#752: Fear Stalks the Village (1932) by Ethel Lina White

Fear Stalks the Village

star filledstar filledstarsstarsstars
The subgenres by which we carve up any broad classification of fiction admit a degree of specialisation but raise problems in terms of enjoyment. For instance, Fear Stalks the Village (1932) as a Village Mystery must supply satisfaction on two fronts: it must have both a great village and a great mystery — and, while it has the former in spades, it lacks sorely to my tastes on the latter half of that expectation. And while The Voice of the Corpse (1948) by Max Murray shows that such a mixture can fall favourably upon my experience, White’s tale of poison pen letters seems to love its village a little too much to allow the mystery to ever really gain traction.

Perhaps I should, like Puzzle Doctor did recently, plead ‘circumstances’ for my not enjoying this. During a balmy July, without being cooped up inside seemingly every waking hour, there would be a lot to enjoy in the descriptions of the village, and the lightness of the mystery might not vex me so much. Certainly, White has a wonderful eye for the charming bucolic in her setting:

It was a spot which was rarely visited. There was no railway station, no floating population, and a stagnant birth-rate. Even Death seldom knocked at its doors, for the natives resented the mere idea of dying in such a delightful place.

Here, where “the social tone was fragrant as rosemary, and scandal nearly as rare as a unicorn”, the menace of anonymous letters will inveigle its way into the ordered, codified world of bi-seasonal tennis parties and weekly At Home tea parties when elderly spinster and social ne plus ultra Decima Asprey is accused of formless misdeeds in her past. By means that show a delightful ear for the cheek-by-jowl living of such an involved community, the news of the letter spreads, and gradually more shall be received and suspicion and death will result.

What’s missing from this gorgeous tapestry of setting and character is any sense of threat or menace. The letters are so preposterously harmless in tone and so vague in content that it’s difficult to believe any set of ossified attitudes so set at propriety would turn so much as a hair. Generally, in fact, they don’t: the worst that happens is that someone might decline an invite to a garden party, or that such a party might break up suddenly on account of an indelicate word or allusion. It’s beautifully observed — all casual slips and effusive apology, a crowded menagerie familiar with every element of each others’ lives yet too isolated by Tradition to establish trust or rapport with their neighbours — but it gets boring. It’s nowhere near waspish enough to qualify as parody or satire, so it’s just a bunch of uptight, upper-middle class English people insinuating things and jumping to the wrong conclusions.

That’s arguably the point — the observation of slow poison spreading through those whose hearts “had never been warmed at the fires of life” — but it doesn’t make it interesting. By the halfway stage we have three letters and a death, and the largest concern seems to be whether anyone’s strawberries will be appreciated. Without the savage wit of Ngaio Marsh, say (the woman was no plotter, but she could cut legions down to size with an aside), it feels…tasteless and curiously sterile. Capture piquantly as she does the slow encroach of mistrust among these people who never really seem to trust each other anyway — “They had to supply the answer to their own question, and, apparently, reached the same conclusion” — it is, nevertheless, a slow spread. With a lot of repetition. A lot of repetition.

The characters are marvellous — Mrs. Perry, the doctor’s wife, aside, whose suffocating Mother Love for her teeny-tiny babies is on the nose enough to make the eyes water every time her “beautiful wreckage” hoves into view — from Mrs. Pike “judg[ing] the whole of the Continent from her personal experience of eight homesick hours at a Belgian seaport” to lawyer Mr. Scudamore’s “frost-bitten face thaw[ing] whenever he spoke to his wife…delighted by her responsive smile”. They live, they breathe, and they orbit each other just out of touching distance in a manner that feels increasingly confined to the drawing rooms of a century before; they’d probably be wonderful company if I had any patience for this sort of mannered stuff right now. I loved bits of this, I really did — the comely village beauty Ada going home “to see our mother’s new baby” who turns out to be “about twenty-six…he’s the Squire’s new chauffeur”, or the local vicar’s “fat spaniel” Charles “registering all the symptoms of acute starvation at the sight of [some] biscuits” — but, still, the lack of any real progress grated on me.

