Wax – Ethel Lina White
One thing I have learned from my brief writing career is that if you have a good idea, exploit it for all it’s worth. This seems to have been the mantra of one of my favourite writers from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Ethel Lina White, sadly languishing in relative obscurity these days. This book started out in short story format, Waxworks, and published in Pearson’s Magazine in 1930. I came across it in one of Martin Edwards’ wonderful anthologies, Silent Nights. White then worked it up into full-length novel format and published it in 1935 as Wax. And therein hangs my difficulty.
The short story was so good and to the point that the novel, in comparison, seems a tad pedestrian. Perhaps I would have had a different view of it if I had not read the short story first. That is not to say that the novel is disappointing, it’s just that the short story struck me as better, the writing tauter and the narrative moving on at pace. The premise behind the story feeds into one of our primal fears, being locked up in a spooky place where things go bump in the night and seemingly inanimate objects move.
The opening is excellent. The caretaker of the Waxworks in Riverpool, Mrs Ames, thinks that her husband had left a candle burning and in the middle of the night enters the gallery at two in the morning. She has an uneasy feeling whilst there, telling her husband on her return, “those figures were up to some business of their own. And I felt in my bones that it was no good business either”.
The Waxworks had had a chequered history, with a number of strange deaths. It was creepy, some of the exhibits had seen better days and its was used as a meeting place for secret trysts by the randier segment of Riverpool society.
Sonia Thompson enters the story, a young lady, wanting to make her name in journalism. On her first visit to the gallery, she thinks she sees two people come to life. She gives the gallery some publicity but is warned off from the museum. In her investigations Sonia begins to discover that the seemingly respectable Riverpool isn’t all that it seems and we enter a world of drug dealing and illicit affairs. Determined to get to the bottom of the secrets of the Waxworks, the plucky Sonia decides that the only answer is to spend a night alone with the dummies overnight.
As with the short story, the ending has quite a twist to it. White does a fine job in evoking the atmosphere of the Gothic horror show that is the Waxworks and the tricks that our senses and emotions can play on us. It also has a satirical twist to it, puncturing the veneer of a small town. One of my favourite characters is Alderman Cuttle, whose ambition is to become mayor, and despite his overt womanising, seems incredibly popular. We begin to understand the cause of his popularity and the darker side to his character. The alert reader will spot hints and clues that all is not quite what it seems.
What struck me most about the book is the character of Sonia Thompson, a thoroughly modern woman, resourceful, intelligent and able to stand on her own to feet. For the period in which the book was written, she seems remarkable. Even when she falls for the inevitable, if not mandatory, love story line, she insists that even as a married woman, she would earn her own living. A proto-feminist, for sure.
Thompson’s character is contrasted with the resignation of a married woman who laments, “a married woman is absolutely dependent on some man who may let her down. When she’s no longer young, he may desert her for a younger woman. Or, unless the new Act becomes law, he may die and leave every penny away from her”.
On the whole I enjoyed the book but it was not one of White’s best and I rather wished I hadn’t read the short story beforehand. Ah, well.