Since she had come to the Summit, she had been struck by the density of the surrounding undergrowth. When she looked out of the windows, at twilight, the evergreen shrubs on the lawn seemed actually to move and advance closer to the walls, as though they were pioneers in a creeping invasion.
Helen Capel has recently begun a new position as a servant at the Summit, a secluded home owned by Professor Warren and his family. While taking a walk late one afternoon, she feels she is being watched and instinctively alters her path home. On her return to the Summit, she spies a man move from behind a tree and disappear into the shadows. Could it be the maniac on the loose who has strangled four women, the most recent one just 5 miles from the Summit’s front door?
When another murder happens, this one even closer to home, the Professor orders all doors and windows bolted and any visitors turned away – even the police. But the security this provides is only fleeting; one by one, the house’s occupants are either lured away or incapacitated. With each person’s departure, suspicion settles on those left behind. As a storm rages outside and the accusations mount, Helen begins to wonder: are they protecting themselves from a killer…or trapping themselves with one?
YOU MIGHT ENJOY:
- The Time Frame. Limiting the events to one night in one house, with a violent thunderstorm and serial killer just outside the front door, allows White to endanger her characters while fully injecting the atmosphere with tension and urgency.
- The Summit. The three-story country house with a labyrinth of passages in the basement – some not equipped with electric lighting and one referred to by the servants as “Murder Lane” – successfully sets the stage for suspense. The desolate countryside surrounding it and small touches, such as a broken window slamming open and shut in the storm and a back staircase spiraling into darkness, help to keep the mood satisfyingly creepy.
- The Summit’s Inhabitants. Occupying the Summit is a eclectic group of characters: the cooly academic Warren siblings; their eccentric and bedridden stepmother; a bitter husband and his impetuous young wife; a flamboyant student with a knack for stirring up trouble; Helen, the recently hired “lady’s helper”; and Mr. and Mrs. Oates, the family’s loyal servants. The arrival just before dinner of the stepmother’s surly new nurse adds one more body to the mix, and possibly one more danger. While the characters aren’t heavily layered (White doesn’t get too detailed in the backstories) each does have compelling desires and motives that give them depth. Helen and Mrs. Oates are particularly lively, and their relationship is one of the most fleshed out aspects of the story.
- The Pacing. The story moves swiftly, but White takes great care to ensure that all of the Summit’s secrets are not revealed too soon. She deftly employs misdirection and several psychological elements to effectively hide the killer’s identity until the end.
YOU MIGHT NOT ENJOY:
- The Ending’s Ending. The story stops abruptly at the height of the action. White spends 31 chapters steadily bringing the suspense to a boil, but kills the heat just when things get rolling. The novel could have benefited greatly from a paragraph or two of aftermath to end the story cleanly.
Yes. White’s writing is thick with suspense and the mystery is not one to be easily solved. Perfect for any readers that love old dark house mysteries.
Ethel Lina White was in her 50s when she published her first mystery novel. Some Must Watch, published in 1933, was her third stab at the genre and is one of her best works. The novel was made into a movie starring Dorothy McGuire in 1946. Due to the movie’s popularity, later editions were published with the movie’s title – The Spiral Staircase.
Title: Some Must Watch (The Spiral Staircase in later editions)
Author: Ethel Lina White
Publisher (this edition): Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2012
Format: eBook ISBN: 9781782126164