Wednesday, 18 March 2015

White Nights: the forgotten suspense classics of Ethel Lina White

Ethel Lina White (1876-1944)
I'm always on the lookout for books to read in the middle of the night while breastfeeding infants. After extensive testing, I have found that the perfect book is one which is just sufficiently exciting to keep me from falling asleep mid-feed (and waking hours later with a crick in my neck), while not being too gripping to get back to sleep promptly. The 20th century suspense novels by John Buchan, Josephine Tey and Mary Stewart fit the bill nicely.
I was on the lookout for similar light vintage thrills when I discovered the Welsh crime novelist Ethel Lina White. Innocently, I picked up her suspense masterpiece Some Must Watch from a discount bin outside a local news agent. It was shockingly good--but much too chilling for midnight reading.
This is how you will act for a few days after reading Some Must Watch.
I've now managed to hunt down about half of her novels (The Passing Tramp has managed to read some I haven't), and her unpretentious craftsmanship has won my wholehearted admiration. One of the things I love about her is the way these unabashed potboilers brim with themes that provoke and surprise by their, well, goodness.
White's thrillers show us that there are no small lies; that great people ignore ordinary people at their peril, pride and vainglory meet their demise at the hands of the humble; that evil is real and lives just around the corner; that gossip can kill; that appearances deceive, but sometimes in the very reverse of the way we expect. (It's probably quite reasonable to postulate her familiarity with the book of Proverbs at least, given the Methodist Chapel-pervaded culture of late 19th century Wales.)
White is enough of a craftsman to convey these things without stale didactism. You might not even spot them, while you are busy appreciating her delicious vintage characters and cracking good plots. It is no small achievement to write thrillers that are morally satisfying while being nail-bitingly suspenseful with a terrifyingly potent vision of evil.
Here's a quick guide to the ones I've read so far.

Some Must Watch

A red-haired heroine ("ginger for pluck") must survive a stormy night trapped in a Welsh manor along with an assortment of highly-strung characters - one of whom is a serial murderer. Or is the murderer outside, trying to get in?
This one is practically perfect in every way. It even observes the Aristotelian unities. YES!
You can read a more in-depth review from the incomparable Suzannah at Vintage Novels here.

The Wheel Spins

This one formed the nucleus of one of my favourite Hitchcock films, The Lady Vanishes, and you can also find it published under that (vastly superior) title. Typically, the film takes White's catchy premise somewhere quite different (and equally entertaining). This premise has proved so appealing that Hollywood has adapted it several times, most recently and without credit (grr!) in the film Flight Plan.
A self-absorbed socialite seems to be the only person to notice the disappearance of a mousy fellow passenger on a train journey through Europe. Is it a conspiracy, and will our heroine have enough spunk and decency to stand up for an ordinary little spinster whom everyone wants to forget? White has given us a heroine with overtones of Jane Austen. Read another Suzannah review here.

A Step In the Dark

I think I just died and went to potboiler heaven. A young widowed writer of cheap thrillers seizes her chance of a fairy-tale future in Europe...and finds herself in a nightmare. Her only hope of escape may be her own powers of invention. Does she have the nerve and skill to write herself free from her island prison?
If I say any more about this very Hitchcockian cautionary tale I will spoil it. I loved the way romantic tropes are turned on their heads in this one, and White proves with the heroine's two little girls that she can write children really, really well. This one is so good I'm giving you the Gutenberg link right now. So go read it.

Fear Stalks the Village

With its cozy village setting and large cast of quirky characters, there's more than a bit of Agatha Christie going on in this mystery and it will please those who like their crime served with tea and plenty of 1932 English ambience. At its heart, it's a treatise on the deadly effect of gossip on a picture-perfect community, but I defy you to predict how it will resolve.

She Vanished into Air

This one was utter nonsense and I cannot recommend it to any but the most desperate of White fans. I can only imagine that she had a pressing bill to pay. She managed to produce 14 thrillers between 1931 and her death in 1944, so she's allowed to have an off day, right?

While She Sleeps!

Apparently, this one was written partly as a farce and White seems to be poking fun at elements of her own style while keeping the thrills coming. Miss Loveapple is an amusing and memorable heroine and I honestly could not guess whether she would choose romance or her cozy single life up to the last page. There's the occasional sense of whip-lash from the back-and-forth between frothy and menacing, but still enjoyable.


I resisted reading this one for a while because I couldn't see how even White could do anything even remotely classy with a thriller set in a decaying waxworks museum. But she did. A large cast of morally-complex characters populate this weirdest and creepiest of White's works with multiple layers of twists.
Folks, let's put Miss White back in the limelight after more than half a century of neglect. To be punny about it, she's scarily good.


  1. I read "Some Most Watch" on a Saturday afternoon, and was so terrified afterwards that I haven't read any more. But I'm glad you liked them! :)


  2. Oh, Schuyler, you mustn't let "Some Must Watch" scare you away. It's a scare-rating of 10 to "A Step in the Dark's" 6 or so. Do you like B&W Hitchcock films, like "Stagefright"? I can't stand horror, but I love suspense. "Some Must Watch" was definitely putting a toe over the line for me.

    1. I haven't watched any Hitchcock. But you give me fresh courage to try another White sometime. :) I do like a good bit of suspense, just not stuff that makes me afraid of dark corners at night!

    2. "A Step in the Dark" is more likely to make you afraid of flashy suitors with remote islands - which isn't such a bad thing, is it? ;)

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