Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White

Perfect for sleepy drivers.
One of the delightful things about holidaying with friends is the opportunity to snack on their bookshelves. I had the opportunity to read Peter Hitchens's book The Rage Against God with one set of friends, and enjoyed it very much, of course. Then upon our arrival at our second stop, I found my hostess explaining to her mother--

"I only wanted you to sequester it for the night so that I could get some sleep. Not keep it."

As it turned out, the subject of this discussion was Ethel Lina White's 1933 thriller novel, Some Must Watch, and before I left, I got to read it as well.

Helen Cadel is a "lady's help" at a lonely mansion housing Professor Warren, his sister Blanche, his fractious but sinister aunt, his petulant son and vampish daughter-in-law, his student, and his two servants. A serial killer has been murdering young girls in the neighbourhood, and when Helen stays out later than she intended on her walk one afternoon, she senses herself being watched. But in the safety of the mansion, surrounded by people, she feels safer...

Until Lady Warren hints at danger. Until the killer strikes again. Until, one by one and for perfectly good reasons, people begin to leave the house. Outside, the wild weather hints at some threat to the house, but before long Helen begins to wonder if the killer might be inside it.

Some Must Watch is one of those neat, easy, effortlessly capable books which does its job modestly, grips you with crushing suspense, and then retreats to the back of your mind as rather a good little story. It will not change your life. It will not shake your world. It will not give you the question to the answer, "42."

Nevertheless, it is a remarkable example of just how unobtrusive excellent writing, plotting, and characterisation can be. If there's one word to describe this novel, it would be "deft", and skill like this--sketching characters with just a few words, cranking up nail-biting tension--is hard to come by. 

Plus, the book appears to have been written by a Christian. There are a number of jabs at modernity--one character, for example, is described like this:
She was either a beautiful savage, or the last word in modern civilization, demanding self-expression.
The result was, the same--a girl who would do exactly as she chose.
Helen, reared in a convent, hangs a cross over her bed. At dinner, the sophisticated Professor and his family discover this and confront her about it:
"What does it protect you from?" he asked.
"From all evil."
"Then as long as it hung over your bed I suppose you could open your door to the local murderer?" laughed Stephen.
"Of course not," declared Helen, for she stood in no awe of the pupil. "The Cross represents a Power which gave me life. But it gave me faculties to help me to look after that life for myself."
"Why, she believes in Providence, too," said Simone.
Helen's belief that her life is a gift is what gives her such a zest for it. But the lurking killer has decided that her life is not worth living--a prophetic stab at eugenics. And this in 1933, when countries all over the world had their own eugenics programs, and Hitler's doctrine of "life unworthy of life" had not yet been proven a tool for genocide.

With this insight and clarity, Some Must Watch is an excellent read and something rather more than just another well-crafted thriller. I enjoyed it quite a bit, though I don't recommend reading it at night or in an empty house!

Free ebook

As it turns out, this isn't the first brush I've had with Ethel Lina White, who was a popular novelist in her time. Another book, The Wheel Turns, was loosely filmed by Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes, one of our favourite vintage movies. Some Must Watch was also filmed, as The Spiral Staircase.


Lady Bibliophile said...

Oh no, I can't get this in print! My inexhaustible state-wide library system has failed me at last...

I'll have to read it on the computer when I get the chance. Sounds like fun!

Samalah said...

Well, based on your excellent review (and the handy link to free electronic version - thank you!) how could I pass this up? Have downloaded to my phone, to await those ever elusive leisure moments...

Christina Baehr said...

Ooh, goody. Thanks for reviewing this. Btw, the edition I lent you lacked the Shakespeare epigraph that properly begins the novel (you'll find it in the e-book), though no doubt you recognized where the novel's title comes from anyway. :)

Lady Bibliophile, you may find it at your library as "The Spiral Staircase" as it was published with that title also.

I've read two more of White's novels now and I've got another out from the library! I think you'd really enjoy "The Wheel Spins", Suzannah. I'm gearing up for some sort of post one day once I've read this fourth novel of hers, but who knows how long that will take, so it's nice to see her name getting out there in the blogosphere in the meantime (and by my favourite blogger, too).

Suzannah said...

Can't wait to read your review, Christina. If you blogged more often you'd be MY favourite blogger ;).


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