A little while ago fellow blogger, the Puzzle Doctor, tried his first novel by White, this very one in fact. Yet whilst this is my favourite read by White, it unfortunately wasn’t the Puzzle Doctor’s cup of tea. After my initial mature response of ‘what??????????????’ I decided to give the book a re-read to see why I loved it so much. Was it just down to atmospherics? As the first time I read this book I was home alone on a stormy night; (very effective atmospherics which definitely back fired when I wanted to go to bed). Or was there something more?
For those who haven’t read the story, firstly why haven’t you? And secondly let me fill you in on what the story is all about. There is a serial killer on the loose, whose victim of choice is young working women. This is definitely not good news for our protagonist, Helen Capel, who fits this description; nor is it good news that the killings seem to be getting closer and closer to the house she works at. Initially she is not too scared, after all the house she works in, although remote, is bodied with a number of robust inmates who could repel any attack. However a lot can happen in one evening. Pillars of strength become undermined by alcohol or are put out of the way seemingly by accident. Tensions and jealousies destructively flare up in this confined space, leading to a number of departures. Moreover, there is the invalid, Lady Warren, who rules the roost and certainly has a good aim when it comes to throwing things at people. Yet she too seems to be hiding something dark and sinister. After all it is rumoured she murdered her husband. Her concern for Helen is eerily cryptic, alarmed by the trees which walk. Eventually as sources of help dwindle for Helen, she comes to the unpleasant conclusion that within this locked home is a killer…
Well first things first I still love this book. Not sure why I worry I won’t enjoy a book on a re-read but there you go. In particular what made this a good re-read was that it allowed me to notice things that I missed on my first reading, then again I think I was a tad preoccupied with the noises outside my window and the question of why the dog was barking. Anyways here are some of the reasons why I love this book…
Reason No. 1 – Atmosphere
Though I wasn’t quite so susceptible to the pervasive terror of the book, (sensibly reading it during the daytime), White’s ability to create a credible increasingly frightening atmosphere is impeccable and she does this from the very first pages. In particular I noticed how nature is used in the setting to induce fear in Helen or to conceal malevolent humanity. For instance White writes that, ‘the evergreen shrubs on the lawn seemed actually to move and advance closer to the walls, as though they were pioneers in a creeping invasion.’ Immediately this line reminded me of the closing act of Macbeth and throughout White’s story, (which like Macbeth looks at natural and unnatural order of things), other references are made to Shakespeare’s play. Though I wouldn’t equate Helen with Macbeth, I would say they both take on more than they can handle and both have moments where things they rely upon are taken from them.
But literary allusions aside, White is just fantastic at creating dramatic imagery such as when she writes that, ‘tattered leaves still hung to bare boughs, unpleasantly suggestive of rags of decaying flesh fluttering from a gibbet.’ Now that’s certainly an image which gets you thinking! In addition I think White makes her characters contribute well to the atmosphere, giving the story an And Then There Were None (1939) feel to it. Stephen Rice, sums it up well in the story when he says: ‘Our generation isn’t afraid of any old thing – dead, alive, or on the go. It’s being cooped up together like rats in a drain, that gets me.’
Reason No. 2 – Tension
I suppose this reason is a little bit similar to my first, but in my opinion tension and atmosphere are still two distinct things. What I loved most about the tension in this book is the way White works up to her final crescendo. The tension at the start is not overdone and can be classed as intermittent, which White achieves through contrasting small events, with mock terrors being paralleled with ever increasing real ones. Helen touches on this herself in her own way when she says, ‘just whenever the drama seemed to be working up to a moment of tension, the crisis always eluded her and degenerated into farce.’
Reason No. 3 – Contrasts
Contrasting images are not just used for creating tension in this story, but are also used in a darkly ironic way. The story begins with lots of images which emphasise how secure the home Helen works at is. For her it is as secure as a ‘fortress,’ ‘an armoured car’ or a ‘solid hive of comfort.’ Yet of course this illusion is ultimately taken from Helen when she realises that the danger is within. Another form of contrast in the story is the tension depicted between savagery and civilisation, particularly within the characters themselves. A particularly good example can be found in a description of the man-oholic Simone: ‘her eyes glowed with primitive fire, and her expression hinted at a passionate nature. She was either a beautiful savage, or the last word in modern civilisation, demanding self-expression.’
