In honor of the month that gives us All Hallows' Eve I return to Ethel Lina White, who, if not one of the Golden Age British "Queens of Crime," nevertheless was certainly, among Britons, the Golden Age's Queen of Chills (also see my March piece on the author's The First Time He Died).
Ethel Lina White's 1937 novel The Third Eye was the book that immediately followed into print White's celebrated novel The Wheel Spins (filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes). Like its predecessor, it's a doozy of a suspense novel.
It's hard to explain (and even harder to justify) why Ethel Lina White is so forgotten today. Not only The Wheel Spins but White's classic Old Dark House tale Some Must Watch (1933) was quite successfully adapted to film (the latter as The Spiral Staircase--arguably the film in fact not by Hitchcock that is most commonly assumed to be an Alfred Hitchcock film); and in my view, at least, she produced at least a half-dozen classic suspense novels. Yet it is hard to find genre histories giving White much credit today (though Some Must Watch has been brought back into print).
|Ethel Lina White|
Personally, I prefer Ethel Lina White to the much lauded Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox) and would love to see more of her books back in print. It surprises me that feminist mystery genre criticism, which has done so much for the cause of the Crime Queens, has done so little for Ethel Lina White.
Let's take a look at The Third Eye specifically.
Like several other other Ethel Lina White tales (such as the one set in the Soviet Union during Stalin's Great Terror), Eye strikes me as rather unconventional. When I first read the book I had no idea where the narrative was going. It starts like Josephine Tey's Miss Pym Disposes as a girls' school novel, hops on board a bus to become a transit thriller like The Wheel Spins, then ends up as a village Gothic shocker. It is successful in each of its incarnations, building slowly but surely to a crescendo of nail-biting suspense.
|Stay on the bus....|
|the attractive hardcover American edition|
(just ignore the coffee spills)
"I feel that in these days of upstarts and profiteers, a long pedigree means everything. Do you not agree?"
"No....that's all old stuff....I place personal achievement far higher....I can't see that any one has a right to feel elevated above the crowd just because he is standing on a pile of moldy bones."
Also worth noting is the very sympathetically presented Jewish schoolgirl, daughter of New Money, who plays a pivotal role in The Third Eye.
Perhaps the modern tone in this novel is not surprising, when we consider that Ethel Lina White's own father, William White, was an innovator who became wealthy in home-building though his "patented dry-roofing process."
But let's not spend too much time here analyzing The Third Eye for sociopolitical implication. It's a superbly suspenseful tale, and thus superbly enjoyable for the fan of mystery genre fiction. The ending chapter in particular is beautifully fitting. Surely The Third Eye is one of the best portrayals of evil older women in the literature of English mystery, right up there with Shelley Smith's The Party at No. 5 (1954). Let's leave Ethel Lina White with the last word:
"She was gripped again by the sensation of having invaded some strange region outside time and space, where no one cast a shadow and nothing grew but finger-nails...."