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.
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.