Now here's a title that you might not think of as being crime related, "Cheese" by Ethel Lina White. Whenever I come across a story of hers I always make a point of reading it. She wrote the novel The Wheel Spins, which Alfred Hitchcock adapted to the screen as The Lady Vanishes and proved to be quite popular--a light-hearted tale of romantic suspense. Since then I have read a few of her short stories, which are hard to come by but I have tracked down in various short story collections--An Unlocked Window and Waxworks. I came across her 1941 short story, "Cheese", which is collected in Capital Crimes: London Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards. Have you seen the series of vintage crime novels that the British Library has been putting out? I have yet to read any, but they do look good.
According to the brief biographical introduction (hooray for a little biographical sketch--not all collections bother about sharing information on the authors they have chosen):
"White's specialty was 'woman in jeopardy' suspense fiction, and her ability to evoke a mood of mounting fear has seldom been matched. Her short stories are little known and mostly hard to find, but 'Cheese' demonstrates her knack of involving the reader in the terror experienced by a woman who faces a cruel adversary, but proves strong and courageous enough to fight back."
I do love a spunky heroine, and in this story Jenny is a country girl who gets involved in something a little out of her league but rises to the challenge. It is very much a story of its era, more charming than chilling but it certainly has a nice suspenseful vein running through it.
Any ideas what cheese refers to? I was curious and White doesn't beat around the bush in giving the reader some of the information.
"This story begins with a murder. It ends with a mouse-trap."
Can you guess who the mouse trap might be?
Rosy-cheeked, fresh from the country and all alone in London Jenny has come to to accept a position as a companion-secretary to an elderly lady of good repute. A friend in her Girls' Hostel, however, has warned her to be wary of the nephew who will come to pick her up and drive her to her prospective employer's house. The friend is the niece of a police detective and urges Jenny to go and have the situation checked out. There's been a series of murders of young women, and London is a big city, especially for a girl just up from the country.
This is so Ethel Lina White: "Inspector Angus Duncan was alone in his office when her message was brought up. He was a red-haired Scot, handsome in a dour fashion, with a chin of a prize-fighter and keen blue eyes." See this post and this person (scroll to very bottom of page please). The perfect actor to play the part in case it is ever made into a movie . . . Inspector Duncan sees this as the perfect opportunity to set a trap for the killer and Jenny, if she will agree, will act as the cheese for his trap. He assures her she will be in the presence of the police every step of the way. If she can just be courageous enough to put herself in the path of the killer.
It all seemingly is going off without a hitch, but there was only a small change of plan, which Jenny makes sure she calls into Inspector Duncan's office. And then she is off. The reader may know the set up of the story from the first sentence, but of course the best laid plans can go awry. Very much an Ethel Lina White story--Jenny is indeed a woman in jeopardy.
I can see why the story was chosen for a collection of London crime stories. She does atmosphere very well. This is the view from Inspector Duncan's window:
"It was between the lights. River, government offices and factories were all deeply dyed with the blue stain of dusk. Even in the city, the lilac bushes showed green tips and an occasional crocus cropped up through the grass of the public gardens, like strewn orange-peel. The evening star was a jewel in the pale green sky."
"Duncan was impervious to the romance of the hour. He knew that the twilight was but the prelude to night and that darkness was a shield for crime."
She does atmosphere right, but she is still a writer of her times. I had a chuckle over this:
"Hitherto, he had thought of women merely as 'skirts'. He had regarded a saucepan with an angry woman at the business end of it, merely as a weapon. For the first time he had a domestic vision of a country girl--creamy and fragrant as meadowsweet--in a nice womanly setting of saucepans."
I had a chuckle as that is the least appealing setting I can imagine myself in. But the story is from 1941 and somehow I think Duncan means it all very complimentary. I think Jenny is more than cheese/bait for a killer, but maybe a confirmed bachelor, too. It was a fun story. Maybe a little dated, but still entertaining.
No New Yorker story this weekend since the last issue was a double issue and had only one story for both weeks. I'm not sure where my story reading is going. Maybe I will get back to Francis Wyndham. I've been meaning to order a collection by Tove Jansson, but I seem to forget every time I place an order. I need something a little different--one reviewer called her stories "unacknowledged masterpieces" which sounds very promising. Who should I look for? Someone contemporary maybe. Not necessarily a woman, but you know I tend to pick up women authors to read. I think it is time to browse my stacks--I have lots of collections, though maybe more anthologies than by a single author. I know if I go looking I will end up with a stack of books to choose from.
My posts may be every other day this week as the humidity of summer has arrived with a vengeance and my 'writing room' (how fancy is that--the room where my computer is) is extremely toasty. I have a hard time concentrating when sweat is trickling down between my shoulder blades. I always feel for characters in stories who have that problem. Unfortunately I know exactly how that feels.