Some Must Watch aka The Spiral Staircase by Ethel Lina White

A dark country house in the middle of nowhere. A murderer has been stalking the countryside nearby and the inhabitants of the house, especially the young maid Helen, are battening down the hatches for safety. A feeling of terror is pervading the house and as the killer creeps closer – apparently – the occupants start behaving even more erratically than normal.

As the numbers in the house start dwindling, Helen begins to worry about something pretty obvious – is it possible that the killer is locked in with them rather than locked out?

Inspired by next Saturday’s Bodies From The Library panel where Sarah Ward will pit Elizabeth Daly against Ethel Lina White, as championed by Christine Poulson, I thought I should check out both authors as, while they have been on my radar, I’ve not read either of them before. After the disappointing The House Without The Door – apparently not the best choice – I figured Ethel Lina White would triumph in the head to head. I picked this one ahead of The Wheel Spins aka The Lady Vanishes. I wonder whether that would have been a better choice…

Because this one… well, it’s very atmospheric. Unfortunately the atmosphere in the house is all anybody reacts to. If I just wanted atmosphere then I can always go here:

Yes, there’s another death eventually, but almost the entire tale is about what the characters think is happening, rather than what actually does.

Admittedly, some exciting things may have happened in the latter half of the book, but I’d mentally switched off by then. There are people who like this one but it just wasn’t my sort of thing. A tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

So Daly wins this for me, admittedly almost be default. She, at least, was trying to construct a formal mystery plot, despite grabbing one of the oldest chestnuts out there, which at least one modern mystery best-seller used as well. But this one… Not Recommended, I’m afraid.

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17 comments

  1. Daly wins this for me, admittedly almost be default. She, at least, was trying to construct a formal mystery plot

    . . . and White was trying to do something else. White’s writing style does take a little getting used to (at least, it did for me) but, once that’s been accomplished, her stuff is well worth its while, I’d say.

    I recently rewatched the 2013 BBC adaptation of The Wheel Spins, as The Lady Vanishes. It’s much closer to the novel than is the Hitchcock version, which merely takes the premise and runs with it, and I was reminded of how much more rewarding the novel actually is — in particular in its depiction of the central character, who’s actually rather flawed as opposed to being just another Bright Young Thing.

    I haven’t read any Daly, so must give her a try.

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    • True, each to their own, but this just didn’t work for me. It’s rare that I feel the need to get used to a writer’s style if it doesn’t work for me – there are so many untried authors out there rather than persevere with one that I really didn’t click with.

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    • Yeah, I thought that’d be your reaction… Just didn’t work for me. Felt like an atmospheric tale of pin the tail on the loony rather than a mystery novel – not that it ever pretends to be a fair play mystery, I’ll grant you that…

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  2. Coincidentally, I am reading Spiral by Paul Halter which also concerns a spiral staircase. I am sure you would like it !

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  3. As with Wheel Spins, this also works better as edited down in the screenplay. Mood is the thing with this author — try the “poisoned pen” novel by her Fear Stalks the Village (I think).

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