It was only ten days since she had left England, for the first time in her life. Since then, much had happened – and it had happened too quickly.
She had come to Brussels and met the Count.
I’m coming to appreciate Ethel Lina White as a versatile writer: from the poison-pen paranoia of Fear Stalks the Village, to the claustrophobic siege of Some Must Watch, to the gothic creepiness of Wax and the race against time in The Wheel Spins. Step in the Dark is another type of thriller again, more akin to a Mary Stewart romantic suspense with a heroine choosing between two men and (of course) picking Bluebeard.
Georgia Yeo is a successful thriller writer who, despite her youth, has produced a long list of bestsellers. Her motivation to write is the need to support her two children after their father died.
We meet Georgia in Brussels, on her first trip abroad, and already in the throes of a holiday romance with a Swedish Count who whirls her around town and then off her feet.
Despite an ‘understanding’ with her agent’s brother back home, and the suspicions of her nearest and dearest, Georgia takes the plunge and decides to marry the glamorous Count. He whisks Georgia and her two children away to his island home in Sweden, at which point the mask comes off. He needs money and wants her to write him a bestseller – and she is imprisoned on his island until she does. He even gives her the plot:
‘Your own story,’ he replied triumphantly. ‘What is happening to you *now. This exact situation.’
As she stared at him he began to laugh.
‘You think me mad? You wonder I dare let you write about it, so that your friends may know? But you forget your reputation as a writer of thrillers. You can tell the world the truth, but it will be accepted as fiction.’
(Reading that excerpt back now, it sounds melodramatic, but that’s not really the tone of the book at all.)
Georgia has to find a way to somehow send a cry for help embedded into a fictionalised version of her situation. It’s a clever set-up, especially as it dawns on her that she is never going to be allowed to leave the island alive.
Georgia’s task is made harder by her children, who cannot be told they are in danger and must be managed so that they don’t ask questions that might put them in the line of fire. It’s stressfully akin to trying to stop your children mentioning a relative’s embarrassingly big nose. The kids are brilliantly depicted, by the way, always one tactless sentence away from danger.
‘Mummy, what did you do with that page after you cut out the words?’
After the fantastic build up, I felt the book’s resolution was a let-down. It felt like the situation was wrapped up way too quickly and not enough of the possibilities were explored. Nonetheless, this is smoothly written and enjoyable – well worth a read.
Ethel Lina White
Step in the Dark
First published 1938 by Collins
This edition Business and Leadership Publishing
Kirkus Reviews (1938): Thinnish but well written suspense yarn, involving the adventures of a popular novelist, her encounter with a Swedish Count and the disastrous results of her visit to his island home. The popularity of the picture, The Lady Vanishes (based on her novel, The Wheel Spins) should stimulate interest in this.