Fear Stalks the Village by Ethel Lina White

1183 1

Reviewed by Harriet

The village was beautiful. It was enfolded in a hollow of the Downs, and wrapped up snugly – first, in a floral shawl of gardens, and then, in a great green shawl of fields. Lilies and lavender grew in abundance. Bees clustered over sweet-scented herbs with the hum of a myriad spinning-wheels.

This very enjoyable novel was first published in 1932. Although it shows its age in some of the language and the detail, the story is as relevant today as it was ninety-two years ago. Essentially this is a poison pen mystery but could just as well be described as a psychological thriller, as the investigation of the characters, several of them suspects, uncovers some unexpected and previously hidden thoughts, feelings and emotions. 

The opening chapter sets the scene rather ingeniously by having young Joan Brook, recently arrived in the village to be a companion to Lady d’Arcy (‘Big and vague and drifts about aimlessly’) showing a visiting novelist friend round the village. The friend greets Joan’s starry-eyed description of the inhabitants – the Rector, ‘Rather a thrill’; The Scudamores (‘terribly nice and terribly happily married’); Miss Asprey and her companion Miss Mack (‘She’s an earthly saint, and so good she’s not quite human. Miss Mack simply worships her’); and Miss Julia Corner, successful writer of stories for boys (‘a dear old Jumbo, with a perfectly grim sense of humour’) – with a strong dose of scepticism, and she catches the bus back to London threatening to write a melodramatic serial revealing all the evil that lies beneath the seemingly perfect surface. Needless to say Joan doesn’t believe there is any such thing, and needless to say she is soon to be disabused. 

It’s not long before the first anonymous letter arrives, and the recipient is none other than the saintly Miss Asprey. It’s a shocking letter, ‘each line covered with the slime of insinuation’. She shows it to the Rector, swearing him to secrecy, but he’s unable to stop himself telling the story to his friend the doctor, and Ada, the beautiful parlourmaid, has been listening at the door, so before much time has passed the whole village is aware of what’s happened. Miss Corner soon receives a letter, and before long there are more of them. Needless to say everybody suspects everybody else, and the peaceful facade of the village is shattered. A shocking and totally unexpected suicide precipitates ‘a complete dislocation of the social life of the village’, and the Rector decides to invite  an old college friend, Ignatius Brown, ‘one of the idle rich [who] rather fancies himself as Sherlock Holmes’ to help solve the mystery of the letters. Eventually he does, but not before there’ve been a couple more suicides and another one barely avoided. The twists and turns of Ignatius’s investigation mislead the reader all over the place, throwing suspicion on people who seemed eminently trustworthy, and the final revelation of the culprit turns one received idea skilfully on its head. 

It’s all great fun, and you wouldn’t expect less from Ethel Lina White. Born in 1876, she was over forty when she published her first novel, a romance, and another four years passed before her first crime novel appeared. Fear Stalks the Village  was only her second attempt in that genre and it already shows her interest in character and in psychological suspense as well as her excellent evocation of setting. She went on to write about twelve more, three of which were filmed.  The best known of  these is The Wheel Spins (1936)  also in the British Library Crime Classics series, which formed the basis of Alfred Hitchcocks celebrated 1938 film The Lady Vanishes.

Shiny New Books Logo

Harriet is one of the founders and a co-editor of Shiny New Books

Ethel Lina White, Fear Stalks the Village (British Library, 2024). 978-0712355308, 304pp., paperback original.

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)

1 comment

  1. I’m so glad BL are reprinting her books – I bought this the other day, and I’m really looking forward to it, esp after this review!

Do tell us what you think - thank you.