(Editor’s note: This is the 19th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Mary Reed, who, with her husband, Eric Mayer, writes the excellent John the Eunuch historical mystery series. The newest entry in that series is Seven for a Secret . Reed is also the creator and editor of The Maywrite Library, an index of the abundant classic crime fiction available at no cost on the Web.)
Biographical details are scanty for Welsh-born Ethel Lina White (1876-1944), author of more than a dozen crime novels and a popular writer during the 1930s and ’40s. She worked in London for the Ministry of Pensions, and after publishing three mainstream novels began writing mysteries and thrillers, the first of which was Put Out the Light (1931). Her last book was They See in Darkness (1944), published the year she died.
Although the Abergavenny Local History Society has put up a plaque at her Frogmore Street birthplace in that town, she is now generally overlooked, and her chief claim to fame today is that her 1938 novel, The Wheel Spins, was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes (1938).
Some time ago I stumbled over another of White’s novels, her gripping 1933 work, Some Must Watch (also known as The Spiral Staircase), and I am happy for this opportunity to nominate it for The Rap Sheet’s list of great but forgotten books.
Some Must Watch is set in The Summit, an isolated country house on the Welsh border. The household is headed by scholarly Professor Sebastian Warren, with his elderly spinster sister, Blanche, acting as housekeeper. Other residents include the pair’s widowed stepmother, Lady Warren, bedridden and of evil temper, and the professor’s son, Newton, and man-hungry daughter-in-law, Simone. Young Stephen Rice is there to be coached for a civil-service job by the professor, Mr. and Mrs. Oates serve as general handyman and cook, and Nurse Barker has just arrived to care for Lady Warren.
The story opens as Helen Capel--working for the family as a lady help, a polite term for dogsbody--hurries back to The Summit after an afternoon walk. Darkness is falling and she feels distinctly uneasy, as well she might given that four girls have recently been murdered in the area. As Helen reaches the safety of the house, she sees a man lurking in the tree plantation next door--or is it only a trick of the fading light? Nevertheless, she is relieved when the time comes for her nightly duty of locking doors and shuttering windows.
Shocking news arrives not long afterwards. Another girl has been found murdered, this time on the other side of the plantation. As a safety precaution, Professor Warren decides nobody may leave or enter The Summit that night, even though Mr. Oates has just departed in search of a fresh oxygen cylinder for Lady Warren. Just as the professor finishes his announcement someone starts to knock loudly at the front door ...
Thereafter the story unfolds in the enclosed world of the rambling house, a dwelling featuring three stories and a basement with a labyrinth of passages and corners. It is a building with plenty of shadowy hiding spaces, the more so as not all of it is equipped with electric light. With Mr. Oates gone, eight persons are locked inside the shuttered Victorian house as a gale and torrential rain lash it. Because of their number, they feel safe from any prowler who might be able to get in, until those remaining in the house begin to depart one by one for reasons that are quite understandable and indeed inevitable. As their ranks are reduced, the remainder start to cast suspicious glances at each other ...
Some Must Watch carries the reader along right from the beginning, ratcheting up suspense to the screaming point, yet without the excess of gore to which numerous modern-day works are regrettably prone. The novel makes use of readers’ expectations of behavior, of characters who may or may not be what they seem, the whole presented with a fair amount of masterly misdirection and psychological study. It’s an excellent read for a dark and stormy night. Just make certain you’re locked in and the windows are closed and shuttered before you begin.
The full text of Ethel Lina White’s Some Must Watch is available on the Web. Click here.
Next Friday, the choice of a “forgotten book” will be made by Jeffrey Marks, the author of Who Was That Lady? Craig Rice: The Queen of the Screwball Mystery and the just-published Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography. Marks admits to having written all his life, and claims that these two works were inspired by his reading “cheap” books of the 1940s and 1950s in order to save money. As moderator of the e-list Murder Must Advertise, he rules with an iron fist but also offers marketing tips for writers on his Web site. His latest novel is The Scent of Murder, a current-day mystery set in Cincinnati at a department store's cosmetics department.