Step in the Dark (1938) by Ethel Lina White

Georgia Yeo, a successful writer of thrillers, a widow and mother to two children; (Merle and Mavis, aged 7 and 8), is on holiday in Brussels. Her agent hopes she will eventually marry his older brother, Osbert, (clever but shy). Yet she is swept off her feet by a Swedish Count named Gustav instead. He whisks her and her two children off to his remote Swedish island to see their future home before Georgia and he tie the knot. However, when they arrive on the island, cut off from land and communication with the world it is revealed that Gustav has other ideas in mind. It turns out he is an aristocratic swindler and before he and his gang can launch their next con, they need some ready money, and this is where Georgia comes in… She is to write a new book, a thriller, with the plot based on her real-life circumstances of being imprisoned on the island. Gustav is confident that no one back home will ever suspect it is anything more than fiction and he and his confederates do not muck about when it comes to anticipating any and all eventualities. In theory she and her children can leave once Gustav has the advance money, yet is Georgia merely writing towards the demise of herself and her children? Can she get any message through to her friends and family?

Overall Thoughts

In a nutshell Georgia is an odd person. She is not fully a nincompoop who is blinded by her own naivety, yet neither is she an effective heroine who is resourceful and who can make sensible decisions. It is hard to tell whether she is genuinely surprised by the Count’s villainy or whether quite frankly part of her knew he was wrong’un all along and decided she could tease temptation before making a retreat. Her publisher thinks that Georgia was

‘specially vulnerable to attack [from an adventurer]. Apart from her work, her nature was plaint and credulous, while she had only just emerged from voluntary exile. This was her first holiday after years of high-pressure writing, when she had lived in the world of her own lurid imagination.’

As a thriller writer she knows the type of people who are usually up to no good and the terrible things that can happen to someone if they marry the wrong person. She goes on to talk about her ‘dread of mental domination’ and says that: ‘perhaps it is because I’m used to inventing thrilling plots that I can imagine how fatally easy it would be to give in to someone you had grown to trust implicitly.’ Clearly her imagination though is no safeguard against predatory men, as if this ‘dread’ was quite so pronounced then I don’t think she would have done what she did. Her eyes, in a way, are fully open, yet are not fully prepared to follow through with the sensible course of action.

Interestingly this fear of trusting the wrong people and being under their thumb is the influence behind Georgia’s decision to sign over all the capital made from her books to her daughters. In her head if she so happens to marry a bad man then at least her children will be financially provided for. This led to many questions. Does Georgia really think this is likely to occur? Or is it because she has made this provision that she feels she can make that type of “thrilling” and exciting mistake without severe consequences? That she can play with fire and get away with it. After all she is under 30, we are told, and her first husband was seemingly a suitable older match. Yet he lost all their money and committed suicide. Georgia worked for years to achieve her financial security afterwards. She bluntly points out to her agent that she can experience life with a capital L if she marries Gustav, rather than Osbert. Is Georgia willing to risk everything and throw all caution to the wind to grasp at that glamorous life she seems to think she has earned?

Georgia invariably thinks one thing and does another as initially she is adamant that she will only ‘make the plunge’ with Gustav if she could be ‘absolutely sure of his character.’ Yet she doesn’t really follow up on this at all. Moreover, it is said around their engagement that ‘she felt the pull of his attraction, she was conscious of equally strong antipathy.’ Again, this last emotion is not very much explored and when she is unsure about her plans she tends to find herself fighting against it and marching herself and her children in the other direction. Perhaps we could see Georgia as a heroine more in the Bronte mould, rather than the Austen one. Her fallibility smacks more of the former than the latter. You can never really picture Emma Woodhouse, Elizabeth Bennet or Fanny Price making the sort of mistakes that she does.

Moving on from inconsistent nincompoops, the Count is a very adept fortune hunter and a highly unusual one. He is not smoked out using the conventional means, nor is he after money through the normal channels. His plan is nothing if original and his home on his island is far removed from any gothic predictions. His home has ‘every modern convenience, labour-saving, artistic decorations.’

To be honest I don’t think White can fully bring herself to sincerely invoke the full on melodramatic ditzy and dizzy heroine in jeopardy formula. There are many points in the narrative where the dialogue enters a period of bathos which upends any of the conventional tones and atmosphere usually generated through such plots. For example, when the Count is courting Georgia and is telling her about his home he says:

‘I want to make you envious. And then, perhaps, I can persuade you to stay with me. Stay for a very long time.’

Strong hints indeed! But how does our heroine reply?

‘Tell me about the cost of installing the heating system. I live in the wilds, too.’

Her response to their own first kiss is equally a little on the bizarre and stilted side: ‘What a startling technique…’ The Count even more bizarrely replies with, ‘Have you never been kissed before?’ Even Georgia is confused at this point saying: ‘Didn’t I tell you I had two children? Remind me some other time to tell you that I’ve been married.’ Their dialogue is arched and whilst the earlier parts sound like they come from a bad romance novel, I don’t think this is because White is a poor writer. If she was writing a true love scene, I think she would have written much more differently and authentically. The artificial tone gives the scene a lack of reality and their love a lack of credibility. It is all for show and when the gloves come off later in the book their professed love vanishes remarkably quick on both sides.

Just under half the book is dedicated to the events leading up to the group arriving on the island. Personally, I feel this length should have been shortened, as I am not sure it all fully adds to the plot since the reader gets the picture of what is going to happen pretty early on. The second half of the story on the island is also sort of lethargic and for a thriller it is surprisingly passive at times. The only bit which really adds a sense of peril are the children. They are not informed about what is really going on, but if they overhear anything and begin to talk about it then their lives as well as their mother’s will be over. It is a bit like someone with a baby trying to hide from a killer, hoping their child won’t wake up and cry and alert the assassin as to where they are.

The children are fairly precocious at times and to be honest it is a bit disconcerting and creepy at times. They too play their own unconscious role in moving their mother and themselves to the island and their potential doom; an aspect White employs well. I don’t think the reader will like the children, but they have their moments where a tactless remark of theirs feels somewhat satisfying.

Plot wise I think White boxed herself too tightly into a corner in two ways. Firstly, she cuts communications far too effectively and Georgia’s friends and family are hard pushed to get suspicious. This grounds the plot to a halt nearly so White has to make quite a big leap and push to get the book going towards its finale. Secondly, her villains are far too good at their job. Any reasonable actions on Georgia’s part are foiled, so the cards are stacked impossibly against her ever getting off the island. The ending is only achieved through events which could be described as miraculous. Ultimately despite emotions running high in the denouement, the conclusion to the story is ludicrously cut short and is incredibly limp. Given the unconventional aspects of the book, (which I have tried to not spoil), I think more was expected of the ending, as the conclusion we’re left with leaves a myriad of loose ends. These aspects had the making of an unusual and a rather good story, but unfortunately I don’t think White brought them together effectively enough to make a really satisfying novel.

Rating: 3.5/5

See also: Rich at Past Offences and Moira at Clothes in Books have also reviewed this title.


    • I’m probably in the middle on the issue, as it does vary from book to book. It depends on what their role is and how big it is. But the characterisation of children characters is quite tricky I think. Precocious-ness as a trait is a very risky one to use. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.


  1. Thanks for the shoutout. It’s a while since I read this one, but I think I enjoyed it. I remember that it was a beautiful contemporary house, rather than the dark Gothic manor we might have been expecting.

    Liked by 1 person

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