While She Sleeps – Ethel Lina White
I am a fan of Ethel Lina’s White’s work but even her most fervent advocate would be hard pushed to convince me that this novel, published in 1940, is one of her finest. That said, it has some interesting features and makes for an engaging and entertaining read. Instead of an atmospheric thriller which is her normal fare it struck me as light-hearted in tone and a parody of some of the excesses of the gothic genre.
The protagonist is the rather self-satisfied Miss Loveapple who prides herself on her good luck and the fact that she owns three properties in the south of England, including one in Madeira Crescent in London. The book’s opening sets the scene and informs the reader that she is likely to be murdered. “Miss Loveapple awoke with a smile. She had slept well; her digestion was good – her conscience clear; and she had not an enemy in the world. There was nothing to warn her that, within the next hour she would be selected as a victim to be murdered”. The tension in the book is whether she survives with her life intact.
It is Loveapple’s decision to let her London house out, she is obsessively careful with her pennies, leads to her receiving visits from three men all wearing gloves, her paranoid maid, Elsie, had warned her about men wearing gloves, and being selected as the victim of a murder which a minor criminal, nicknamed Ace, intends to use to frame his arch-rival. She goes to Switzerland on holiday and makes elaborate plans to return to Madeira Place on the evening of September 13th, the date set for her murder.
During the course of her adventures Loveapple encounters a motley crew of eccentric characters, not all of whom have her best interests at heart. A shady couple, who have been tracking her since she left Victoria station, mistake her for a Lady’s maid and think she is carrying her ladyship’s jewels plan to rob her. They make several attempts to effect the jewel snatch and there are moments of comedy as circumstances thwart them more often than not. Every decision that Loveapple takes during the ill-fated holiday either takes her closer to her intended fate or thwarts her conspirators.
The plot, such as it, depends on a series of coincidences or chance turns of events. Although not an engaging character, the reader is taken along with it all by the power of Lina White’s writing and descriptive talents, she is at her best when skewering the Brits’ social mores and behaviour when abroad and describing the stunning scenery in the Swiss Alps, and even the most jaundiced of her readers could not help wondering whether Loveapple would make it alive at the end of the story. I will not spoil your anticipation.
A curious feature of the book is that the London elements of the story, it is there where the real danger to Loveapple’s well-being are, only surface intermittently as the story progresses. It almost becomes a sub-plot as Lina White enjoys herself satirising the English en vacances. This makes the book somewhat unbalanced, in my opinion, and makes for a vaguely unsatisfactory ending.
An enjoyable enough read , to be sure, but if you were thinking of exploring Lina White’s work, this is not the one to start with.