A voice seemed to limp over the wire. It was faint and breathless, as though the person had been running.
‘Are – you – there?’
‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘Who are you?’
‘Are you Room Eight, Golden Lion?’
‘Yes. Who are-‘
‘I want to speak to my cousin, Miss Smith. She’s staying here, in this room.’
‘I’m sorry, but you’ve got the wrong number,’ Sonia told the voice.
‘No, please wait. It’s so desperately urgent. Don’t ring off… Are you alone?’
‘So am I. So terribly alone.’
After a bit of a break, I’ve returned to the works of Ethel Lina White, author of The Wheel Spins (inspiration for the Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes). Wax dates from 1935 and is a melodrama with overtones of Hammer horror and a dash of murder.
Sonia Thompson is a young journalist beginning her first job at the Riverpool Chronicle. Riverpool is a small town with one attraction: its seedy and decaying Waxwork Gallery, which stays open only because it has become a place of assignation for lovers. Even this seems inexplicable, as it’s hard to envisage anything less romantic than moth-eaten models of famous poisoners. Even less enticing for the romantically-inclined must be the legend that anyone who sleeps in the museum dies on the night. Sonia is intrigued by the place and resolves to put it back into the spotlight as she explores Riverpool and meets its dignitaries.
Riverpool’s personalities are vivid. Alderman Cuttle is a jovial ladies’ man who, apparently, stays faithful to his slightly odd wife, who passive-aggressively ensures that both his flirtations and his loyalty are well known. Sonia’s fellow lodger Miss Munro is a schoolteacher with aristocratic connections and a tragic loneliness that drives her to decidedly odd behaviour. Mrs Nile, the town doctor’s wife, is lively, good company, but compelled to indiscretion. Sonia’s colleague Lobb is a genius reporter with a personable wife, trapped for some reason in a small-town job.
So much vulnerability, dysfunction and cruelty is openly on display in Riverpool that you’d think the place couldn’t get much worse, but Sonia becomes convinced that there is even more going on under the surface, and that the waxwork poisoners have a living counterpart in town. Almost inevitably, she ends up having to spend the night in the Waxworks Gallery… but is she alone?
White was a dab hand at atmosphere, and she ladles it on thickly, most notably (of course) in the passages concerning the Waxworks, with its dark corners, silent huddles of still figures, and hypnotic glassy eyes.
‘They weren’t like the Waxworks I knew. All the time I was there, they were watching me, just as if it was their place, and I’d no right there…’
Wax is a compelling – if somewhat lurid – portrayal of a small community heading inevitably towards a crisis, and a young woman determined to make her name as a reporter and getting in too deep.
Ethel Lina White
First published in the UK 1935 by Collins
256 pages in print
This edition Business and Leadership Publishing
Clothes in Books: I find White a much more lively read than some of her contemporaries – her young women particularly have a lust for life, and there isn’t nearly so much of females being divided into ‘nice’ and ‘unrespectable’ as in many books of the 30s. White makes you realize how other authors want their heroines to be easily-shocked and moral and pure, to be viewed as classy.
In fact White’s women have a healthy vulgarity. I like the boarding-house lodger whose response to the death of a fellow guest is that now she can eat the landlady’s stews – the dead person used to leave meat on her plate, and Caroline suspected the landlady of re-cycling it. Sonia herself is annoyed that her widowed father has remarried, but makes it clear that rather than being devastated and rejected, she has given the new wife hell.