Put Out the Light (1931) by Ethel Lina White

Book Review by Sylvia D: This is one of the earlier published works of Ethel Lina White (1876-1944). I found it rather strange, albeit intriguing. It was a disturbing rather than enjoyable read. I think this unease arises from the nature of the main character, who is relentlessly horrible. She is Miss Anthea Vina who is an elderly woman, vain, selfish, cruel, jealous and manipulative, the sort of character who can be met again in Miss Yaxley-Moore and Miss Bat in The Third Eye reviewed by George. Miss Vine hates young people because they are young and she is not, although she is still slim and graceful. She wears flamboyant clothes. However, her heavy make-up makes her look grotesque and she works on her looks by having the most rigorous nightly regime involving lots of lotions and creams. She sleeps with strips of plaster on her face to keep away the wrinkles. No-one is allowed to see her doing this and the plasters are always removed before her maid is permitted to enter the room in the morning. A clue to the eventual solution of the murder is that she always puts out the light at exactly eleven o’clock each night. She leaves the curtains in her bedroom undrawn and the locals know the light will go out at eleven.

Miss Vine is very rich, as she owns a chain of “Dahlia” lingerie (all pink, satins and frills) shops and of quality hotels. She lives in a monstrosity of a house called Jamaica Court. It is decorated in terrible taste – her bedroom for instance:

‘the walls were of dull silver, and the ceiling blue as an Italian sky, and studded with stars. The silver bed, and silver suite, together with the Persian hand-made carpet had been on view, as an advertisement, in the window of an important London Furniture Store. Although it was destined for an oriental monarch, Miss Vine entered into negotiations for a copy. Followed by the attentive manager, she walked into the shop-window, as though she were making an entrance upon a stage. She loved being the centre of attention.’

But she has her demons. She has been mortified when she realised the people who had been watching her in the shop window are not admiring her but laughing at her. She can’t abide people laughing at her and thenceforward has dreams of faces pressed up against the window looking in and mocking her. She is paranoid that people are plotting against her and even that they are plotting to kill her. She imagines that the furtive steps she hears every night in the corridor before she goes to sleep are those of a murderer coming to get her.

Three young people live at Jamaica Court as well. Cousins Charles and Francis and a young lady, Iris. They had all been adopted from poor families by Miss Vine and she had spent a lot on their education – Charles as a solicitor and Francis as an architect. Iris was sent to a finishing school. Although all three had ‘strong wills, good looks and plenty of brains’, they found they couldn’t get away because they all depended on Miss Vine for their money and they knew that if she died intestate everything would be inherited by her brother. Thus, they hung on in the hopes she would soon die and she in turn used them, tormented them, played spiteful games with them, verbally abused them.

A fifth person in the house was Miss Vine’s live-in secretary, Miss Sally Morgan, whom she treated abominably, expecting her to work at all hours and sometimes even keeping her up all night to type out important, corporate documents.

She also has control over the new, young. good-looking doctor in the town and trades on the fact that she has lent him the money to buy a smart new car to get him to dance constant attendance on her to the neglect of his other patients. She is intensely jealous because she knows he and Iris are in love and resolves, to his horror, to marry him herself.

She has two near-death experiences. She knows her heart is weak and one night has what is probably a psychological heart attack, and a few days later she almost drowns when she accidentally falls into her own lake. She is helped to get over the heart attack by Iris and Francis rescues her from drowning. All the time you, and other people who know her, are expecting someone to murder her but the tension just builds and builds.

There are two rather odd burglaries in the town and by dint of sheer doggedness, the local plod, Superintendent Pye, a large, taciturn man, manages to catch the burglar and is amazed to find it is Francis. And, then finally, the murder does happen but not without due warning. One chapter, of which there are a lot of short ones, ends with the words, ‘He [Pye] never saw her again, alive’ and the next, ‘It was her final curtain’. That’s on page 228 and it is actually page 240 before we get ‘she noticed a stir behind the satin hangings, and groping fingers of a hand crept out of the folds. As she died just before getting into bed, the body presented ‘a huddle of a shrivelled figure, whose face was, apparently, composed of wall-paper’. It appeared as ‘the body of an old woman, dressed in grotesquely juvenile white satin pyjamas.’ What takes place is portrayed in a spooky dream Miss Vine has when she falls asleep in the library before going upstairs to bed.

So, who was it? Well, there is a conundrum. Frances has already saved her from drowning and is out on bail pending his trial for the burglaries. Iris who has already helped her get over her heart attack has gone to stay for a few nights with a friend at the local Rectory and Miss Vine has just paid out a large sum of money for Charles to become a partner in the local solicitors, thus putting him in a position to be able to marry Miss Morgan as they too are in love. In the mean-time Miss Vine has made her will leaving half her estate to Francis because he saved her from drowning, with the rest divided equally between Charles and Iris.

The doctor is also a possible suspect, first because of her determination to marry him and secondly because she has called in her loan and will thereby ruin him. The final suspect is Doris, the widowed sister of Pye, who owns a local cosy pub which is threatened by Miss Vine’s plan to erect one of her sleek, quality hotels on the site.

Pye makes very little progress with his investigations, the press is getting critical and he is given just one more day before Scotland Yard is called in. He is saved by his sister’s inadvertent remark about the light in the window at Jamaica Court on the night of the murder which enables him to work out who was responsible.

I find it difficult to critically analyse crime stories because so much of the plot dictates how the characters are. Miss Vine is almost unbelievable in her nastiness; Charles and Frances are more convincingly drawn whilst we learn very little about Iris. There’s the usual device of a hapless member of the police force although this time he it is who steals a march on Scotland Yard. I found the story rather tedious at first but delaying the murder until near the end of the book was effective and I ended up just having to finish it to find out who the murderer was.

In her author’s note at the start White writes:

‘Most stories of crime begin with a murder and end with its solution. But as the victim is the most important character in this novel, she has been retained as long as possible. Readers, therefore, may decide who is going to kill her, before the murder is actually committed. They will probably reach the gaol before the detective, who is built to last, and not for speed.’

Lina White had me fooled!

And if you want to know where the title originates, it’s from Othello, ‘Put out the light, and then – put out the light!’

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