Ethel Lina White: Best to Worst (of What I’ve Read So Far)

Between 1927 and 1944, White wrote 17 novels. Of these 17 I have to date read 9 of them. Having made it over the halfway mark I thought it might be time for another of my ranked lists. Unlike some of the other rankings I have done this list was pretty easy to decide upon.

So without further ado, let’s begin with the title in last place…

9th Place – The Elephant Never Forgets (1937)

Despite having read this book over a month ago I am still recovering from the irritation this story aroused. My review title says it all: How Hard Can It Be To Catch a Train? I was drawn to try this tale by its unusual setting – Communist 1930s Russia. However, the setting is not enough to compensate for the tedium which ensues, and which really does revolve around the protagonist, Anna’s, inability to get on a train. The book is too long, and the thin plot is so full of near-crisis situations that when the full-blown crisis finally appears, the reader has no enthusiasm remaining to care what happens to Anna. As in my review I strongly recommend not starting with this book first, (or at all really!)

8th Place – While She Sleeps (1940)

The plot of this story centres on Miss Loveapple as she goes about her ordinary life, visiting London and going on holiday to Switzerland. Yet the opening lines indicate that: ‘There was nothing to warn her that, within the next hour she would be selected as a victim to be murdered.’ But despite the comic crime premise, this book does not pan out well. The book has a number of issues. Firstly, it has too many plot elements thrown in and the quantity of them affects the quality of how they are developed. Then when the mystery begins to appear promising the other plot threads demanding attention tear the narrative away from it and ultimately it is not resolved in a satisfactory fashion. The romance element is also brought about in an unconvincing manner.

7th Place – Step in the Dark (1938)

This was my last read by White and unfortunately it was not a very strong one. Notwithstanding the intriguing metafictional premise of a thriller writer being imprisoned by the man she thought was going to marry her and being compelled to write a thriller on her current experience, this novel doesn’t deliver. The pace is peculiarly slow in this one and seems to embody the juxtaposing label of a passive thriller. The two key problems with this book are its frustrating heroine and the fact that White creates such devious crooks that she can’t come up with a credible way of rescuing her protagonist. Another one I think readers can safely pass on.

6th Place – She Faded into Air (1941)

In this story Evelyn Cross manages to disappear into thin air inside a Mayfair mansion. Unusually, (for White), a male private detective is called into investigate. This is an okay book though contemporary editions have rather misleading blurbs and covers, as they suggest that there is one female protagonist to follow in the HIBK manner. Yet in practice this book has a much wider character focus, and along with the urban setting, this story has a much less tense atmosphere. A dramatic HIBK angle is given to the ending, but it is begun too late and ends rather abruptly, making it all rather anticlimactic.

5th Place – The Man Who Not There (1943) a.k.a. The Man Who Loved Lions

In spite of being in 5th position, this story is still a good read. It has an unusual setting of a country mansion, set in WW2 England, which also just happens to have a private zoo. The action takes place at night during a blackout and of course the various characters are moving about the zoo. Never a very good idea… especially when certain characters lie about where the dangerous animals are! This book is an interesting variation on the plot in which various characters come to regret agreeing to a college reunion. The group dynamic is very well realised in this story and White reveals her talent in depicting psychological tension. In terms of improvements this book needed a little more pep in the middle and the ending needed to have the dramatic action take place on, rather than off stage.

4th Place – The Wheel Spins (1936) a.k.a. The Lady Vanishes

This was my first read by White, which is not surprising given that it is one of her best-known titles, due to the Hitchcock adaptation, and is therefore one of the most easily available ones. The plot focuses on Iris’ train journey home. She is struggling with her society girl image and her past loud behaviour casts her in a poor light when she realises that one of the train passengers has gone missing. Worse still no one else claims to have seen her, and those who did, soon find reasons to lie. White creates a suspense-filled atmosphere as the deadline for Iris to save herself and the other passenger comes ever closer. The first half of the book is tightly plotted with small events dovetailing with one another. Additionally, White puts British people on holiday under the microscope, avoiding a jingoistic portrayal. The ending is perhaps a little limp in comparison to the way it has been rendered on the silver screen, but again I think this is because White pushes her characters a little too tightly into a corner.

