Fear Stalks the Village (1932) by Ethel Lina White

This is quite a momentous read for me, as it is the first new to me White novel I have been able to get my hands on for a reasonable price since 2016. Sad I know, but at least this book didn’t disappoint.

Our setting is a country village, which would definitely apply for the most idyllic village award, if there was such a one. From the get go we are told that the village presents a polished veneer, ‘private lives were shielded by drawn blinds’ and I absolutely love the line that ‘scandal [was] nearly as rare as a unicorn.’ Within it is Spout Manor, owned by queen bee spinster, Decima Asprey, the narrator referring to the other villagers as her ‘subjects.’ Although philanthropic, is there a steely note to her beneficence? An outsider jokes around with what the villagers’ are really like, hypothesising and imagining Asprey’s secret past, the local children’s author’s hidden drink problem, amongst other scandalous ideas. Yet it seems someone else in the village has had similar ideas, though theirs has led to that most awful of things: a poisoned pen letter. What unfolds is no sudden explosion of letters, but a slow release of poison, letter by letter, like an infection which soon begins to disintegrate the social life of the village, as rifts and misunderstandings fester. Death punctures the narrative, from time to time, until eventually the local reverend writes to an old friend, who just so happens to be an idle, rich, amateur sleuth, called Ignatius Brown. Can he solve the mystery before the village falls apart?

Overall Thoughts

Ordinarily mystery novelists don’t often have their entire mystery plot revolve around poison pen letters. Use them as background and as leverage for a murder yes, but have them as the sole focus, decidedly no. Perhaps this is because poison pen letters in and of themselves do not always command the same amount of reader attention, as murder does. Yet White certainly provides us with one of the exceptions to the rule. How you ask?

Well firstly she provides a masterclass in showing how mistrust and fear spreads around the village, to the extent of fear itself becoming almost like a character in its own right. I would go as far as saying that she outstrips Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, in this regard. Secondly, White has such a good knack for creating memorable lines. I’ve already mentioned one favourite above, but another has to be this one, describing Ignatius’ motoring activities in the village:

‘Insignificant as a monkey on a milk-float, he steered his glittering monster through the winding lanes, with Charles Dickens [the reverend’s dog] – who had acquired a luxury complex – for passenger.’

The minds of my puzzle obsessed blog readers will be put to rest with my third reason White knocks it out of the park with this novel and that is the puzzle she presents her readers with, because it is good, really good. This is not something I was struck with immediately but it is definitely an aspect of the plot which gains momentum as the story unfolds. The strength of the puzzle of course relies on the characters she creates as she well and truly leads the reader up the garden path in this regard and White launches more than one well aimed red herring at the reader, as well as several sneaky clues which I completely missed, but are there in plain sight. I was quite surprised really by how intricate and yet how plausible the final solution is, especially given the poison pen focus. I would rate this as one of White’s best novels, which makes it a shame that it is much less well known, a timely reprint is definitely called for. A copy of this, at the moment, will set you back around £10-15 in hard copy, but if you are a kindle user you will get this book far more cheaply.

Rating: 4.75/5

On a final note if you get the edition shown in the post, beware that the blurb on the back is quite misleading and distortive. Like other White novels, publishers have been keen to make full use of any female protagonists, to the extent of making their roles far more central to the story than they actually are.

19 comments

  1. Sounds intriguing, and while I’ve heard of Ethel Lina White before, I don’t think I’ve actually read any of hers. I see it’s very inexpensive on Kindle (at least in the US) and Amazon seems to indicate some print edition is also available on Prime, so I think I’m going to have to check this one out. Thanks for adding to my TBR pile again!

    Liked by 1 person

    • haha your welcome! White has a hard style to define exclusively, so you get quite a bit of variation in her novels. Others I have enjoyed are: Some must watch, The Wheels Spin and The Man Who Was Not There. Hope you enjoy your first experience of White!

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  2. Ethel Lina White is such an underrated writer. I was about to say this is one of her best, but I really think all her books are the best! Fear Stalks the Village truly gives the sense of building up to something evil.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve read 11 of her 14 crime novels, so obviously enjoy her work very much! My favorites, in addition to the two well-known ones, are The First Time He Died, She Faded into Air, Wax, and While She Sleeps.

        The last one follows two different timelines, of the victim and the criminal, and shows how random events affect both of their plans, until everything comes crashing together at the end. A complex plot that runs like a Swiss watch.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Wow that’s a lot. Think I’ve read only 5. I have TFTHD in my TBR pile though, so glad that is a good one. I’ve read SFIA but I wouldn’t say it was a favourite. I preferred The Man Who Was Not There. WSS sounds intriguing though.

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      • Wow that’s a lot. Think I’ve read only 5. I have TFTHD in my TBR pile though, so glad that is a good one. I’ve read SFIA but I wouldn’t say it was a favourite. I preferred The Man Who Was Not There. WSS sounds intriguing though.

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  3. Thanks for the review. 😊 It seems to me that the review is just about the only one with a rating of 4.75? Elsewhere it’s either 5 or 4.5. Thanks for the recommendation – I’ll source a copy on my local Kindle store.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Not sure which of hers you ought to read before that then lol I wouldn’t recommend Some Must Watch for you, as it is not your sort of thing. The Wheel Spins and The Man Who Was Not There, are more likely options, but I’m not sure. I’ve The First Time He Died in my TBR pile so we’ll have to see what that one is like for you.

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  4. Better than The Moving Finger????? The gauntlet is thrown!!! I just shelled out a momentous 99 cents for my first taste of Ethel! I read the blurb on Amazon with amusement after reading your post, Kate: I assume Joan Brook’s thirst for love is not the main focus of this novel!!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Before you burst a blood vessel or accidently stand on a cat, I did say this book was better than TMF in one specific respect which was in the way it describes the effect the poison pen letters have on the village. I am sure in other respects the novels are equal and/or Christie pushes into the league. Panic over lol And yes Joan’s love is there, but it is really not the main thrust of the story as it is quite panoramic at times in terms of characters, along with its focus on the reverend and Ignatius Brown. To be honest I was quite intrigued by White using this type of amateur sleuth as normally she uses a HIBK heroine for the task. Really hope you enjoy your first White novel, though I am surprised you have not tried her work before.

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  5. There are far too few mystery novels about crimes other than murder so I will put it on my reading list. I see it is on Project Gutenberg Australia. Since she died more than 70 years ago, European readers can download it from there with a clean conscience.

    Liked by 1 person

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