Fear Stalks the Village (1932)- by Ethel Lina White

Book Review by Jane V: I enjoyed reading this book although it is not a genre I would normally pick up for pleasure reading. I feel that authors of this genre are not fair to Jane, they don’t give me enough clues to ‘get there’ before the denouement.

However, my pleasure in reading this book was not in its clever plotting, or the deft way it leads one astray until finally presenting a resolution breath-taking in its logic and easily retraced through many lightly dropped clues. My pleasure was in the wit in the writing style – tongue in cheek and slightly satirical.

Female writers come in for satirical treatment. There are two female writers: a well-heeled lady writer who lives with staff in the oldest most perfect Tudor house in the village, a house which has been refitted inside to the latest style and highest convenience. Jolly, overweight Miss Corner produces a faithful stream of serial stories for a boys’ magazine. She knows she isn’t a great writer. ‘She is –

bewitched by Edith Sitwell’s Bath. She might sell cheap home-brew herself, with her insipid romances and absurd school-stories, but she could appreciate rare vintage – her library shelves testified to selective literary taste.’

But she earns well from her efforts and has an adoring fan base. Joan Brook, lady’s companion, and ‘anchor’ to the story, describes her as ‘a dear old Jumbo, with a perfectly grim sense of humour’. She is president of the local temperance society!

Scarlet lipped, monocle-sporting Ms Purley is a crime writer writing for magazines. She is down from London on a day visit to her friend Joan Brook, and as they walk around the village she invents sinister lives for the inhabitants of each house of note. It is through her the reader is introduced to the chief characters in the story. The characters are all types: the lady writer, the village doctor who does not love his wife, the unmarried vicar, the saintly gentlewoman living with a subdued companion, the rubicund major, a doting couple who are the moral measure of the village, the squire and his family, vague and bewildered Lady D’Arcy and her paid companion Joan Brook. But each individual is given just enough of their own personality to make them interesting. All houses have staff and these people are an amorphous mass of ‘ordinary’ villagers who scarcely figure, unless as somewhat unconvincing ‘red herrings’.

The setting is a ‘type’ too – a typical picture postcard, half-timbered, Shakespeare-y village set somewhere loosely referred to as ‘the Downs’, in 1920s England. (So expect the war traumatised, the war dodger and the spare women.) The village is sometimes described as seen from above, as an actual model of a Tudor village; sometimes as a ship coming to haven. Sometimes with Shakespearian allusion,

Children skipped and played on the cobbles, exactly like golden girls and boys and little chimney-sweepers, long passed to dust.’

Luckily I can’t produce a ‘spoiler’ as the plotting of the mystery of the poison letters is rather lost in the attention to detail of these characters’ lives. A weasely friend of the Rector’s is brought in to solve the mystery. The opening is hopeful. Joan Brook, paid companion to Lady d’Arcy, is visited by her old school chum Ms Purley, a woman novelist, who suggests that the serenity of the village hides a dark underbelly –‘flowers grow on slime’, she says. Walking round the village she lists the notable inhabitants, house by house, inventing for each a hidden life behind the perfect facade. As the story of an ever increasing number of poison letters received by more and more of the characters unfolds, Ms Purley’s inventions become reality. There is a death, possibly but not probably caused by the receipt of one of the letters. Suspicion rages and no one seems immune. However I feel the plot falters; was Ethel Lina White fed up with the book or did she not know how to resolve it? When the originator of the initial letter is disclosed there seems no really convincing motive but of course, as is to be expected in a closed community such as this, the true culprit is never exposed to either the police or the ‘locals’. An upper middle-class cover-up occurs.

Touches of humour which engaged me:

When Ms Purley comes to Miss Corner’s house and is told the local novelist lives there, White writes:

Instantly the writer registered that automatic nonrecognition of her profession towards other members of the tribe.
Never heard of her. What name does she write under?”’

The Rector has a dog who loves biscuits and sitting on laps. When the doctor visits

the essential parts of a fat spaniel – named ‘Charles’, after Dickens – were crowded on the doctor’s lap.’ ‘. . . the dog, who was registering all the acute symptoms of acute starvation at the sight of the biscuits.’

There is occasional social comment made by not commenting directly. Joan Brook is obliged to be present at an ‘At Home’ held by her employer, Lady d’Arcy. Joan listened –

to an interchange of political views, drawn from the same source – the leader of the only newspaper read by the best people.’

On vegetarianism, a growing practice in pre-WW2 England – In Miss Aspreys’ austere house –

The food was chiefly vegetarian – lentil-soup, salad, biscuits, butter, cheese and fruit. There was only barley water to drink.’

Miss Asprey’s perceived ‘sainthood’ has been achieved by turning from the life of a debutante, then possibly a nun,

to choose a career better suited to her temperament, becoming Matron of a Home for Fallen Women, in a large industrial city.’

The Rector, commenting on the mores of the village inhabitants, suggests to the doctor that he must occasionally catch people off their guard when he pays visits to the sick.

No, padre, they always put on clean pillow-slips for the doctor’s visit,’ he replies.

The enjoyment in reading Fear Stalks the Village is not in wondering ‘who dunnit’ but in reading a portrait of a cosy inter-war English village disrupted by a vicious act, the ‘slime in the under-belly’. Indeed I believe that is what preoccupied the author to the extent that she lost her grip on the plot. But it doesn’t matter. It is a fun read.

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