You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought that comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.

–Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’

These words of Sherlock Holmes were what popped into mind as I started reading Fear Stalks the Village (1932) by Ethel Lina White. The books opens in a picturesque village, wrapped up snuggly—first in a floral shawl of gardens, then in a great green shawl of fields. Lilies and lavender are growing everywhere and houses are perfect specimens of Tudor and Elizabethan architecture. Not only is the village aesthetically pleasing, life in it seems perfect too, with residents on friendly terms and a rich social life including garden parties, tennis and croquet. People love it so much that hardly anyone even takes a holiday.

But the peace and perfection of the village are disturbed when a poison pen strikes. The recipient of the first letter Miss Decima Asprey, who presides over village social life, is described by all as a saint. But the letter she receives accuses her of being otherwise. While she confides in Revd Simon Blake, the rector, she wants to simply put the business out of her mind. But this is not the end of the matter for another letter is received, and then a death, ostensibly an accident, takes place. Soon village life is no longer what it was with rumour and suspicion going around and fear making its way into every home and heart.

When letters continue to haunt residents and life remains far from normal, Revd Blake decides to call in an old friend, Ignatius Brown, who likes looking into ‘little’ puzzles. Brown begins to look into the matter meeting the different residents, and trying to work out which of them might have done it.

This was a fairly enjoyable read for me, with plenty of humour in the writing, a classic village setting and an exploration of how life is turned upside down (and any semblance of peace pretty much sucked out) by a poison pen.

In the book group that I read it for, a lot of members thought this a combination of Mapp and Lucia and Agatha Christie and I felt so too. As I started the book, the descriptions of the village and its social life—the garden and tennis parties, the ‘queen’ who ruled over all and even the dynamics at one strawberry party that we attend and between different people was very much like in the Mapp and Lucia books. Despite the fact that the book is far more serious because of the poison pen, and the deaths (yes, there are more than one) that occur, I liked how Ethel Lina White wove humour into the dialogue and writing. For instance,

‘It’s true that Nature has thoughtfully provided me with padding—but it’s not fair to count on guests bringing their own cushions…’

Or

‘Directly the two men were inside, they felt the formal atmosphere of the house; even the cat dressed for dinner, for his shift-front was immediately white against his black coat.’

Another fun note is added by Charles Dickens, Revd Blake’s spaniel who guards his biscuit tin and enjoys being taken on car rides by Ignatius Brown.

The mystery itself is a fairly complex one for we soon see that almost all the residents have secrets (which the poison pen is picking at) but could it be one of them that’s the culprit or is it an outsider that’s targeting them all? I didn’t guess whodunit and in fact found myself thinking mostly of the suspects whom White drew our attention to. (We do get a closer look at some village residents more than others.) There were some aspects that I had thought would proceed in a different direction or rather would have a different explanation which might have made it more exciting as a mystery (saying what seems a spoiler), so in that sense the solution wasn’t quite so satisfactory for me. There is also the fact that it takes a fair while to resolve.

This was a mostly good read in which I enjoyed the setting, humour and mystery, though some aspects including the end were a touch disappointing.

3.5 stars

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16 thoughts on “Book Review: Fear Stalks the Village by Ethel Lina White

    1. I think I may have been harsher in my rating than I meant to. I really enjoyed the writing, plot and characters and it kept me reading all though. It was only aspects in the solution that was disappointing. I do plan on reading more by her. Thanks for the recommendation🙂 the only other I knew was The Lady Vanishes which others in my group were less enthusiastic about so I was wondering whether I should try some other of hers next.

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  1. At first I wondered if I was reading a synopsis of Christie’s ‘The Moving Finger’, which also involves poison pen letters and murder in a sleepy English village. The title of this though certainly tells you what to expect! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It certainly does. This was published some years before the Christie, which I also enjoyed a lot. This had a great setting and characters; I think may be I was a little harsher than I meant in my rating, since it was only some aspects of the solution that didn’t work for me

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  2. I too thought it sounded very like Moving Finger, one of my favourite Christies. I wonder if Christie had read it, and used it as an inspiration for her own story. I enjoyed Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins very much, but was less enthusiastic about the only other one I’ve read, Some Must Watch, which I found very stretched out and repetitive.

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    1. There are a couple of these early versions of Christie plots that have come to notice — the other was a version of And Then There Were None — but one doesn’t know if she did read them at some point. Her versions in both cases do come across better.

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