Book name: The Spiral Staircase
Author: Ethel Lina White
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
Format: ebook, print, audiobook
Genre: Murder mystery
Publication Date: 1933 (as Some Must Watch)
Ethel Lina White is best known for her mystery novel The Wheel Spins, which was renamed as The Lady Vanishes after being filmed by Alfred Hitchcock.
However, The Spiral Staircase was also renamed upon being filmed, having first been published as Some Must Watch.
The Spiral Staircase is a tense murder mystery, superficially of the 'cosy country house' variety since all the action takes place in an isolated country house on the English/Welsh border but in fact very dark and foreboding in tone.
Helen Capel works at The Summit, home of the aristocratic Warren family, as an all-round helper. She isn't exactly a housekeeper, since that is undertaken by Miss Warren, but is instead a general source of assistance to everyone under its roof.
It's an odd sort of occupation, and one that the modern reader can struggle to interpret. Helen eats with the family, which distinguishes her from the other staff: Mrs Oates the cook and Mr Oates who doubles as handyman by day and impromptu butler by night.
In a large house with few servants everyone puts their shoulder to the wheel. So Helen mends defective locks, sits with bedridden old Lady Warren if the nurse needs a night's uninterrupted sleep, helps Mrs Oates prepare vegetables for dinner and carries teatrays up to various rooms as required.
A string of murders has taken place in the local village and are steadily moving nearer to The Summit. This parallels an earlier series of killings decades before.
Everyone is on edge and the tension mounts as one after another each man leaves The Summit until only Professor Warren, stepson to elderly Lady Warren and brother to middle-aged Miss Warren, is left to defend them.
Helen is infected with the group hysteria about a mad murderer loitering outside waiting to break in and murder a young woman. Even the sensible local doctor contributes to her disquiet. Helen becomes more and more afraid as night falls.
The gradual ratcheting of tension was excellent. The previous murders in the local town are brought closer to The Summit, and Helen's fears for her own safety are real and justified after she returns from an afternoon walk at dusk to find a man loitering in the trees near the house.
The process by which each source of safety and support is removed from the house is very carefully judged and worked a treat.
Mr Oates has to drive out to fetch some oxygen for Lady Warren's breathing after someone leaves the cap off her bottle. Mrs Oates gets drunk after stealing the cellar key from her employer.
The nurse is hostile to Helen out of jealousy because the latter attracts the doctor's attention. Professor Warren's pupil leaves the house after a row and is followed by the only other two young people under its roof.
Are these a chapter of accidents or is every development being carefully managed?
The Spiral Staircase is a study in isolation, both emotional as Helen feels she has no support to fight off the murderer if he breaks in and physical in that the house is far from all practical aid in the event of an emergency.
Helen's terrors are sympathetically portrayed because she is genuinely in a very dangerous situation and help is exceptionally limited.
Few of Ethel Lina White's characters were very likeable, but in a murder mystery this is a positive asset so I enjoyed that aspect of The Spiral Staircase very much.
The repeated assertion that an anonymous madman is the killer lurking outside rang deliberately hollow, guiding the reader to the recognition (essential in a solid murder mystery) that the killer is inside the house already.
The addition of the backstory about the previous murders a generation earlier gave depth to the present terror. Not only is a killer in the immediate vicinity now, but the same killer (or perhaps a different one given the elapsed time) was out there years earlier.
The murders, both historic and current, are brutally violent so Helen has every reason to fear for her safety, but she was plucky and resourceful about dealing with her situation and I liked her very much.
Overall, The Spiral Staircase is a very well written example of the cosy murder mystery genre with a pleasingly dark and foreboding tone.
I loved it.
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If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested reading in my review of Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers.
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