Ethel Lina White: Some Must Watch

Victorian_houseSome Must Watch
Ethel Lina White
First published in the UK 1933 by Ward, Lock and Co.
256 pages in print
This edition Business and Leadership Publishing

Helen Capel is 19 years old, ‘a small erect figure’ in a shabby tweed coat and a mop of ginger hair. She is working as ‘the help’ at the Summit, a lonely Victorian house on the Welsh borders, damp and wind-swept, surrounded by trees, and difficult to reach by car. Ideal haunted house material, in fact.

The family are odd fish: Professor Warren and his sister are remote and academic, but strongly authoritarian. His son Newton and daughter-in-law Simone have a rocky marriage which is imperilled by her none-too-subtle attraction for the lodger Stephen Rice. The Professor’s elderly step-mother Lady Warren is a real termagant, supposedly bed-ridden but with a history of attacking servants (and, Helen knows, a revolver somewhere to hand).

‘I’ve a way with old people. They want kindness with firmness. They’re just like children, at the other end,’
Lady Warren suddenly opened an eye which was not in the least child-like, unless it was that of an infant shot out of an eternity of sin.
‘Is that the new nurse?’ she asked.
‘Yes, Mother,’ replied Miss Warren.
‘Send her away.’

The servants (aside from Helen) are Mr and Mrs Oates – she garrulous, he lazy – and a succession of nurses of which the latest, Nurse Barker, is a chain-smoking bully who hates Helen on sight.

As Some Must Watch opens, there is a murderer on the prowl in the area of the Summit. The body of one of the Warrens’ former servants is discovered just down the road and the Professor orders the house locked down until daybreak.

‘No one is to be admitted to the house, tonight. If anyone knocks, or rings, he – or she – will remain outside. I forbid the doors being unbolted, on any pretext whatsoever.’
This time objection came from Newton.
‘That’s rather drastic, Chief,’ he said. ‘Anyone might come; the police, or someone with important news.’
The Professor took up a paper as though he were weary of the discussion.
‘Those are my orders,’ he said. ‘I am only concerned, tonight, with the safety of those under my roof. But I warn you this. Anyone who goes outside the house – if only for a minute – will not return. The door will be locked on him, or her, and it will not be opened again.’

Despite this, people keep leaving the house or otherwise removing themselves from the scene. As the long night wears on, Helen finds herself with fewer and fewer allies, almost as though the killer is somehow removing her defences one by one. And then she begins to suspect that the killer is already in the house with her…

Some Must Watch reads more like horror than crime, and certainly has that genre’s need for suspending disbelief. Locked into a remote house, with a strong suspicion that there is a murderer outside trying to get in? We all know that the most sensible thing to do would be to call the police or else move, in a group, to the nearest public place of safety. But where’s the fun in that? The removal of characters one by one obviously foreshadows And Then There Were None, but also every teen slasher B-movie ever (and with the typical young female central character).

Helen is a very attractive lead, determined to get every last ounce of enjoyment and challenge out of the very limited possibilities open to her. Her precarious social position is very much a theme of the book. As an orphan she has had no real education and so has no marketable skills. She is not quite a servant, but not quite as good as a nurse – in fact she barely registers at all.

Simone stared incredulously at Helen, whom she had only vaguely noticed as someone small, who wore a pinafore and shook a perpetual duster […] she was staggered to realise that the nonentity was actually claiming individuality…

She is conscious of the necessity of keeping her job – she has never starved, exactly, but she has known hunger. She ‘believes in God, but not in Jane Eyre’, so saves diligently for her future rather than waiting for a husband (although she has her eyes on the local doctor). Her mix of good sense and worldly ignorance, plus the messy hair, reminded me of a Terry Pratchett heroine.

Anyway, all good fun. Sergio’s review mentioned below looks at the 1945 film version, The Spiral Staircase, which I’d like to see.

See also:

Tipping My FedoraThe environment is a rather hostile one, the emotional temperature being turned progressively to ‘hysterical’ as the evening wears on and Helen is more and more isolated as, in somewhat contrived fashion, the number of occupants decreases.

Final destination: A keeper

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
This entry was posted in Classic mystery book review, Crime fiction of the year challenge, Crimes of the Century, Suspense, Witness Statements and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Ethel Lina White: Some Must Watch

  1. realthog says:

    Great account! Oddly, I almost started reading this book yesterday — I downloaded it from Gutenberg a while back, and it’s been tempting me ever since.

    The 1945 adaptation, which draws also from Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase (another on my TBR list from Gutenberg!), is very well worth a watch. Apparently it was reviled in director Robert Siodmak’s native Germany because it was felt to be a commentary on that country’s recent eugenics horrors. (The reasoning is apparent if you’ve seen the movie. I don’t want to say more here for fear of spoiling.)


  2. Santosh Iyer says:

    “…..the 1945 film version, The Spiral Staircase, which I’d like to see.”
    Yes, please do see the !945 film which is very good and suspenseful, but please do not make the mistake of seeing the 2000 TV film which I regard as a remake disaster. (see my comments at Sergio’s review.)


  3. Thanks for the link Rich – I suspect we enjoyed this one about the same – the movie is fab and you can easily catch it online – very good version of it available here:


  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I’m sure I have this book – somewher! Or another one by the same author – I think. Must organise TBR…….


  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    (must also spellcheck before hitting post)


  6. Ethel Lina White is about to have a moment maybe – I’d only really been aware of Wheel Spins/ Lady Vanishes before, and now will have to look out this one.


  7. neer says:

    Glad you enjoyed it. This is one of my favourite mysteries…the tension just grabs you by the throat. Enjoyed your review. Thanks.


  8. Pingback: May 2015’s book of the month | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Isn’t the housekeeper almost always a chatterbox and her husband fairly useless? I don’t think I’d ever hire a married couple based on the servants in mysteries!
    If you are interested, I host a monthly mystery/thriller/crime link called the Cloak and Dagger Challenge. You can link in as many reviews as you like each month, or just a monthly recap.


  10. Pingback: Ethel Lina White: Step in the Dark | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

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