Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Spiral Staircase: Review

As  Helen opened the door of Miss Warren's room, a small incident occurred which was fraught with future significance.

It was a dark and stormy, really, it was. Fortunately, Ethel Lina White was a much better author than the potboiler creators who are generally credited  with starting their books in such fashion. The Spiral Staircase (1933; originally titled Some Must Watch) is a suspense thriller with a damsel in distress that makes excellent use of the dramatic storm-tossed night to provide a top-notch novel filled with Had-I-But-Known moments.  

She was visited by no prescience to warn her that--since her return--there had been certain trivial incidents which were the first cracks in the walls of her fortress. Once they were started, nothing could stop the process of disintegration; and each future development would act as a wedge, to force the fissures into ever-widening breaches letting in the night.

Things start off calmly enough. Helen Capel is over-joyed to find a position as lady's help at the Summit, Professor Warren's remote estate on the Welsh border. After all, apart from the loneliness of the locale, the post is a very good one--offering her a very nice room and sitting room of her own, good food, and she's even allowed to take her meals with the family. It is a bit worrisome that there is a murderer loose in the countryside. A mysterious killer who has chosen as his prey young women who work for their living. Some think he may be a man who believes these women have taken jobs away from men. 

But, reasons Helen, all the girls who have been killed have been alone.  And the murders have taken place at a good distance from the Summit. Surely she, and the others in the house, will be safe if they keep the place shuttered and bolted at night and they all stay inside. Yes, she's sure of it. Until a victim is strangled in a house just five miles away. Until the next victim is found murdered just on the other side of the estate. Death and terror creep closer to the Summit, but still Helen feels safe...until the stormy night when she bolts herself in the house only to find that the danger was somewhere inside and had chosen her as the next target.

White also provides the typical suspense-thriller heroine in Helen Capel, a self-identified independent-minded young woman who none-the-less does remarkably silly things for someone who suspects she's in danger. Through various plausible-sounding means, several of the inmates leave the house, a few of them are drugged, drunk or otherwise incapacitated, and Helen promptly goes about alienating one of the few people who couldn't possibly be the killer--thereby setting herself up to slip into the maniac's clutches. 

White manages to bring about a quite nifty ending--I won't spoil it by giving even a hint of what I mean. The book is a classic example of good suspense done right without blood and gore or explicit scenes. It is also a terrific character study with plenty of misdirection to allow the reader to question each person's motives and whether they are really what they seem. A very good read for a dark and stormy night of your own. Just make sure to lock all the doors. You might want to check under all the beds first, though. ★★★★

Fulfills the "Staircase" category on the Vintage Golden Scavenger Hunt card as well as the "Dark & Stormy Night" category in the Mystery Reporter Challenge. It is also my third entry in Rich's February 2016 Crimes of Century feature. Got any 1933 mysteries on tap this month? Come join us! 
All Challenges Fulfilled: Vintage Mystery Challenge, Mount TBR Challenge, Cloak & Dagger, Women Challenge, My Kind of Mystery, 100 Plus Challenge, Outdo Yourself, Crimes of the Century, Charity Challenge, Triple Dog Dare, Mystery Reporter, Mad Reviewer


noirencyclopedia said...

I really must get round to reading this one. A year or so ago I read the Mary Roberts Rinehart novel The Circular Staircase, upon which the Spiral Staircase movie is supposedly co-based (it isn't -- dunno where that false assertion came from) -- and I meant at the time to read White's novel next. But I . . . didn't. Had I remembered it was a 1933 novel I might have gotten around to it this month. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Bev, really enjoyed the review. I do like this one (and it is quite different from the SPIRAL STAIRCASE movie version) though the protagonists did get on my nerves a bit to be honest!

Bev Hankins said...

thanks! I don't always like Gothic suspense, but when I do it's usually classic. :-)

And, Sergio, Helen does get on the nerves a bit. I can't believe anybody in that situation would go out of their way to alienate someone who obviously couldn't be the killer--safety in numbers!

Jo said...

Great review, I definitely want to read this one eventually!!

fredamans said...

I like blood & gore but enjoy suspense without it too, if done right. Sounds like this is a good one.