Friday, October 9, 2020

Friday Fright Night: The Spiral Staircase

  Recently Curtis Evans of The Passing Tramp fame put out the call to fellow bloggers to take part in a month-long event sure to prepare us for Halloween. Friday Fright Night will find us serving up spooky, spirited reads at the end of each week throughout October. You'll see familiar faces from the Tuesday Night Blogger crew but all bloggers are welcome to serve up ghastly delights. These are being gathered up on the Golden Age of Detection Facebook page, but if any of my readers would like to join the fun you are welcome to leave a link in the comments and I'll link you up. 

In 2016, I read Ethel Lina White's The Spiral Staircase and I definitely think this qualifies as Friday Fright Night-worth and tailor-made for Halloween reading.

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.


Kate said...

This is a favourite of mine from the White canon. Not an ideal read when you're at home alone late at night! Have you seen the film adaptation from the 40s?
My memory is hazy, but I imagine Helen has to do some less than wise things for the plot to function. Though I felt she was not quite as hapless as other heroines of the time. I loved this line from her:
‘Those derided Victorians, who looked upon every man, as a potential husband, certainly extracted every ounce of interest from a dull genus. Yet, while she respected the Professor’s intellect, and genuinely looked forward to the visits of the young Welsh doctor, she resolved to go on buying Savings Certificates, for her old age. For she believed in God – but not in Jane Eyre.'

Bev Hankins said...

No, I haven't seen the film--really must someday. If I can shoehorn it in between TBR books, LOL.

Yeah, the plot really does need her to do silly things and they're not quite as bad as others from the period. That is a particularly nice quote.