The Black Stocking (1947) by Constance and Gwenyth Little

For my final blog read of the year, I decided to return to two authors who have become firm favourites. Whilst there are some crossover elements between their works, such as a working woman protagonist, the Littles have plenty of ingenuity up their sleeves and I must say today’s read is quite a different novel from them.

It all begins with an awkward road trip. Irene Hastings is taking her co-worker, Ann Miller, to Tilton, but detouring to go to the mental hospital so she can see her sister first. Irene fears this will hold them up and she definitely hopes she doesn’t have to share her hotel room with her. Ann is convinced her sister, Doris, should be released and that she was incarcerated unfairly to begin with, based on fabrications made by Doris’ nursing colleagues. Yet when Irene drives them away from the hospital she quickly realises that the other woman in the car is not Ann, but Doris! She decides to drop Doris off at the rendezvous point anyways, but boy is that mistake! Clark, Doris’ friend quickly claims to his nephew Dr Ross Munster, who has found out about the escape, that Irene is Doris, the escaped patient, which leaves the real Doris and Clark free, but with Irene trapped at Munster’s private hospital. Normally such a plot device would stretch for the entire novel, but the Littles are not so predictable, with the narrative resolving and re-branching out in a different direction. Be prepared for moving corpses, a headless nurse and even a platinum blonde nurse; a hidden will, a larger than life mother and of course sinister goings on in the middle of the night…

Overall Thoughts

I am glad to say I ended my year of reading on the blog on a high note. It is hard to not have fun when reading a Little mystery, as they’re always such great adventures. The private hospital milieu added a note of novelty and Irene is an intriguing protagonist. Her approach to romance is ambiguous, neither nor wholly hard headed. Despite the mishaps which befall her she does not give into panic or self-pity and makes a number of sensible decisions. I think this character choice helps the book avoid becoming a Mary Roberts Rinehart type novel. Gothic infused hysterics are not pandered to. The Littles I think after all do not want to instil fear into their readers, but laughter, which thankfully they do rather well. There is much fun to be had over the varying and changing explanations for why Irene and her mother are at the hospital, in order to keep staff on side and patients in beds. The matchmaking/romantic comedy element is also underplayed, which I for one thought was a sound idea. Elsie, Irene’s mother, is a brilliant character and is in fact quite a “character,” indulging in loud fashion choices and also keen to be at the centre of all the action. Some elements of the plot stretch credulity a little too far, but they are done in such a way that you don’t really mind.

Pacing is well-tuned as always, as events only take place over three days. The plot may seem initially somewhat simplistic, but the Littles quickly unfurl a more elaborate narrative, with something much more sinister afoot than you first surmise. The solution is quite an intricate and complex one for these two authors, elements of which I think Carr or Christie would happily have used themselves. The evidence for this ending is somewhat hurried but having read a number of novels by the Littles, I have come to the conclusion that they are terrors for truncating the endings of their stories. Not sure they knew you could write a story longer than 190 odd pages…

This issue aside I enjoyed this read and it certainly had me turning the pages at a rapid rate of knots to find out what would happen next. Whilst the Rue Morgue Press did reprint a number of the Littles’ novels, it is a shame that their work is still somewhat hard and expensive to track down, as they certainly knew how to write an entertaining mystery and I think they would be a popular fixture in any publishers’ catalogue.

Rating: 4.25/5

P.S. Just a thought on the early part of the plot, i.e. the issue of being wrongfully mistaken as an asylum patient. Such a plot trope crops up a fair number of times in fiction, not just in mystery novels, but even in earlier Victorian tales such as The Woman in White. It has me wondering whether the repetition of this device denotes it as a cultural anxiety which was prevalent at these times. Was it that easy to be erroneously admitted into a psychiatric department? Or was this fear unsubstantiated? Equally I am left wondering whether this theme still remains as a feature of modern fiction as well? Or has that anxiety been quelled?

24 comments

  1. An account of how easy it was (is?) to get into a US psychiatric hospital: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosenhan_experiment

    Private psychiatric hospitals were even more notorious in Victorian times – at least, as long as someone was willing to pay to keep people in. I think Sheridan Le Fanu as well as Collins features such a place. The stigma went on into the twentieth century – Dr. Verringer in the Long Goodbye, for example.

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      • I don’t know about Victorian fiction, but in real life it was probably Victorian women who were put away more often. A wayward son could be sent off to the colonies with a small allowance and left to drink himself to death or repent, but what about a wayward daughter? There was also the fact that men had more power – Edward Bulwer Lytton tried to get his wife Rosina locked up in a private asylum because she spoilt his political career – and the expectations of women – look at The Yellow Wallpaper, which was inspired by the methods of Silas Weir Mitchell, who was actually a famously humane and progressive physician. Think what the others were like!

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  2. Thanks for the review – nearly missed out on this post in a hasty bid to find out your reflections on the year as a whole. 😅 Maybe I should have picked up “Black Iris” instead; the book I ended 2018 with turned out to be Nicholas Blake’s “Question of Proof”. Which I found to be well-written as a novel, but slightly less compelling as a puzzle mystery.

    Interesting comment about psychiatric imprisonments and Victorian fiction – I suppose part of the anxiety stemmed from the fluidity of definitions of insanity? Whereby transgressive behaviours could be regulated/contained within contemporary ideologies by being branded and suppressed as “madness”, under the guise of receiving necessary medical treatment and care.

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    • Easily done since I have posted 4 times in 2 days. Probably clogging everyone’s email accounts now.
      QOP is a good first novel, but it is by no means Blake’s best. However since you don’t like to read the best first, this has probably not been a bad introduction.
      As Roger says asylums especially in the 1800s were such horrible places (and even in the 20th century though perhaps for different reasons), that fearing wrongful imprisonment seems fairly justifiable. Your idea of fluid definitions would have exacerbated this fear further. There are obviously films such as Clockwork Orange, but in terms of fiction in the last 20 years I haven’t come across this theme as strongly.

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  3. Women in particular were at risk of being incarcerated against their will and kept there pretty much indefinitely – there is a fabulous modern novel where this happens and I won’t say more as it would be a spoiler.

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