Invisible Ink: No 145 - Ethel Lina White

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The Independent Culture

Just as home video confounded doom-mongers by eventually boosting the cinema box office, so e-reading appears to be having a positive effect on print authors, and many forgotten novels are returning to paperback after being rediscovered online. One recent happy surprise was finding that Ethel Lina White was one of several missing writers now being reprinted by Arcturus Publishing.

Born in Monmouthshire in 1876, White, the daughter of an inventor, seems to have been destined to write, starting young with essays and poems, quickly moving on to short stories and novels. She had a genius for sustained suspense, coupled with a slangy use of conversation that puts one in mind of the US author Mary Roberts Rinehart, creator of the phrase "The butler did it". Both featured lonely heroines wandering in large darkened country houses, their journeys becoming metaphors for repressed states.

White wrote while she was working at the Ministry of Pensions, and soon became one of the country's most popular and successful crime writers. In 1936 she published The Wheel Spins, which was quickly optioned to be filmed. The production was troubled and it was shelved until Alfred Hitchcock, the saviour of so many excellent thriller writers, was tempted by the story. The result was one of his greatest hits, The Lady Vanishes. White wrote 17 novels in all, three of which were filmed.

To my mind, her best novel is Some Must Watch, a superbly eerie thriller in which a young carer, Helen, is employed in a remote household at a time when a serial killer is targeting women. The book is little more than a description of a mental state; a brilliantly maintained exercise in escalating hysteria, in which the nine residents who protect Helen from the forces of chaos are stripped away one by one – not murdered, but unable to help due to a brandy bottle, a broken door handle, sleeping pills or having been called away. Finally, Helen must survive alone. White's dialogue, like much Victorian language, is charmingly blunt: "Don't overdo it," says a character, "you look very old-fashioned about the eyes."

The women are strong, but made vulnerable by the hierarchical household structure. The book was filmed at least four times as The Spiral Staircase. The most famous version, directed by Robert Siodmak in 1945, drastically altered the plot to make Helen mute, but the screenplay duplicates the novel's superb atmosphere.