By the time some sort of investigation begins, we’re surely over halfway through, and a few convenient observations help our sleuth (I, er, forget his name; I didn’t really find him believable against the background of the others) leap to some of the waveringly questionable psychological deductions that happen to hold true when he spells it out in the final chapter. I’m always reminded in these instances — and, forgive me, I’m going to come crashing back to the present in a most cumbersome manner — of the tabloid newspapers I read in my university days (I was, alas, not always so selective in my reading matter) wherein someone would take a single photograph of a celebrity couple and deduce all manner of salacious things about their relationship, how happy they were together, etc. It’s nonsense, and hard to credit with any intelligence, either here or there (and, frustratingly, White gets her slander and her libel mixed up — grrrr).

The second half, I have to say, bored me. Slowly, still slowly, the threat of repeated epistles begins be make itself felt, but that “raised under glass” first half left me with no real emotional investment and no real sense of why these letters should matter to these people. The Murray novel mentioned above made you feel the impact of its corpse; here, the notion of disgrace and death have been looked up in a dictionary and applied to a charming but bland tale of idealised inter-war village life. The few innovations that might make themselves felt — suicide, say, which is always a fascinating subject in novels of this genre and vintage — seem to be passed over too easily to engage with, and the answers come the end too pat, and too broad, to account for everything that has gone before.

However, circumstances. Last summer I may have loved this, and everyone else seems to view is far more positively. It’s an novel that has made me reflect on my current choices, and decide that I might at present be better sticking to some old favourites rather than trying to venture too far out into new waters. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

~

See also

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: White knocks it out of the park with this novel and that is the puzzle she presents her readers with, because it is good, really good. This is not something I was struck with immediately but it is definitely an aspect of the plot which gains momentum as the story unfolds. The strength of the puzzle of course relies on the characters she creates as she well and truly leads the reader up the garden path in this regard and White launches more than one well aimed red herring at the reader, as well as several sneaky clues which I completely missed, but are there in plain sight.

Laura @ Dead Yesterday: What Ethel Lina White suggests is that the anonymous letters may be creating the rot beneath the surface rather than merely revealing it. While there is more than one troubled soul in the village, White’s incisive character portraits seem to imply that most of them would be living reasonably contented lives if not for the letters, which bring to a boil conflicts that would never have reached such a pitch without that unnatural stimulation. Under conditions of absolute truth, society doesn’t improve—it falls apart.

Moira @ Clothes in Books: I found it tense and intriguing: we are introduced to a village that seems picture perfect, with lovely happy inhabitants. So that can’t be true, can it? Once the letters start coming, everything falls apart. White has a very melodramatic way of personifying the Fear (as in the title) which got a bit much, but she was very good at building an atmosphere, and showing apparently calm characters, then slowly revealing the neuroses and worries below.

23 thoughts on “#752: Fear Stalks the Village (1932) by Ethel Lina White

  1. Not everyone views it positively, JJ. I found it too descriptive and thus lacking the tautness that is needed in a mystery novel. Of all the books that I have read of the author, Some Must Watch, is a great favourite. Have you read it?

    Like

    • This is my first experience of White — I first heard of her on account of She Faded Into Air sounding like an impossible crime novel, but something (I forget what…) made me reappraise reading that and so I’ve not gotten to her until now.

      Thanks for the recommendation; she writes well and I’d love to read more of her when I’m in a more receptive mood. Kate recommended The Last Time He Died, and I’ll add Some Must Watch to the list for the future.

      Like

    • Huh. Well, I try to read everyone twice, always aware that I may have picked up their Passenger to Frankfurt. So let’s see how I fare in another six months or so…

      Like

  2. JJ – I seem to have liked this one more than you, but I encourage you to indulge in “old favourites” as you mention at the end of your post. I see TomCat talking about the The Hollow Man as well as Ben reading Theodore Roscoe, PuzzleDoctor re-reading Paul Doherty and Christie’s Poirots in order, Brad reminiscing about Hitchcock and Jose reading The Judas Window, The Chinese Orange Mystery and Death From a Top Hat.

