Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White

some-must-watch Arcturus Crime Classics have recently republished (Hinkler Books, Heatherton, Victoria) classic crime novels from the 1930s to 70s of “once famous but now neglected’ writers. I bought 5 for $20 at my local newsagent and what a bargain they have turned out to be.

Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White was published in 1933 and inspired the film Spiral Staircase directed by Richard Siodmark.

On page 1 we are introduced to Helen who is walking back to the lonely country mansion The Summit (where she works as lady’s help) just as dusk draws. The setting includes a “blocked view”, mud, “barren sepia mounds” and a “fine spit of rain”. Helen is introduced as “facing hard economic facts” and “not prone to self-pity”. She also has an optimistic, joyful attitude to life and is small, frail, “pale as a slip of crescent moon”. So far, so good. We have a heroine who is small and frailish but plucky and realistic in a gloomy inhospitable landscape and set out, at least for now, for home. We know it is a crime classic, so it would bode well if she could hold her own. Oh, and just at the bottom of page 1, we are told Helen likes to ask strangers the time of day, as she has a specialised interest in looking at their watches. No doubt this slightly odd interest may help her when the time comes. I realise I was subconsciously thinking that as I look back on the first page after being taken on a whirlwind ride through Helen and the other characters’ (whose very unreliable characteristics emerge and submerge) eventful night while boxed in in a gale-whipped country house set in a black and shifting landscape.

On arrival at The Summit, Helen appreciates the warm well-lit glow and human busyness in the house, barricaded against the storm. In fact the ritual of trying to tie up the shutters and lock the doors (one of her tasks) recurs throughout the book. White’s black, spiny, discomforting imagery is carefully salted throughout, not holding up the pace one whit. I particularly liked the image of the coal scuttle in the old lady’s room where each piece of coal is wrapped in white tissue paper (to minimise upsetting noise). I loved her imagery of trees and the plantation outside the house as alive, with tree trunks splitting into two, one half a hiding man. In fact this imagery reminds me of a Stephen King – I am sure he has studied White on to slowly build terror without the reader even being aware of the slow ratchet of expectation.

The people inhabiting the house are a wonderful set – the housekeeper and her husband, the lady’s nurse, the family and Helen. Their characters are effortlessly developed through action and dialogue, but description, however, cannot be relied upon. The replacement nurse with her masculine appearance and jealousy, the apparently malevolent (is she really so helpless?) old lady, the student’s inexplicable resistance to the sexy daughter-in-law’s advances and the housekeeper’s weakness for brandy (in a teetotal house) all start to breach the walls of the house, as the murderer prowls ever closer.

White-SpiralPBHelen is the third-person narrator and the writing at the end of the book becomes more fractured as Helen’s stout little character becomes less and less reliable, and more self-pitying. But her willingness to compromise as the situation fatefully unravels is probably realistic. One thread of sanity and safety runs through the book – Helen’s romance with the doctor whose comfortable authority and entrance to the barricaded house becomes unreliable. And even then, as we expect the lover to come to the rescue, it is not he who resolves the story, and the breached integrity of the house itself is seen in reverse.

I could not put this story down, even at the end where the story fracturing slightly. Helen’s ‘specialised interest” actually turns out to be curiosity, a craving for novelty that has its place in the fateful unfolding of events. White makes setting up her characters and the threatening nothing-is-as-it-seems world almost seamless from the first page. From the “barren sepia mounds, blurred by a fine spit of rain” and “lumpy” distant thunder, to Helen’s stout character which welcomes each day, ready to “shred its interest from every hour”, we snuggle down, feeling safe, we are in the hands of a competent story teller. I gulped down each carefully placed word, each fateful, destined twist and turn, each misdirection, in huge satisfying drafts. That’s how you take your reader on a whirlwind ride!

Another Arcturus Crime Classics is Trial and Error by Anthony Berkeley also known as Francis Iles who wrote After the Fact, filmed by Hitchcock as Suspicion. Trial and Error is the story of Mr Todhunter who finds he has three months to live would like to distinguish himself in an otherwise humdrum life by doing a civic good before he dies, to wit the murder of a thoroughly nasty person!

