Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White

The long and the short of it…

🙂 🙂 😐

An insane murderer is rampaging through the countryside, killing young women. Helen, a young woman, has taken a job with the Warren family in their manor house right slap bang in the middle of where the murderer is doing his thing. But she’s perfectly safe, because there are lots of other people in the house with her. Except that, for one reason or another, gradually all the other people either leave the house or become incapable of helping. Soon Helen is on her own… or is she??

Fairly recently, I read Ethel Lina White’s short story, An Unlocked Window, in the British Library’s Murder at the Manor anthology. While I can’t find a direct reference to back me up on this, the book and the story share so many similarities that I’m convinced the story is a reworking of the book – the book was written in 1933 and the story six years later in 1939. I thought the short story was great – with a credible plot and really effectively scary. The book, on the other hand, has so many sillinesses that I found it quite hard to take seriously, and it’s so stretched out and repetitive that any scare factor disappeared long before the end was reached. Perhaps I’d have felt less critical if I hadn’t read the story first – having seen how well the premise worked in the short form, my expectations might have been too high going in.

There are good things about it and overall it’s a light, entertaining read for the most part, although I did find myself beginning to skim in the last third, feeling that I was more than ready for the thriller ending. It has a nice Gothic feel to it, with the rambling old house and a bunch of eccentric and not very likeable upper class characters, whom White, via Helen, has some fun showing up as arrogant snobs and relatively useless members of the human race. The servants come off much better, though they’re not exactly saints either. To call Helen curious would be an understatement – she pokes her nose in everywhere and always has to be where the action is. The cook likes to drink her employer’s brandy, while her husband’s main feature is his laziness. But still, they all have good hearts, which is more than can be said for the Warrens. On the whole, I enjoyed the characterisations although unfortunately Helen annoyed me intensely throughout.

Challenge details:
Book: 38
Subject Heading: Murder at the Manor
Publication Year: 1933

My first real problem is with Helen’s position in the household. I have no idea what she’s actually employed to do. She refers to herself as “the help” but beyond dusting the bannisters occasionally so she can eavesdrop on conversations, I couldn’t work out her duties. If she’s supposed to do housework, then how come she’d never been in the Professor’s study before that night? If she’s a maid, she most certainly wouldn’t don an evening gown and eat her meals with the family, as she does. In fact, I can’t think of any servant other than a governess or a companion who would ever have eaten with the family in a household like this one, and she’s neither of those. So right from the start, credibility was gone.

It is assumed by everyone that Helen is to be the murderer’s next victim – no idea why. Perhaps she was the only remaining young woman in the district. The assumption is also that he’ll come for her this dark and stormy night (despite him having committed another murder just that afternoon – prolific!). So Professor Warren puts all kinds of safety measures in operation which everyone then promptly ignores, even Helen, who doesn’t seem to be able to remember basic things like don’t open the door to potential murderers late at night. Gradually all the people who could have protected her either leave the house or become incapacitated in one way or another, until she is left only with horrible old Lady Warren, whose hobby is throwing things at menials, and Lady Warren’s even more horrible nurse, whose hobby is tormenting Helen. It’s a fun premise, but it takes far too long to get there. The ending when it finally came sadly didn’t surprise me (although it’s entirely different from the short story’s ending) – it had seemed increasingly obvious as time went on, both whodunit and what form the denouement would take.

Ethel Lina White

I didn’t dislike it as much as this critical review is probably suggesting – for the most part, it held my attention and was quite amusing. But in the end I’d recommend the short story far more highly than the book – it’s tighter and most of the extraneous stuff is stripped out, meaning that it works much more effectively as a chiller thriller. I can only think White herself must have felt that she could do better, so took the main plot points and created something much better. I find it interesting that Hitchcock chose to use An Unlocked Window for an episode of his TV series, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, rather than filming the full book, and he knew a thing or two about scariness! However, this book was filmed too, as The Spiral Staircase, and I’ll be watching it soon to see how it compares to the written version.