    Sounds like you need an injection of Carr, Berrow or Halter comfort reading given the malaise many of us feel from the pandemic. I can tell you I am enjoying re-reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd ahead of your next podcast. That book is like meeting an old friend, who I haven’t seen in 15 years. Just what I need now.

    Like

    • Berrow, Boucher, Carr, Crofts, Freeman, Gardner, Ronald, Woolrich — expect all the big guns in the weeks ahead 😄

      Ackroyd is currently proving to be a real eye-opener; fascinating going back to the beginning of my GAD reading and seeing just how far I’ve come. Thoughts will be going up a week Saturday — thanks for joining in!

      Like

      • Something akin to Murder on the Way! — if such a thing exists — is precisely what I need right now. The closest on my TBR is Dead Man’s Gift by Zelda Popkin, and good grief isn’t the first chapter of that ever hard work…

        Like

  3. Oh well, I think us agreeing on two books in the same month might be stretching it lol
    As I said last week The First Time He Died might be your cup of tea being an inverted mystery, so therefore there are different expectations for such a plot.
    I probably wouldn’t suggest Some Must Watch as your next read, despite it being more widely available. It is a great edge of your seat read, especially when you read it home alone, in the middle of nowhere, late at night – but you find that atmosphere harder to create in London! It is more of a thriller I would say than a conventional detective novel or an inverted mystery. It does what it is doing really well, I just don’t think it is a thing you are particularly keen on.

    Like

    • Thanks, Kate, I appreciate the clarification. I’ll see what takes my fancy when it comes to White a second time – I may be in the mood for some Suspense — and hopefully have a happier time at my second encounter.

      It’s happened before — Philip MacDonald, take a bow – so I may yet becomes the internet’s third-biggest ELW fan. She has three names, after all, and that’s always a goof indicator that I’ll like an author 🙂

      Like

      • Fingers crossed your second read is a better one. Perhaps knowing a book is operating as a thriller/suspense, means you judge it by different criteria. That said you might enjoy The Wheel Spins a.k.a. The Lady Vanishes more, if you were looking for that type of book. The characterisation would appeal more, based on the things you tend to pick out in your reviews.
        White does veer into the more gothic territory of Carr with The Man Who Loved Lions, but I feel the plot is weaker in that one.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Sorry this is continuing your unlucky reading streak. (At least Roger Ackroyd will provide some relief. Thanks for giving everyone an excuse to revisit it!) I did read FSTV under those ideal quarantine-summer circumstances, and the very elements that appealed to me are the same ones that irked you, the hothouse nature of the village and the way everyone overreacts to such minor threats. The relative lack of violence and smallness of the consequences seemed quite appealing at that time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The relative lack of violence and smallness of the consequences seemed quite appealing at that time.

      This is a brilliant point, and it’s made me realise how much I’ve leaned into the overly complex puzzle plot as my own for of distraction. Slow-build, tension-heavy narratives have, over the last year, been less and less appealing to me, and the only reason I can think for this is the relative lack of distraction they provide. It turns out I need murder, chaos, and bafflement in order to get by.

      I am seriously tempted to come back to this in the summer, when I may be in a more receptive mood, because it puts me in mind of that Max Murray book and I loved that. Whatever happens, more White will feature before the year is out.

      Like

  5. I haven’t read this one, but White features a lot in Martin Edwards’s short story anthologies, so I’ve read a handful of her stories there. None of them are my cup of tea, and from your description here, this one would probably not be either.

    I’ve never been overly fond of the domestic suspense subgenre, which is what most of the White short stories seem to belong to. She writes very well, but the plots all have something that repel me. Ah well, at this point it’s probably better to find new authors that I DON*T have to read than the opposite. 🙂

    Like

  6. Sorry to hear that you didn’t enjoy this one… I recall quite liking one or two of the twists, but also recall finding some parts ponderous. 🤔 I haven’t ventured to explore more of ELW’s canon because it seemed like this title was just about her only title operating within the mystery tradition; the others seem to be more domestic suspense stories and HIBK thrillers.

    While digging into the catalogue of Japanese shin-honkaku puzzles translated into Chinese, I discovered a few Paul Halter titles translated into Chinese…! 🤩

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.