Step in the Dark – Ethel Lina White
Step in the Dark was published in 1938 and was Ethel Lina White’s twelfth novel. The plot is a little thinnish but if you like an entertaining read with a dash of romance and lashings of suspense and thrills, then this may be one for you. What intrigues me about White is how inventive she was in finding variations on the thriller, crime novel, some of which she pulled off with aplomb and some which leaves the reader thinking the concept was a bit weak. For me, this book falls into the latter camp.
The protagonist is a successful novelist, Georgia Yeo, a thriller writer, who wrote to support her two children, following the death of her husband. Now with some money, she embarks on a trip to Belgium with her literary agent. There she meets a Swedish count who shows her around Brussels and for whom she falls hook, line, and sinker.
Georgia decides to marry the Count and he whisks her off, together with her children, to his private island off the archipelago of Stockholm. But there the mood changes. The Count is not quite what he seems. He is a confidence trickster, short of readies, despite the pretence of a lavish lifestyle, and sees Georgia as the cash cow that will improve his financial standing sufficiently that he has the funds to pull off another scam.
He sets Georgia the task of writing another best-seller, helpfully providing her with the plot. Her predicament is spelt out to her by the Count in this exchange; the plot will be “Your own story,’ he replied triumphantly. ‘What is happening to you *now. This exact situation.’ As she stared at him he began to laugh. ‘You think me mad? You wonder I dare let you write about it, so that your friends may know? But you forget your reputation as a writer of thrillers. You can tell the world the truth, but it will be accepted as fiction”.
If she does not fulfil her task, her life and that of her children will be in danger. The Count has assembled a sinister collection of characters, his mother, the Professor who is a dab hand at accidental assassinations, and a girl, Clair, who originally masquerades as a man and turns out to be not only the Count’s wife but a victim of one of the Count’s earlier scams, to thwart Georgia’s attempts to get word out to her friends and family and to escape. Her other preoccupation is preventing her too worldly-wise children from finding out the extent of the danger she has put them in.
All of Georgia’s attempts to effect her escape end in failure. How is she going to get out or will she end up another of the Count’s victims?
I will not spoil the ending. What I will say about it, though, is that compared with Lina White’s careful building up of layer upon layer of tension, it is rather rushed and a bit anticlimactic. The story is, however, well-written and the reader is carried along at a pace. It is one of those books that you race through but don’t want to end. The characterisation is good, even the minor characters are believable, and she paints the gothic atmosphere well.
All in all, a bit of fun to read but not one of her better books.