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34 thoughts on “Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White

  1. I know what you mean, FictionFan, about not warming to Helen. And it’s hard to really, thoroughly enjoy a book if you can’t find yourself caring about at least one of the characters. Still, that house sounds absolutely dripping with atmosphere, and it sounds as though it did hold your interest. Glad you found some things to like.

    • I was intrigued to see how much better she did with the short story six or so years later – clearly her skills had been developing in the interim. A real example of the whole “less is more” thing!

  2. Is Helen is some sort of companion who occasionally has to dust? She seems like a typical horror movie heroine, who goes where she’s certain to be murdered.

    • No, it was very odd – nobody for her to be a companion to, no children for her to be governess to. Haha – but she did have all the necessary attributes to be a victim… 😉

  3. The Unlocked Window was one of my favourite stories in Murder in the Manor. You can see why her tales were much loved by Alfred Hitchcock. My only disappointment with it was that I worked out whodidit (as it were) fairly quickly. That said, I’d still recommend it.

    • I loved The Unlocked Window too, and could see why Hitchcock used that rather than this for the basis of his adaptation. But I very much enjoyed The Wheel Spins (The Lady Vanishes) so I’ll be happy to try another of hers sometime…

  4. I haven’t come across this one, and thanks to your review, I know I won’t have to go searching for it! While some short stories lend themselves to lengthening out into novels, others don’t work as well. It sounds as if this is one that doesn’t do the trick. Sorry you had to end the week with a 3-star read, but that gives me hope for Monday!!

    • Yes, the odd thing about this one was that the book came first and then the short story later. Clearly she must have been honing her skills in the interim and realised the plot suited a short form better than a stretched out novel…

  5. Ah, as I began reading your review I immediately started thinking I knew the story. I checked and of course I have read Murder at the Manor and that Ethel Lina White short story which was so good. It seems as if the later novel must have been influenced somewhat by that earlier story. I can see why dragging it out to a full length novel might not have the same impact.

    • I loved the short story too – one of my favourites in that collection. The odd thing is that the book came first this time – I’ve often seen an author expand a short story, but I’m not aware of any other instance where they’ve gone back and condensed a novel. Wise move though – it worked so much better in the short format…

  6. Sounds like Helen’s job was Murder Victim! Smart, really, if a murderer is targeting young women simply hire a younger woman to hang around you so you don’t get murdered!

  7. I’ll be interested to see what you think of the film version-I’d like to watch it instead of reading the book I think. I can see why this book would be entertaining, but the logical gaps in the plot are always super annoying. by the way I think this is one of the funniest reviews you’ve ever written!

    • Still haven’t got around to watching it, nut I must soon, before I forget the story! Haha – I’m glad you enjoyed it! It tends to be when a book disappoints that it brings out my sarcastic side… 😉

  8. Love the review and I’ll try and read the short story at some point but I have to say characters being incredibly stupid when they are in peril is one of my pet hates and opening doors when you think a murderer is gunning for you has to be up there with the most stupid of acts!

  9. Catching up on some posts I missed last week… I am a big fan of the one story I’ve read by White in one of those British Crime Library collections. “Waxworks” I think it was called. I’m glad to know that this one worked better as a story since I do intend to read more by White. I chuckled at the line about Lady Warren liking to throw things at menials!

    • I loved the short story version of this, and also felt it probably showed she’d developed quite a lot as a writer. I also thoroughly enjoyed The Wheel Spins – the book the film The Lady Vanishes is based on. I still haven’t managed to get hold of Waxworks, but I must. Haha – yeah, I don’t think Lady Warren would be winning any prizes as Employer of the Year! 😉

  10. The snarky attitude in this book review encourages me to write reviews of my own with a similar tone of books that I did not enjoy. Even though I didn’t enjoy a certain novel, that doesn’t mean my readers can’t enjoy my review and get a good giggle or two out of it, like I did here.

    • Haha – glad you enjoyed it! I have to admit that some people only visit me for my less-than-appreciative reviews, but I’ve taken to abandoning books if they don’t grab me now, so I don’t do them as often as I used to… 😀

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