Friday, October 19, 2012

Nailbiter: The Third Eye (1937), by Ethel Lina White

"No, no, not that!  People didn't do things like that.  Not ordinary people--and not in England....Only she was not in England.  She had left her own familiar country when she jumped out of the Streamline Coach into this bewitched village of terrible old women...."

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
Julian Symons refers to the sort of books written by Ethel Lina White as "conventional stories about slightly simple women in danger."  The casual sexism one finds in this dismissive description is not representative of Mr. Symons in particular, but rather, I believe, a larger, once-prevalent attitude among some critics about so-called "women's suspense" novels: that they're slightly silly books about slightly simple women, not to be taken at all seriously.

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....

What's perhaps most strikingly unconventional about the book is its rejection of of England's genteel, class-ridden, country past and its embrace of middle class modernity.  Of course this is another one of the long cherished myths about Golden Age British crime fiction: that it uniformly looked backward, romanticizing England's agrarian age.  Yet in the case of The Third Eye (I'm giving nothing away here) the villainesses are two deliciously repellent older gentlewomen (decayed morally as well as economically), while the heroine is a modern, young games mistress (men are on the periphery).

the attractive hardcover American edition
(just ignore the coffee spills)
This exchange from the book turns a lot of the conventional wisdom about the Golden Age British crime novel right on its head:

"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...."


  1. I had no idea that there was a sequel to The Wheel Spins. Looking forward to your post.

  2. Neer -

    It's not a sequel at all. It was the book White wrote after The Wheel Spins. That's what Curt means by "follow-up" not to imply a sequel. It's a creepy, Gothic "old dark house" thriller -- the best she wrote of that type, I think -- with some very nasty female characters. I look forward to what he has to say about The Third Eye.

  3. What a blunder!(Head -desk). Guess I became too excited.

    White is such an under-rated writer and now I am really curious about those nasty female characters. :)

  4. Neer and Jon, thanks. Here it is is (finally!). I agree with John's assessment, as you will have seen by now.

  5. Well done! I like this book a lot. And you've given me an idea - I'm re-reading this one and I'm going to compare it to yet another of what I like to call the Badass Biddy novel, this one by Usula Curtiss -- The Forbidden Garden. I've been wanting to write about that book and it's movie version Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? for a while now. I've been spurred on! Coming soon to an obscure book blog near you.

  6. This seems like a real spine-tingler. The idea of being transported to a different world altogether... chills. When I read Some Must Watch (which should be among the top mysteries ever written) the tension slowly built up to such a point where I simply wanted to scream; this one seems much like that. Thanks for the review.

    Some writers have been neglected for God knows what reason. White is one of them. Marie Belloc Lowndes, and Anthony Gilbert are two more who come to the mind.

    John- Looking forward to your post.

  7. John,

    yeah, Garden is another good one, that came to my mind too. These do seem like the ultimate biddy books.


    thanks, I do think you would like this one. It's a creepy village! Agree about Lowndes and Gilbert as well.

  8. Finally did get a copy of it. What a terrific book! Thanks for pointing it out, Curt.