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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The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White

…aka The Lady Vanishes

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the-wheel-spinsA young Englishwoman, Iris Carr, is travelling home alone from an unspecified European country. Suffering from sunstroke, she nearly misses her train but a helpful porter shoves her into a carriage at the last moment. The people in the carriage clearly resent her presence – all except one, that is. Miss Froy, another Englishwoman, takes Iris under her wing and carries her off to have tea in the dining carriage. When they return, Iris sleeps for a while. When she awakes, Miss Froy has gone, and the other passengers deny all knowledge of there having ever been another Englishwoman in the carriage…

This is the book that has been made into more than one version of a film under the title of The Lady Vanishes. The basic plot is very similar – Iris is struggling to get anyone to believe her story, partly because she has made herself unpopular with her fellow travellers, and partly because each of those travellers have their own reasons for not wanting to get involved in anything that might delay the journey. But Iris is determined to find out what has happened to Miss Froy, as much to prove herself right as out of genuine concern for the other woman.

We first meet Iris when she and a group of her friends are staying at a hotel in the mountains. They are modern and loud, with the arrogance of youth, and are entirely unaware and uncaring that they are annoying the other guests. When Iris has an argument with one of her crowd, she decides not to travel home with them, but to wait a day or two and go on her own. But as soon as they leave, she begins to realise how lonely and isolated she feels, especially since she doesn’t speak a word of the local language. White is excellent at showing the superior attitude of the English abroad at this period – the book was published in 1936. When the locals don’t understand her, Iris does that typically British thing of speaking louder, as if they could all just understand English if only they would try a bit harder. White also shows how Iris and her gang use their wealth to buy extra attention, and Iris’ assumption that money and looks will get her whatever she wants. All this makes the book interesting reading, even if it doesn’t make Iris a terribly likeable character.

The Hitchcock version - The Lady Vanishes
The Hitchcock version – The Lady Vanishes

Once the mystery begins, White adds an extra dimension to Iris’ concern for Miss Froy by making her begin to doubt her own sanity. There are shades here of the way women were treated as ‘hysterical’ – not really to be depended upon, creatures of emotion rather than intellect. There’s an ever-present threat that the men, baddies and goodies both, may at any time take control of Iris’ life, deciding over her head what’s best for her, and that the other passengers would accept this as normal. With no friends and no language skills, Iris finds herself very alone for almost the first time in her life, and growing increasingly afraid. Oddly, it reminded me a little of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper – the idea that a woman could so easily be declared unstable or even ‘mad’, and find herself treated so dismissively that she might even begin to doubt herself.

Ethel Lina White
Ethel Lina White

There’s also one of those romances of the kind that would make me snort with outrage if it happened in a contemporary book, but which works fine in a novel of this period. You know the kind of thing – man meets ‘girl’ and falls instantly in love even though he thinks she’s a hysteric and quite possibly insane, because she’s very pretty, after all; and she loves him right back even though he treats her like a slightly retarded three-year-old, or maybe like a favourite puppy, because he’s awfully handsome and quite witty. Admittedly the rest of the men are all so much worse that I found myself quite liking him too…

White’s writing is excellent and, although the motive for the plot is a bit weak, the way she handles the story builds up some great tension. She’s insightful and slightly wicked about the English abroad and about attitudes to women, both of which add touches of humour to lift the tone. And she rather unusually includes sections about Miss Froy’s elderly parents happily anticipating the return of their beloved only child, which gives the thing more emotional depth than I’d have expected in a thriller of this era. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and am looking forward to seeking out more of White’s work, and to re-watching the Hitchcock version of the movie.

Book 4 of 90
Book 4 of 90

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