It was only fairly recently that I first heard of Ethel Lina White, on Past Offences blog. On finding there were a number available quite cheaply as ebooks I happily downloaded a couple to my kindle. Ethel Lina White wrote seventeen novels published between 1927 and 1944 – placing her work firmly in that period of Golden Age crime fiction. Her first three novels however were mainstream works rather than crime novels, and Fear Stalks the village just her second published work of crime fiction.
The village in which we find ourselves is one of a very typical type, a highly idealised English village of this period. Inhabitants very rarely leave, and outsiders stand out. It is presented as a particularly serene and cosy place; here there exists a society of tea parties, suppers and garden parties, a society in which everyone has their place. Miss Asprey is the village saint, Mrs Scudamore the village conscience, there is the doctor and his wife, the Rector, the squire and his family, and a novelist among others – each of them play their part in making up this easy society.
“The village was beautiful. It was enfolded in a hollow of the Downs, and wrapped up snugly—first, in a floral shawl of gardens, and then, in a great green shawl of fields. Lilies and lavender grew in abundance. Bees clustered over sweet-scented herbs with the hum of a myriad spinning-wheels.”
As the novel opens, Joan a fairly new inhabitant to the village, working as a companion to an old woman, highly respected in the village, plays host to a friend from London. Joan shows her friend around the village, boasting of its quiet perfection. The friend, a cynical writer, entertains the two of them imagining dark truths and hidden secrets, affairs, alcoholism, cruelty lurking beneath the idyll. Joan’s friend hurries back to London in some inexplicable relief – but as events later show, she really wasn’t so very far from the truth.
Joan, fearing being left on the shelf, has become attached to the village rector – although their relationship has so far had little chance to develop. When Miss Decima Asprey receives an anonymous poisonous pen letter, insinuating darkly of past misdeeds, she turns immediately to the Rector. Miss Asprey; a kindly charity worker, is in the minds of the villagers an undisputed saint.
“Yet, even then, the first blow was about to fall on the village. Far away, in the distance, sounded the postman’s double-knock. Presently, he appeared in sight, a little globe of a man, with steel-rimmed spectacles. He rejected the Rectory, but entered the gates of ‘The Spout’. They heard his familiar rat-tat, and then they saw him come out of the garden again, and go on his way—but they did not recognise him for the herald of disaster.”
Miss Asprey also employs a companion, Miss Mack who smilingly, runs around after her employer virtually never leaving her side, and a maid, whose Hollywood like beauty makes her stand out from the rest . It is inconceivable to anyone that Miss Asprey should have anything in her past to inspire such vile spite. In such a small village, the news of the letter is soon known by all, and fear, paranoia and suspicion take over.
“Fear—no longer a formless huddle, or a black flicker—stalked the village that night; like a garrotter, it lurked in the shadows, only to mark its prey before it leaped. The blinds were drawn earlier than usual, and, for the first time, four walls heard the circulation of scandal.”
White cleverly presents the fear of the title, character like; in the guise of a shadowy presence moving through the village, silently ruining the peace and easy society that had previously existed there.
Soon more letters follow, secrets are threatened with exposure – society breaks down. Suspicion is everywhere and the Rector is deeply troubled that his beloved village may never be the same again. Shockingly, some villagers are driven to terrible, desperate actions to escape rumour and the threat that their secrets might be exposed.
The Rector invites his old friend Ignatius to the village, a man frequently bored with little to do – he has been known to turn his intelligence to the solving of particular problems. Ignatius duly arrives, rather superior and certain of his own abilities, and sets about unravelling the mystery of the letters.
“His friend was very short and slight; at a distance, his insignificant figure suggested a schoolboy—but this impression was dispelled by a first glance at his face, which was lined, and acutely intelligent. Also—to put it mildly—he did not suffer from any inferiority complex.”
Ignatius employs what appears to be rather a complex and long winded way of getting at the truth, for Ignatius has a particular eye for detail, which soon starts to irritate his friend. Ignatius though is not deterred from his purpose to rid his friend’s village of the menace of uncertainty.
There are some cleverly executed little twists in this novel, which meant I kept changing my mind about what was what. There isn’t an enormous amount of action in this novel – which I don’t mind in the least – action is never important to me. I loved the sense of place; many of the descriptions are lovely, coupled with the depiction of an idealised society, which put under a very slight pressure begins to break down.