The First Time He Died (1938) by Ethel Lina White

All avid readers have their authorial standbys, writers they can depend on to deliver the goods and White, in the main, is one such author for me. My expectations were certainly heightened going into this book, based on my last White read – Fear Stalks the Village (1932), which I read in August and loved.

The book begins with the announcement of Charlie Baxter’s death, not by fouls means but by plain and simple old flu. There is no serious thought of murder, just perhaps some concerns over medical negligence; a doctor past his best and an unsympathetic wife. Eyebrows are also raised due to the third wheel in the household, lodger Puggie Williams. Is there a dalliance going on there? No one would say they were close to Baxter, but he was well-liked, got into the spirit of the social life of Starminster and could be relied upon to dance with the less desirable partners. However by the end of Chapter 2 the reader knows that not all is as it seems. After all Baxter is still alive… Baxter’s less pleasant side begins to show through as well and the reader is plunged into a three person insurance scam. Initially the trio have had beginners luck but they are not out of the woods yet… Many dangers without and increasingly within the group, remain to be faced.

Overall Thoughts

Now keen mystery fiction readers may think they know how this inverted mystery will pan out. I was definitely one such person, yet you can rely on White to go in a different direction with the big and small elements of the plot and don’t go underestimating those small parts… Never has White surprised me more with such an inconsequential, yet incredibly dark moment than she does half way through this book. The narrative after the funeral takes odd twists and turns, so the reader does not know where it will end. As one problem is resolved another one crops up for one or all of the trio.

I found it unusual that the principle character is a male, as White’s novels invariably place a woman as the central protagonist, such as in Some Must Watch (1933), The Man Who Was Not There (1941) and The Wheel Spins (1936). Baxter makes for an interesting protagonist, as he certainly plays with your sympathy levels, yet it is hard to think of another character whose carelessness is so dangerous. His co-conspirators are not the only ones wondering how well they really know him. Yet it is no one man show and Vera, Baxter’s wife, is also another strong character of the book, as again your attitudes towards her undergo a shift as the story unfolds.

The plot of this book, as well as its characters really gripped me, so I flew through this book, yet I was still able to stop from time to time to admire White’s writing style which include a number of gems. Her style is often concise yet it packs so much in. You really feel like she has considered every word, such as in this line: ‘It was a terrible shock for her, when the man who had reminded her that she was a woman as well as a ratepayer flicked out of her life, in one casual sentence by the librarian.’

Whilst a dark ending is foreshadowed you’re never sure what is on the cards, nor who will be holding the winning hand at the close of the novel and when I finally reached the end I found it to be a very powerful and dramatic finale and certainly not one you would predict from the opening chapters. Another strong read by White definitely makes me think that her work should be more widely available, as well as adapted from. Her ability to craft suspense as well as her well-developed female characters would fit in well with current mystery fiction and TV adaptation trends. This is by no means the easiest book of White’s to obtain but there are copies out there so I would strongly recommend picking up a copy if you find one.

Rating: 5/5

27 comments

  1. This was well-timed since I had such a good experience reading one of her short stories yesterday. This sounds even more to my taste and is available in a very affordable ebook edition. I will look forward to checking it out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I noted that story within your review. Wish there was some kind of collection to get of White’s short story work. She works best in novel form but I still think she was quite good in the shorter format as well. The inverted element should certainly appeal to you.

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    • I don’t feel I have read enough of her work to be honest. I have only read 6 books and reviewed 5 of those on the blog. Fear Stalks the Village probably has the best puzzle component. Some Must Watch is a great read but is of the suspense/heroine in peril genre which not all GAD fans enjoy. The Wheel Spins a.k.a. The Lady Vanishes was my first White experience and I loved it, though the ending is not as dramatic as it is in TV/film adaptations. The Man who was Not There has quite an unusual setting – remote country house during a black out in WW2 with a private zoo. My least favourite was She Faded into Air. Since she doesn’t really write the same story twice, she is a hard person to summarise, without having read a lot of her work, as it is too easy to present a skewed impression based on a handful of books. But generally speaking she leans towards a female protagonist.

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      • I picked up Stalks for 99 cents a while ago, based on your review, but think I’ll read this one first.

        The Hitchcock movie of Spins has those two soccer fans, Charters and Caldicott. I have the impression they were not in the book? In any case there is now a series where they are the detectives!

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      • I’ve not seen the Hitchcock film, though I think it plays a little fast and loose with the plot/characters. The more recent BBC adaptation probably sticks closer to the original text. It’s a been a while since I read TWS so I can’t remember names etc.

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      • The characters Charters and Caldicott are actually cricket fans. They do not appear in the book.These humorous characters proved so popular that they were featured in 3 subsequent films (the same actors playing them):Night Train To Munich (1940), Crook’s Tour (1941), Millions Like Us (1943). These characters also appeared much later in a 1985 mystery TV series with obviously different actors playing them.

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  2. Thanks for the review, which makes domestic suspense and inverted mystery sound appealing – I decided to collect both ‘First Time He Died’ and ‘Fear Stalks the Village’ in my Kindle, But I must confess that the Elvestad title and the Vivian title sound like they would be right up my alley. 🤩

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      • I will remember that. I generally give Golden Age authors 2 or 3 tries before giving up, if only because I usually already have the books on hand. I am noting this one especially to follow up on because it is an inverted mystery.

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  3. Well you obviously haven’t gotten to HER HEART IN HER THROAT, have you? That will be your let down, I predict. The narrator is a nitwit of the worst HIBK sort. I couldn’t stand her and gave up on the book well before the halfway mark. Maybe it was meant to be a satire. I failed to find the character an object of ridicule, just plain irritating and supercilious. Rex Stout hated it too. In a personal copy he owned he wrote on the flyleaf: “surrendered p. 59” My favorite of hers so far is THE THIRD EYE. This one looks very hard to get outside of the Kindle edition. I still don’t have an eBook reader though the universe is hinting strongly that I *must* purchase one soon if I’m ever to read some of these books that are impossible to find (or absurdly overpriced) in a print edition.

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    • True this is not an easy one to get a hold unless you’re happy to buy a print on demand copy from Germany. I’ve managed to resist buying a kindle so far. I can see its usefulness but it’s just not the same. Thanks for the warning and the recommendation. I’ll keep my eyes peeled. How many ELW novels have you read so far?

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