Tania’s review.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

A Flavia de Luce Mystery
Orion Books  2009

Recipe by Alan Bradley

The Sweetness:
  • Venerable old English country pile, seat of the de Luce family
  • Set post-war 1950s and pre- so many things
  • First person heroine (Flavia): hyper intelligent, monstrously well-educated and one of three Mitford-like sisters
  • Flavia has her own well-stocked chemistry lab! Yay!
  • Absent parents, that mandatory element of the 1950s children’s adventure story. Yay!  Dad is closeted with his musty old stamp collection and mother is a feminist aviatrix and adventuress who is presumed dead – perfect!
  • Ladles full of literary, musical and art references
  • Liberal sprinkling 1950s brand names and events
  • A murder to solve
  • Baddies
  • Country-style coppers who, nonetheless, outpace Flavia (refer to Agatha Christie here about the perils of underrating country coppers)
  • Flavia’s father has a secret in his past which is sending a long shadow into the present
  • Humdinger red herring
Pie crust
  • Standard cosy murder mystery structure
  • Play fair with reader
  • Mix sweet ingredients very, very carefully and place in piecrust.


Mature, Scottish (Zimbabwean-born), white, male Alexander McCall Smith created a believable and charming black, Botswanan, traditionally-sized female detective in The Full Cupboard of Life. Can mature, white, Canadian male Alan Bradley do the same with his overflowing cupboard of ingredients for his white, English, 11 year-old Flavia De Luce series, and this book in particular?

Let’s see what the reviews on my book cover said:

  • “Cross between Dodie Smith… and the Addams family”;
  • “A dark Nancy Drew set in a gothic Midsomer”.

Yikes! Just goes to show that if crème caramel is nice and liquorice allsorts are nice, a caramel allsort pie is not necessarily going to work. By the way, I could not see anything remotely like Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle or 101 Dalmatians here. Nor the Addams family, thank goodness.

It is easy to be delighted by the precocious Flavia whose chemical and elemental asides are fascinating and often pertinent…(which describes what happens when the yellow prussiate of potash is heated with potassium to produce potassium cyanide). She is humorous and as omnivorously intelligent and educated as you wish we all could be. However, I think this sort of 11 year-old would be more appropriate in a child fantasy/mystery ( like Lemony Snicket stories for example). It becomes a bit of a stretch here in stock standard cosy land, with a first person narrator. The 1950s references are, I am sure, accurate, but seemed more like a banner strung across the stage than of the play itself. The mystery is delightfully tangled and necessitates so much bicycling by Flavia on her trusty steed Gladys (a Raleigh for those thousands of us who remember) that I felt for her 11 year-old legs.

With so much to like and a real desire on my part to unravel the mystery, why did I find this an unsatisfying read?  Has Bradley just thrown too much delight and sweetness at a fairly slight theme? Flavia has her own website and lots of fans who have no trouble at all with a 1950s 11 year-old stuffed to the gills with feminism, chemistry, D’oyley Carte operettas, literature, art etc. I can see where her mischievous and humane sides are given a run in her relationship with her sisters but it’s all a bit strained and cursory.

The Ladies Detective Agency series has characters with real humanity and a moral viewpoint that informs them and forms part of the South African setting that McCall Smith obviously loves and understands, warts and beauty alike.  Bradley needs to develop that kind of core for his heroine in her very English setting so her humour and intelligence can be grounded in the setting that gives rise to her mystery. It lacks heart and in the end is less a pie, perhaps, than a glorious jumble of trifle, needing more control to blend these delicious ingredients into a coherent dish.

Review by Tania

Review – Survivor

Chuck Palahniuk, WW Norton, 1999.

Review excerpts at the start of this book refer to Palahniuk in the same breath as Camus, Vonnegut, DeLillo and Pynchon, if that is any help to what you think will be inside.  Survivor is structured, Tristram Shandy-like as a chapter countdown of a life during the seconds to a plane crash, except that Tristram Shandy is being born, and our survivor is the remnant of a suicide cult recording his last moments into the plane’s flight recorder as it crashes.

I wouldn’t say Palahniuk is another Fielding but he has an affinity for the lonely, salty lives at the edge of mainstream society. In Survivor the protagonist narrator is gradually revealed to us through his unique take on the world, influenced by the role the cult gave him in the “outside” world. Two of the United States’ cultural creations, the insular, non-taxpaying religious cult and the mass market collude and collide here. Both feed off vulnerability, brainwashing, hope and someone else’s money in your pocket, and lots of it.