Reason No. 4 – Helen Capal
I am not always a fan of the HIBK type of protagonist, but Helen seems to work for me. A key reason is probably the way White writes this sort of character. Helen is not born with a silver spoon in her mouth and has had to work hard for her living and perhaps it is this impoverished background which gives her character a bit more grit. In the opening of the book she is described as a ‘realist, used to facing hard economic facts, and not prone to self-pity. Of soaring spirit, yet possessed of sound common sense.’ In keeping with the book’s title she is a professed people watcher and happily uses her employer and his family as a free version of the cinema. Helen is by no means infallible, but I think her faults are well crafted, with her curiosity getting her into a number of pickles. There are hints of romance in the air for Helen, when the handsome young doctor enters the scene, but I think White deals with this aspect well, not allowing it to drown out the rest of the plot. All in all I would say Helen stands upon an ambiguous middle ground, eager for love, but not overwhelmed with it as this following example suggests:
‘Those derided Victorians, who looked upon every man, as a potential husband, certainly extracted every ounce of interest from a dull genus. Yet, while she respected the Professor’s intellect, and genuinely looked forward to the visits of the young Welsh doctor, she resolved to go on buying Savings Certificates, for her old age. For she believed in God – but not in Jane Eyre.’
Reason No. 5 – Some Must Watch and Jane Eyre
On my first read of this book the quote just mentioned above completely passed me by. But having grabbed my attention this time round it quickly got me thinking, as in a number of ways this book forms a response to the tropes included in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In fact if anything I think White’s novel presents Jane Eyre as escapist literature, to a degree. The woman in the tower, is now an alarming invalid, supposedly confined to her bed. Whilst Jane and Helen have similar backgrounds, I would say Helen definitely avoids having the chip on the shoulder which Jane has. Both though have a fear of a particular room, Jane’s is the infamous red room, whilst for Helen is it blue. Alas for Helen there is no Mr Rochester per say, though I think White plays around with this figure quite cleverly in the story.
Reason No. 6 – Range of Female Characters
Though there are four main male characters it is the ladies which by and large stay in your mind, covering a wide range of character types. I definitely had a soft spot for the cook Mrs Oates and her response to the problem of the serial killer is classic: ‘No, miss, I’ve seen too many work-shy men to be scared of anything in trousers. If he tried any of his funny business on me, I’d soon sock him in the jaw.’ I also enjoyed the sinister and curious Lady Warren, who even Helen finds to be an admirable curmudgeon.
Reason No. 7 – More Than Just Thrills
Although my first couple of reasons have emphasised the bumps in the night aspect of the story, this reread has definitely shown me that there is more going on in this book. Amongst all the terrors and predicaments there is, for instance, a pervasive Fin de Siècle atmosphere. For example, there is a fight between the spiritual and the material point of view on life and like many novels written during the late 19th century, White’s novel has a number of characters with a dual sense of personality, such as Mrs Oates, who becomes quite a different person after downing half a bottle of brandy and of course the serial killer, whose murderous designs are concealed behind a respectable appearance. Issues such as eugenics and whether having more woman in the workforce is a good thing, also arise in the story in quite dark circumstances. In particular the nurse suggests to Helen that the reason why the killer is targeting working women is because he is ‘very likely […] a shell-shock case, who came back from the War, to find a woman in his place. The country is crawling with women, like maggots, eating up all the jobs. And the men are starved out.’ You can trust White to come up with striking images and this maggots one definitely tops the list, as well as tying into the underlying discussion of decay and degeneration in the story.
Reason No. 8 – The Ending
I obviously don’t want to say too much about the ending, but it is definitely deserving of a place on my list of reasons for loving this book. It is magnificent in its drama, its incomplete closure and the incongruity of images it presents. I would also say it is a reworking of an ending found in a novel published a few years before it, though I will let readers figure out which by themselves.
So yes this is a story to read with the lights on, though if you’re anything like me, it’ll still leave you sitting on the edge of your seat. White’s depiction of human psychology is deftly done, showing how innocent and insignificant events can pave the way for a killer. Hopefully, though, this post has given you at least one good reason to give Ethel Lina white a go.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Staircase
She Faded Into Air (1941)
The Man Who Was Not There (1943)