Some Must Watch – Ethel Lina White
This taut, psychological thriller, published in 1933, spawned a 1946 film, The Spiral Staircase, directed by Robert Siodmak. Some later editions of the book were also entitled The Spiral Staircase as they sought to cash in on the film’s success, but Lina White’s title, which comes from Hamlet, “for some must watch, while some must sleep: So runs the world away”, perfectly encapsulates this gothic-influenced tale.
Down on her luck, unemployed in the depression, a domestic servant, Helen Cadel, takes a post as a lady’s help in a remote house on the Herefordshire, Shropshire, Welsh borders. There are eight others in the house, including a bedridden, testy aunt of the head of the household, Professor Warren. Four young women have been murdered in the area and the location of the murders are getting nearer the house. When out walking at the start of the story Helen gets the sense she is being watched. Her sense of unease continues until she reaches the safety of the house.
The bedridden aunt, though, punctures Helen’s sense of security by hinting that she might be in danger. To add to the gothic atmosphere a gale is blowing outside making it difficult for the occupants to leave. And then there is the new nurse, given the seemingly impossible task of looking after the aunt. She is huge and cumbersome, prompting speculation amongst the household that she is really a man and not only that, but some kind of madman soon to wreak a trail of destruction. So prevalent is the speculation that the nurse frequently overhears it when she enters the room.
The nurse is well-conceived and adds a dash of humour to what might otherwise be an overwrought thriller. Indeed, part of Lina White’s genius is the quality of her characterisation, each of the characters are believable and have characteristics that make them slightly sinister, whilst it is easy to find Helen a sympathetic innocent stuck in the middle of something that is beyond her wit to comprehend. The other quality that stands out is Lina White’s mastery of narrative prose. The book zips along at pace, wringing out every drop from the atmosphere she has created and leaving the reader anxious to find out what happens next.
The action is confined to just a 24-hour period and for Helen, her sense of unease growing as she senses that there is really someone in the house to get her, it gets worse. For good reasons, members of Professor Warren’s entourage start leaving the house. Helen is there with just the aunt and the nurse, or so she thinks.
I won’t spoil the denouement but, suffice it to say, it is not a let-down.
There is a slight eugenic tone in the book. Helen is chided by the professor for wearing a cross. In her defence, she says, “The cross represents a Power which gave me life. But it gave me faculties to help me to look after that life for myself”. Someone, though, has decided that her life is not one worth living. The question is: Who? I will leave you to find out.