Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Third Eye - Ethel Lina White

Mid October and I feel stuck between the end of summer - it's been unseasonably warm this weekend - and the looming threat of Christmas which isn't actually that far away, despite protestations from some quarters that it's still to soon to talk about it. It isn't to soon, and even as I type I have Christmas puddings gently steaming in the kitchen.

I read 'The Third Eye' back in June, and haven't quite got round to writing about it in all the time since, finally doing it has definitely made me realise that this is really Autumn, and not the end of summer. Fortunately it's an excellent autumn book, with just the right atmosphere for darkening nights.

Caroline has been living with her sister and her family in a small London flat, she's welcome, but feels strongly that it's time she struck out independently. Partly because she feels slightly inadequate next to her far more intellectual sister, and her professor husband, and maybe because the professor is a little too fond of her.

There's no hint of impropriety, but rather a gentle reminder to the reader that no marriage, however sound, needs a permanent house guest in any form, much less that of a younger more physically attractive sister. It's part of White's charm that she reminds us of that before it's perhaps altogether evident to her characters.

Anyway, Caroline is happy to accept a post as games mistress at the Abbey School, despite her brother in laws reservations. Turning up at the beginning of the autumn term it's down becomes clear that all is not quite as it should be. The previous games mistress died in slightly odd circumstances, the matron has a bit of a cult following amongst the pupils, and holds séances with the headmistress. There's a general atmosphere of uneasiness that becomes increasingly tense - which is White's forte, and she really excelled at it here.

Caroline is soon affected by the same creeping unease that pervades the place, and her situation gets worse when she falls out with the matron over her treatment of a pupil. A crisis point is reached where Caroline finds herself in real danger from an unexpected source (after a wonderful exercise in rising paranoia and dread during a journey back to the school), before everything is resolved more or less satisfactorily (at least for Caroline).

It's an excellent book by an oddly neglected writer - there's this from Greyladies, and a few of her stories in the British Library Crime Classics anthologies, and whilst more of her work isn't hard to find as ebooks or print on demand formats, I feel she deserves more. This is the woman who wrote the book Hitchcock based 'The Lady Vanishes' on after all. 'The Third Eye' has a tremendous amount of atmosphere, as well as a plot that nicely blends a sense of impending melodrama with a feeling that these kind of things could all to easily happen. And it really is just the kind of thing to read with curtains drawn, and fire lit (or puddings steaming) on an autumn evening. It'll certainly make you think twice about talking to strangers on buses.


  1. I’m English, I never talk to strangers on buses! I am, however, a sucker for any book with an academic background. I went to school just before my fifth birthday and in many respects could be said to have never left since. I’ve also worked for at least one headmistress who might well have been summoned by a seance, or more likely had to be confined within the outline of a pentagram. This definitely sounds like something I should be seeking out.

    1. Very wise both on the public transport front, and in seeking out this book. It's well worth a look.

  2. Oh yes, I like her style of creepiness, though the melodrama can be a bit off-putting if you're not in the mood: really enjoyed in particular Some Must Watch (creepiest movie adaptation into The Spiral Staircase) and, more recently read, While She Sleeps.

    1. I do enjoy a bit of melodrama, and was in the mood - I think she carries it off here, but agree that if it's not quite you're thing she wouldn't be the right writer to go for. If you do like her though it's brilliantly atmospheric and all quite feasible - so there was no effort to suspend disbelief on my part.