Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Spiral Staircase, or Some Must Watch

The Spiral Staircase, or Some Must Watch, by Ethel Lina White.

I had a hard time finding a good blurb for this one.  Here's one from the New York Herald Tribune that I found in a review on another blog (which looks like a good place to find similar titles):

A lonely mansion, with its strangely assorted guests, and its terrible secret…

The silhouette of a murderer, seen at twilight moving ever closer through the ancient elms…

The frantic turnings of a beautiful young girl, as she is sucked down into a whirlpool of shrieking fear.

All in one of the greatest novels of mystery and suspense ever written – a book filled with “astonishing and diabolical shock.”
However, I take issue with a few things in that blurb.  First, I don't think anyone in the "mansion" is a guest.  They're all there because they live there, for the time being.  Second, the young girl is not supposed to be especially beautiful-- just young, innocent, and very small and thin, with vivid hair and a plucky spirit. Also, though I did enjoy reading the book, it's a painful stretch to call it "one of the greatest novels of mystery and suspense ever written".

Anyway, as I've already indicated, I enjoyed the book, overall.  I think I tend to like older books like this one (published in 1933) more than most modern books.  It's dripping with atmosphere, which I love, and there were enough twists and turns to keep me guessing right up until near the end.  That said, I did suspect the person eventually unmasked as the murderer, and once that person was revealed... well, the story (what there was left of it) went downhill, a bit.  The climax was somehow anticlimactic for me.  However, most of the (relatively brief) book was good, in my opinion-- definitely entertaining.

More Particulars:

--  Yes, there is outdated slang, but I don't mind that.  Actually, I even like it, in moderation.  (Heaven knows, our own time has its share of slangy speech.  Personally, I prefer the old-fashioned versions.)

--  I didn't realize until after I'd finished the book that its original title was Some Must Watch; it was renamed after Hitchcock filmed an adaptation of it.  I expected the spiral staircase to play a more vital role in the plot than it did.  The spiral staircase must be more important in the movie.  Speaking of which, I'm not sure if I've ever seen it, but I intend to try, now.  (Apparently the main character is mute in the film!)

--  There are times when you want to shake characters.  "Just talk!  Tell what you know!" or "GET OUT OF THAT HOUSE, LADY!"-- but, well, that's the way most such books work.  If everyone behaves the way 95% of us (at least think we) would, in similar circumstances, there'd be no story.  And the author does a pretty decent job (in my opinion, at least) of explaining/rationalizing behavior.

--  This is the third book I've read, recently, to include at least a reference to the (historically) strained relationships between the English and the Welsh-- and it made me realize that I have no idea why that is/was.  I don't know much about the history of the hostility between the Irish and the English, either, but I think I know nothing about the Welsh... except that they're always described as having dark features (hair, eyes), in books. (g) 

--  The only version I could find (for free) was from Project Gutenberg.  I'm glad it was available, but wow, there were a ton of typos / punctuation errors.  The commas were the biggest issue, I think.  However, let's be honest-- at this point, even retail e-books often come with errors, so it's not surprising that a freebie should have them (though there were more than usual in this copy).

--  Sometimes the word "looney" was spelled "luny", which I'd never seen before.

--  Nurse Barker.  Wasn't that the name of a character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?  (I've never seen it, so I'm not sure...)  I wonder if that was inspired by this character?

--   This is the second of White's books I've read.  In both of them, she really loves to "call forward" to events that will happen later in the book.  (Which is why she's one of the Had-I-But-Known writers, I guess.)

--  Some of the references to the popular culture of the day caught me off guard-- King Kong and Marlene Dietrich... and the "Pictures".

SPOILERy Comments:

--  On the one hand, it was obvious that Lady Warren will use her revolver by the end of the book (to kill the murderer), and some of her comments are blatant clues that she knows who the murderer is-- that it's someone in the family-- that she feels she must kill him/her before she herself can die.  On the other hand, I still wasn't sure-- not until the murderer's identity was revealed.

--  By page 82 I was suspected a Professor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation, but again, I still wasn't completely sure... White kept me guessing-- and mistrusting my guesses.

--  The Professor's motives for murder felt a bit odd... and of course he would explain everything in detail, as all such murderers do in these old mysteries!  I guess that since he's a "luny", his motive needn't make sense, but... overpopulation and food shortage?  I did get a little shiver at the revelation that he witnessed his father commit a murder-- was terrified at the time, but later found that "the seed bore fruit".  ~shudder~ 

That's all the SPOILERs!

So, that's that.
I don't think Ethel Lina White is well-known for any of her other books, so it's doubtful I'll read more by her anytime soon... but I may browse around and find some "if you liked that, you may like this"-style recommendations.  I think I'm in a good-old-fashioned gothic mood, still.