The titles after this point are very close together in quality.

3rd Place – Fear Stalks the Village (1932)

In this tale a country village is contaminated by a poison pen writer and deaths begin to occur from time to time. An amateur sleuth is called into investigate by the local reverend. Normally poison pen letters are a prelude towards a central murder case which then takes over the plot. However, in this book White keeps the poison pen letters as the key focus, and she uses this to great effect. This is primarily due to her gifts in depicting psychological tension and in this story fear becomes almost a character in its own right. For puzzle-focused readers this title is probably one of the books best suited to you, because as the plot unfolds, the puzzle aspect becomes ever more prevalent, and White certainly took this reader up the garden path. Red herrings and sneaky clues are also very much present.

2nd Place – Some Must Watch (1933)

Now my first piece of advice is that you shouldn’t read this book home alone, on a rural property, during a stormy night. A piece of advice which may or may not come from first-hand experience… This book is White’s other most widely available novel, again perhaps because of its film adaptation. The female protagonist is secured within a country abode on a stormy night. A serial killer is on the loose in the area and by degrees the suspicion falls upon her that just maybe that killer is inside the house… Allies are clearly removed one by one and deciding who her allies are in the first place is far from easy. White’s atmosphere and tension writing skills are on top form in this book and her use of imagery and small incidents contribute to this significantly. This time when the tension reaches a crescendo the ending does not disappoint the reader. The range of female characters is engaging and the female protagonist, Helen, is a grittier heroine than you normally get in such novels. She has her head screwed on, as they say, and whilst she is not infallible, her faults are well-crafted. The romance element does not drown out the rest of the plot either. This is a book well worth re-reading as I found on a second read that there are much more themes and ideas going on, than an initial read suggested, ranging from eugenics and women in the work force, to topics which preoccupied the Fin de Siècle literary scene.

So last but certainly not least, in…

First Place – The First Time He Died (1938)

Well it does seem rather fitting that this novel came first, given the title. This book centres on a three-person life insurance scam, with Charles Baxter pretending to have died of the flu. A wife and their lodger are his confederates. But as the plot shows not all goes to plan, with dangers coming from outside and within the trio. This is an inverted mystery, yet White’s plot diverges from the path you would expect it to take. Surprise is definitely what the reader can expect from this book, with White cleverly using small inconsequential events to great and dark effect. This is a book which has a gripping plot as well as gripping characters and in my original review I wrote that:

‘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.’

And this is a comment which I still stand by. This is a brilliant book by White and it deserves to be better known. It also deserves to be adapted, as the central trio would work really well on the small screen. I feel slightly bad recommending this title so warmly as I cannot find any physical copies online for sale. However, kindle owners will be able to pick up a copy much more easily and cheaply.

As always I am interested to see how much others agree with me, and I also hope I have shone a light on some of White’s less well-known titles, as well as provided some inspiration as to which White novel to read next. Finally, I am not sure which White novel to read next myself, so if you have enjoyed a title not on this list, then let me know!

Other Ranked Lists

14 comments

  1. Interesting, Kate. I rate She Vanished into Air more highly, The Man Who Was Not There, much less highly. You really must read Wax! That would be high up my list. Almost as scary as Some Must Watch.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. While I suspect you mentioned it when you first reviewed “Some Must Watch” the film version “The Spiral Staircase” was an effective version which is well worth watching. However, although I saw the film first I still prefer the book. This was in part I because I had the image of the character actresses in the film playing the cook and the mother when reading so in effect I had the best of both worlds.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t mention the film within the review itself, but I did discuss it with a friend in the comments. I remember enjoying the film as well and the introduction of Helen being mute as well, added to her peril quite nicely.

      Like

    • Thanks! Glad you’re enjoying them. It’s great to be at a stage where I have read enough to be able to do these sorts of lists for some authors. Being able to look back at my reviews and their ratings is a big help.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.