I have been a fan of White’s two most famous novels The Wheel Spins (1936) and Some Must Watch (1933), for a while now and spurred on by reviews of other White novels this year, I decided to track down a few more of her works. I think going into this book I had a number of expectations based on these last two reads, some of which were met, others not and it was interesting to me as I was reading to see if this defying of expectations made it a better or worse read.
The majority of this story takes place in London and from the very first page we are told that Evelyn Cross inexplicably vanishes into thin air at an old mansion in Mayfair, which has been converted into flats and offices by Major Pomeroy, who lives onsite. Along with her father, Raphael Cross, she came to visit Madame Goya, who reputedly hand makes gloves, but in reality reads fortunes. Closeted with Goya alone, her father, the Major and a typist waited outside. Eventually wondering what is taking so long, Cross enters Goya’s room, only to find that his daughter is not there. Goya says she has already left. Yet how did she leave? Various witnesses seem to prohibit a normal exit on Evelyn’s part and even getting in builders to remove panels and floor boards reveals no secret hideaway. For some reason keen to not involve the police, Cross enlists a private detective, Alan Foam.
From the very start Foam is dubious of the case. Dubious of Cross and his daughter. Dubious of the other residents and dubious of odd occurrences such as Evelyn’s shoes being found inside a clock. He is also very drawn towards one resident in particular, an out of work mannequin, Viola Green, who is definitely more than a pretty face and not out of work for much longer when Cross gets her a job as a companion to a multimillionaire’s daughter, Beatrice Sterling, who is guarded all the time to prevent her from being kidnapped. The disappearance of Evelyn continues over many days, but when it seems to have come to an abrupt conclusion is that the end or just the beginning? This is certainly not your run of the mill abduction case and it takes until the final pages to be finally unravelled…
One of my expectations for this book was for there to be well-developed female characters and one central female which the narrative follows, a notion suggested by the blurb. However, in this case I got 1 out 2 as although there are many well developed female characters, who have elements of the unexpected and at times are hard to pin down, there is no one lead female protagonist, regardless of what the blurb says. This blurb in question presents the story with Viola Green as its lead, implying her life is put into terrible danger. In reality Viola does feature throughout the story but not in an active way until near the end (which I think is what the front cover of my edition must be based on – again very misleading).
Despite this she is an interesting character which I warmed to a lot. When I first read she was a mannequin/model I was a bit worried she would be quite vapid and superficial, which is how women with such jobs can be portrayed in fiction. Instead though she is a woman with brains and personality and ‘in spite of her pose of nonchalance, there was no hint of stereotyped boredom in her face. Her expression in its vivid expectancy was a challenge to the future, as though she claimed the maximum from life and refused to admit to compromise.’ She also unusually has strong views on the law which she thinks values property over humans:
‘Why didn’t you tell that young man… that you’ve lost an exclusive model gown? Leave out all mention of the girl who was wearing it. She’ll only weaken the case… Don’t you realise that no one cares about the human element? All the laws are framed to protect property.’
Viola is also an interesting character in how she contrasts with Beatrice, the woman she becomes a companion to. Beatrice being a young, spoilt and overly protected woman, is a character you would normally write off as an annoying and selfish character. Yet I think White complicates this stereotype. She doesn’t whitewash Beatrice, but nor is she merely the typical rich girl. This complexity is well captured in a line she says to Viola:
‘Silly? But I am not exactly unintelligent… I mean to do something definitely constructive with my wealth… So it does not amuse me to be regarded by R.C. – and yourself – as a pedigree Peke which has to be kept on a lead.’
There is a feeling that she could and wants to develop and mature into being a more normal person, yet the lifestyle she is made to lead hampers this ambition, limiting her experiences and infantilising her. Viola is therefore quite useful in giving her reality checks and throughout the story both women are curious of the other, noting perceived pros and cons about the other. White is even able to create some sympathy for Beatrice in the reader, emphasising how environmental factors have made her the way she is.
Foam is a more prominent character in the book and has much more to do with the actual case. He too is interesting as the language used to describe him makes him a mixture of hardboiled detective and HIBK heroine. For instance the hardboiled element can be seen when it is said that:
‘On the whole he was disappointed with the work. Instead of adventures, his main activities were protecting people from blackmail and aiding them to procure divorce. In the course of a few years he became tough and cynical, with no illusions as to the fragrance of hotel bedrooms and with a conviction that the human species had evolved the most deadly type of bloodsucking parasite.’
There is also Viola’s perception of Foam as ‘belong[ing] to the things which were real,’ contrasting with the larger than life lifestyle of the Sterlings. Yet this hard image is undermined when it is noted how much his mother wants him to marry and there are many foreshadowing sentences in the narrative where it is suggested that if only Foam had known or done such and such then X wouldn’t have happened. I think it was this unusual mixture which made Foam an enjoyable character to read about and it also meant that he fitted well with Viola.
In The Wheel Spins and Some Must Watch, there is a prominent female character which the reader follows, as they unravel a mystery, against all the odds, as danger after danger or obstacle is pitted against them. Yet this is an expectation which didn’t appear in this book. The cast is larger and the focus much wider, until 20 pages from the end, where a HIBK heroine plot attempts to take off, but is abruptly curtailed, in manner which unfortunately made the ending very anticlimactic. I think this wider character focus and the mainly urban setting altered the atmosphere of the book and in comparison to the other two books, there was much less tension.
So yes I have to say this book was not as good as the other two I have read. Whilst I could cope with the lack of expected female lead, I think the ending was rather weak and I also think the writing lacked its’ usual suspense and tension. However, this does not mean this is a book to avoid or not to enjoy as there is lots to like about it. It is just that I really loved the other two books and therefore had different expectations. In some ways it might be best to start with this book before reading White at her best, where she can write such tension and suspension (see Some Must Watch), that you don’t want to turn the light off. The central mystery is very clever and I was only able to deduce aspects of, yet it was well clued in many respects and the end summing up does refer back to important bits of conversation and action. The characterisation and character psychology in the book is also very strong as it is hard to neatly pigeon hole them, especially Raphael Cross and even Foam has to alter his first, second and even third impressions. Moreover, in some ways this is a story which feels strangely modern at times, which I found surprising considering its’ original publication date. It feels like it is from a later decade.