Monday, June 11, 2007

Fear Stalks the Village - Ethel Lina White

First published 1932; cover shown is the 1969 Paperback Library (USA) edition. 239 pages. Cover artist uncredited.

I have a real soft spot for the Golden Age mysteries set in small English villages. This is not your usual small-village mystery, however. Usually the victims drop like flies, but in this case the only deaths are accidental and suicidal.

White's village is described as idyllic, with its close-knit community, leisurely garden parties, breathtaking scenery and cottages that are "perfect specimens of Tudor architecture". The Rector, a huge bear of a man, came to the village several years earlier after a breakdown; he now believes the village is the essence of all that is good and right in the world.

But beneath the ready smiles and the polite afternoon teas, something evil is breeding. Poison pen letters, beginning with a damning note sent to the village's most respected citizen, begin to circulate. Secrets are hinted at and shady backgrounds are uncovered... but strangely no attempt at blackmail is ever made. The writer appears to be content with simply causing shame and fear. When a local author receives one of the letters and then dies of an overdose the same day, the Rector calls in a friend from London.

Ignatius Brown models himself on Sherlock Holmes, and he jumps at the chance to track down the anonymous letter writer. Much to the Rector's distress, Ignatius discovers that more than one person has something to hide - including the Rector's soon-to-be fiancee, Joan Brook. When the wife of a local solicitor gasses herself - and just hours later her husband shoots himself - the Rector finally realises just how serious poison pen letters can be. Everyone has a secret, and it's easy to make someone believe that you know what it is.

While this novel was interesting (you don't often read about suicides in Golden Age fiction), it also dragged a little. I could have done with a lot of the descriptive passages being cut, as they seemed quite repetitive.

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