Tuesday 13 April 2010

Ethel Lina White

The writer I mentioned yesterday as having been born in Abergavenny was Ethel Lina White. It’s fairly safe to say that Ethel’s is not a household name – yet perhaps it should be. For she was the author of the books that sourced two extremely successful films. Some Must Watch became the movie The Spiral Staircase, while The Wheel Spins became one of Hitchcock’s most celebrated films, The Lady Vanishes.

White was born in the Welsh town in 1876. Apparently, her early work was mainly in the short form, and she wrote three non-crime novels, before moving into the genre at the age of 55. She gave up her job in the Ministry of Pensions to write full-time, and the gamble ultimately paid.off.

Her work is (roughly) in the tradition of the American Mary Roberts Rinehart, sometimes unflatteringly known as the Had-I-But-Known school. Her main focus is on women in jeopardy, and in that respect at least, you might say that she was a literary forerunner of fine modern writers such as Nicci French and Sophie Hannah.

Despite the success of some of her novels, others remain obscure, and I’m quite interested in hunting them down. Even though it is very different from Hitchcock’s great film, The Wheel Spins is a very good story. White, who died in 1944, was skilled at building suspense, and although her work is, perhaps inevitably, rather dated, I think she deserves to be better known. She is one of the most successful Welsh crime writers of all time.


Mary or Eric said...

When I read Some Must Watch I was surprised by the book's rather modern undertone of abnormal pyschology. The arguably unreliable and disturbed (or at least disturbing to me!) point of view reminded me a bit of The Turn of the Screw or The Haunting of Hill House. Plus, the way the tale unfolds is pretty darn scary. Definitely a classic.

Anonymous said...

Martin - Thanks for this post. I didn't know about this connection between White and The Lady Vanishes. I've always liked that film, too... This is an author with whom I ought to get more familiar...

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I loved "Some Must Watch!" I haven't read her other books...thanks for the reminder to do so.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

I really enjoy White's work. K. K. Beck says that her heroine Iris Cooper was inspired by White's Iris in _The Wheel Spins_. Should we perhaps mention the long afterlife of Charters and Caldecott from _The Lady Vanishes_?

Ann Elle Altman said...

Sad to say, I'm one of the people who haven't read or seen the movies. But, I'm going to try and find some of her books to read.


Martin Edwards said...

Eric - very interesting comment, thanks, the comparisons are thought-provoking.
Margot - she really is a surprisingly little known writer.
Elizabeth SC - do you have a similar view to Eric about the psychology?
Elizabeth F - I do like Charters and Caldecott, not least because I too like cricket.
Ann - The Lady Vanishes is a great starting point if you haven't seen it before.

vegetableduck said...

Martin, I would recommend

Some Must Watch (1933) aka The Spiral Staircase--probably her best book

Wax (1935)--that classic sitation, murder in the wax museum, surprising this has never been filmed

The First Time He Died (1935)--another classic situation, insurance fraud that may lead to...just guess

The Wheel Spins (1936) aka the Lady Vanishes--the classic "Paris Exposition" scenario (you tell someone X existed, and no one believes you)

The Elephant Never Forgets (1937)--highly original setting in the USSR during Stalin's purges

While She Sleeps (1940)--still need to read this one, sounds interesting--it's about a woman someone is planning to murder, but you don't know who

She Faded into Air (1941)--a bit more conventional vanishing scenario; has a passage of textbook perfect suspense, however, when a woman, fearing she will be murdered, flees London

I enjoy White's best books much more than Rinehart's lumbering dinosaurs from the same period. She seems to me the closest Golden age equivalent to Ruth Rendell's modern psychological suspense.

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, very many thanks for this interesting guide, which I'll keep in mind. I had a vague idea that Wax had been filmed, but it looks as though I was mistaken.