Monday, February 5, 2024

PPL#1: Fear Stalks the Village, by Ethel Lina White

"The moral is, padre, that human nature remains the same, everywhere, and dark places exist in every mind." 

British Library, 2024
originally published 1932
292 pp


Ahhhhh.  My reading has once again returned me to the tranquil English village of the interwar years, one of my favorite settings for British crime fiction.  This book features another personal favorite,  the dreaded poison pen letter.   In this case, it's not just one -- as the back-cover blurb info notes, there is a veritable "spate" of them going around the village.  

Prior to the circulation of these not-so-nice missives, the village, as the Rector notes, is a place where "There's no immorality ... and "no class hatred or modern unrest ... "  Those who live here "reflect the general tone of kindness and good breeding," and he has never known a place with so little scandal," which was as much a rarity "as a unicorn."   We are told that from an airplane it "resembled a black-and-white plaster model of a Tudor village, under a glass case," with no train station, no "floating population," with birth rates remaining "stagnant" and since "the natives resented the mere idea of dying in such a delightful place," Death did not visit very often.  "Everyone has a pedigree and a private income," while tennis and garden parties are part and parcel of the social life.   It is a place where "only the walls heard" what was going on behind the closed blinds, "and they kept their secret."  
But when the letters begin to intrude and to make their way through this idyllic setting, they slowly release their own form of poison, shattering the quiet village life and  throwing it more than a bit out of whack.   Fear, which is personified here in male form, makes its entry and begins to "stalk the village," as it becomes obvious that these letters are not coming from outside of this small haven. Some people start to silently ask about their neighbors "Is it you?" while others tragically turn to drastic measures to avoid the worst and most feared possibility of the exposure of  secrets they carry.  The letters (which some people deny even receiving although we know they did) are bad enough, yet the Squire's wife would prefer not to call in the police.  The Rector has the perfect solution in the form of a good friend by the name of Ignatius Brown who "rather fancies himself as Sherlock Holmes."  It will be up to him to try to root out the person who has caused all of this upheaval and the "death and disaster" that follows in the wake of "shadow and shame."  

Original cover, from Wikipedia (it looks like via Facsimile Dust Jackets)

What makes Fear Stalks the Village work well is in the way the author lays the foundation of  the harmony and more importantly,  the equilibrium defining this village prior to the introduction of both poison pen letters and Fear (the word capitalized throughout the novel).  Once things begin to happen, it is that highly-important baseline that directs reader focus to the threat of loss of this long-established order as it begins to crumble.    The core mystery is good, but it's the psychological aspects of this story that kept me turning pages, both individual and societal.  And then, of course, who couldn't love a dog by the name of Charles Dickens?  

Given the time in which this novel was written, it may seem a bit on the slow side as the author sets forth the atmosphere of the village (down to the flowers) and introduces us to the characters,  but once again, it's a matter of patient reading that will get you to the point of being completely wrapped up in things long before the end is in sight.   While this isn't my favorite novel of those I've read by Ethel Lina White (that one is her Wax from 1935), it's pretty darn good.  It's also a book I can definitely recommend for Golden Age mystery fans and readers who enjoy their crime set in an English village, as well as to those people (like myself) who are studious collectors of the British Library Crime Classics.  

Well done. 

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