrop but also have plots overtly influenced by the Golden
Age, reviewers who liked them didn’t tend to pick up on the Golden Age
connections. Even though The Devil in Disguise, for instance, is very much a
homage to Agatha. Fortunately, a few people, such as Barry Pike, Stephen
Leadbeater, Geoff Bradley and various contributors to Geoff’s superb
magazine CADS kept interest in the Golden Age alive. The Golden Age of Murder makes copious references, in end notes, to material from CADS for that reason. I’d also like to mention Doug Greene, whose Crippen & Landru press has been publishing, very attractively, a series of “Lost Classics” for years.
Things began to change within the past decade, largely thanks to the
internet, which makes so much information accessible to all, and in
particular to the blogosphere. I started blogging in 2007, and soon found
myself in contact with like-minded enthusiasts. I’d highlight Xavier
Lechard, whose blog At the Villa Rose, has always impressed me, but there
are plenty of others who have come on the scene year by year. New technology
also made a big difference as ebooks became popular, and printing minority
interest books on demand became viable. This has helped to make more of the
older books available at affordable prices, and a whole range of publishers,
small and large, have contributed to this process. Harper Collins has had
great success with its Detection Club reprints, and Bello’s list is
increasingly varied. Then the British Library’s Crime Classics really took
off – and this was a new twist in the tale, because suddenly mass market
paperbacks, not just ebooks, were selling in vast quantities. Over a quarter
of a million trade sales so far – a truly staggering figure.
Thank you, Martin. I should mention that Martin also writes a terrific blog about crime-fiction at the splendidly titled http://doyouwriteunderyourownname.blogspot.co.uk.
The British Library are on a roll. They’ve followed up an excellent exhibition on book illustration with an equally good one on the Gothic. I absolutely loved it. The range is wide, taking in its origins in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Strawberrry Hill and going right up to the Whitby Goth Weekend, photographed by Martin Parr. It includes ghost stories, Victorian horror (Spring-heeled Jack, Sweeney Todd, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). Vampires, werewolves, zombies, doppelgängers: they are all here. I was particularly taken by a case containing a vampire-slaying kit, complete with mallet, stakes, and moulds for silver bullets.
A particular strength is that they have included extracts from films. There is Bride of Frankenstein; you can hear Elsa Lanchester screaming half way round the exhibition and whoever thought up that fabulous lightning bolt hair-do was a genius. There is The Wicker Man, Night of the Living Dead and many, many more, including one of my favourites, Night of the Demon, and a wonderful Spankmeyer short that I didn’t know about. There are recorded interviews with the likes of Neil Gaiman and Sarah Waters.
In truth, I am not a great horror fan, though I can enjoy almost anything if it is well done and I love a good ghost story. But there was so much of interest here that even a couple of hours wasn’t quite enough. Here is a link to the BL page which features a video and lots more: http://bit.ly/ZR3MQ6.