The protagonist, whose name is gradually revealed, comes from a labouring cult and the book is peppered with the handy home hints the cult followers are trained in so they can be desirable cheap labourers in the outside world and send the money back to the cult. Potential employers of the cult followers want to know how to eat lobster, how to behave as if civilised and to avoid cleaning up their own messes. Palahniuk’s whingy-whiner hero could be any one of us with our culturally-induced problems (need more plastic surgery, need Viagra, need love, need bigger/more everything) but he has the answer for our existential angst – kill yourself. It is programmed into cult members. It was Camus, I think, who thought suicide was the one serious philosophical problem: a lack of courage in the face of the ultimate meaninglessness of everything, as only we, ourselves, can seek our own meaningfulness. And what an interesting quest that is.

Survivor is skilfully structured and reveals a compellingly bizarre world, leavened with black humour. About three quarters of the way through I thought the railing against modern society and sexual grossness grew soggy. I’m all for railing and inveighing, but Palahniuk moves at a gulping speed and it feels a little undigested. However, Palahniuk is a good enough writer to fashion sustained quality from the raw material of excess and greed, and a clever enough one to depict a convincingly a Kafkaesque world of ever-closing nightmare.

An astute social commentator, expect no mercy from Palahniuk. This is a read for those who relish their social commentary funny and sharp in a picaresque setting relentlessly careening to the edge.

Reviewed by Tania

Review – A Fair Maiden

16 year old Katya Spivak and 68 year old Marcus Kidder undertake an alchemical journey in Joyce Carol Oates’  A Fair Maiden. Katya is from an impoverished, fractured gambling clan in Pine Barrens and Marcus is from an old extremely wealthy well-connected local family. Both are visiting Bayhead Harbour for the summer, like the hundreds of stinging jellyfish washed onto the Jersey shore in squalls. Katya is nannying with a new-money family that Marcus refers to as the Mayflies and Marcus is visiting his family’s old summer place from his home in New York, and perhaps his wealthy cultured trust-fund family has descended from the Mayflower.

These two meet when Marcus recognises his soul mate in Katya and woos her with a blend of personal charm, renaissance-style talents, autocratic but well-bred manner, and the borrowed allure of family wealth and position. Katya is drawn into the liaison secure that she possesses a strong bargaining chip in her sexuality and youth.

This is the card she plays initially, but Marcus’ desire for her goes beyond elderly loneliness or sexuality, and she flounders when she finds herself longing for connection and  to express her own creativity. Marcus offers her money for modelling, and wanting to do better for herself than whatever Pine Barrens offers, she agrees. Katya is flattered, wary, greedy for the money Marcus pays her and which her feckless gambling mother begs for.

JCO portrays an interesting character in Marcus with his abandoned potential: the young tenor voice, musical composition, his children books, his detailed illustrations and portraits, his beautiful and strange glass fossil flowers, his film star relationships and his apparent yearning for something beyond this and quite sure his money can buy it. His creativity has not been enough, he longs for the mystery at the heart of the rose.

Katya’s world where life’s actions are throws of the dice is already also one of intoxication and intemperance. Marcus carefully tempers her wine when she sneaks out to visit him at night and model, building her up to the ultimate planned intoxication but Katya’s cousin Roy, fresh from prison and setting up his own drug dealing business to take him beyond Pine Barrens, comes once more into Katya’s world when Marcus impatiently pushes her forward too quickly one night wanting to sketch her nude.

Roy (another word for king) and that’s how Marcus refers to himself as she flees him that night: “Katya! The offer – the King – will be waiting for you”. There is explicit textual offer here to look at this story as fairy tale, perhaps Beauty and The Beast, however the references to intemperance (in money and substance) and the attempts by both Katya and Marcus to wrest some meaning or value from life’s materials had me thinking of Alistair Crowley and the alchemical journey for the philosopher’s stone.

JCO has woven a complex and textually tight story with lots of potential markers to explore which gives it depth and makes for a very satisfying read. Although the two main characters are portrayed as fairly complex and, in Marcus ’case, with a very busy life, the story revolves not on character or plot but on the issue of our search for value and meaning, and when we cannot find it, the human drive to attempt to create it out of our actions.

Before Katya’s final act for Marcus, done for love rather than money, she feels attachment for her young charges. When Katya first went to Bayhead nannying, her mother warned her against becoming attached to stranger’s children, and indeed Katya’s mother seems totally unattached to her own children. Katya finds love for the young children she has looked after and, far more dangerously for her, the charming and somewhat pathetic Marcus Kidder. Perhaps as a result of this access to love, Katya sees herself running, leaping across the stinging jellyfish tentacles on the Jersey shore before she goes to the dying Marcus.

Review by Tania.