Dames of Crime: Ethel Lina White

Largely forgotten today, Welsh crime writer Ethel Lina White (1876-1944) wrote 17 novels. In her day she was as well known as writers like Agatha Christie. White started out writing short stories and working at the Ministry of Pensions but left her job to scratch out a living as a writer after an offer of ten-pounds for a short story.

Lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for

Ethel Lina White

White wrote three non-crime novels between 1927 and 1930 before turning to crime. Her first crime novel Put Out the Light was published in 1931 when she was fifty-five. Her work often featured lonely but strong heroines in dark country houses as metaphors for repression. She became known for writing suspense that set your heart racing, as well as her colloquial conversation style in dialogue. Some of these skills were probably picked up while indulging her favourite downtime activity of watching films.

Her novel Some Must Watch (1933) was made into a Hollywood Movie called The Spiral Staircase (1946). The Wheel Spins (1936) was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes (1938). Midnight House (1942) was also filmed as The Unseen with Raymond Chandler as one of the script writers.

Bibliography

The Wish-Bone (1927)
Twill Soon Be Dark (1929)
The Eternal Journey (1930)
Put Out the Light (1931) aka Sinister Light
Fear Stalks the Village (1932)
Some Must Watch (1933) aka The Spiral Staircase
Wax (1935)
The First Time He Died (1935)
The Wheel Spins (1936) aka The Lady Vanishes
The Third Eye (1937)
The Elephant Never Forgets (1937)
Step in the Dark (1938)
While She Sleeps (1940)
She Faded Into Air (1941)
Midnight House (1942) aka Her Heart in Her Throat, The Unseen
The Man Who Loved Lions (1943) aka The Man Who Was Not There
They See in Darkness (1944)

Book review: Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

Vesta Gul is an ageing widow who lives in a small cabin on a lake with her dog Charlie. She is a curiosity to the local townsfolk. Out walking in the woods one morning, Vesta finds a note on the ground held down with stones suggesting a woman called Magda has been killed.

Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body. But there was no body. No bloodstain. No tangle of hair caught on the coarse fallen branches, no red wool scarf damp with morning dew festooned across the bushes. There was just the note on the ground, rustling at my feet in the soft May wind. I happened upon it on my dawn walk through the birch woods with my dog, Charlie.

There is no body in sight so Vesta decides to become a sleuth and try to work out what happened to Magda. She begins to concoct Magda’s story by writing it down following instructions on how to write a good mystery. She develops characters with elaborate backstories and conspiracy theories inspired by red herrings. She talks to Charlie and reflects on what her dead husband, Walter might make of her antics.

Reading lots of mysteries is essential. That seemed like ridiculous advice. The last thing anyone should do is stuff her head full of other people’s ways of doing things. That would take all the fun out. Does one study children before copulating to produce one? Does one perform a thorough examination of others’ feces before rushing to the toilet? Does one go around asking people to recount their dreams before going to sleep? No. Composing a mystery was a creative endeavor, not some calculated procedure.

Vesta’s adventure both enthrals and frightens her as she develops a detailed backstories for Magda and all the other characters in her mystery. Walter berates her continually in her head as she goes, as he evidently did in life, and Vesta seems to get some satisfaction out of defying him.

An ax murderer wouldn’t be very quick on his feet, carrying an ax and all. Charlie’s warning would give me time enough to collect my coat and purse, even. I wasn’t worried that I would be hacked to death, fed to the wolves, even if there were wolves out there, which there weren’t. At least none that we’d ever seen. Nor bears. Though there were foxes. But the most they were known to do was break into people’s garbage and make a mess. They were no worse than skunks or raccoons or opossums. Still, I’d taken a butcher knife up to bed with me and had slid it under the mattress. Just in case. Because who knew? Who knew? … And that was what was keeping me awake—not knowing, and wanting to know.

In the absence of human company, Vesta’s imagination recasts her view of the real world. She buys a camouflage onesie online and sets booby traps around her home. The woman becomes more and more unhinged from reality as she attempts to solve the mystery of the note.

Death in Her Hands is the story of an ageing woman facing a life of emptiness who uses her imagination to escape from her solitude.

The book unfolds in long rambling paragraphs across only seven chapters. It is is Ottessa Moshfegh’s third novel (the others being Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation). Death in Her Hands is part mystery, part suspense, and part black comedy.

Book review: The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan

The Ruin is the first book in the Cormac Reilly series by Dervla McTieran. Published in 2018, it is a gritty, atmospheric page turning police procedural.

Rookie copy Cormac Reilly is called out to investigate a domestic in Galway, Ireland in 1993. He is greeted by an under-nourished 15 year old girl at a dilapidated house. Her mother is in bed, dead from an apparent heroin overdose, and she has her much younger brother in her care. Cormac takes the kids to a hospital were the girl disappears and it is revealed the boy has unexplained injuries all over his body.

By 2013, Cormac has risen through the ranks to become a member of an elite anti-terror squad in Dublin. He moves back to Galway to be with his biologist partner, Emma who gets a lucrative research gig there.

Aisling is an ambitious young doctor training to become a surgeon. She lives with her boyfriend Jack. When she discovers she is pregnant, the couple have an intense discussion about whether they should keep the baby. Jack goes out to get some air and clear his head. His body is discovered in the river the next day, and his death declared a suicide.

Jack’s sister Maude, who has been living in Australia for years, arrives back in Ireland and pursues the police to look further into Jack’s death. She does not believe it was suicide. When Aisling meets her she joins Maude in pursuing this line of enquiry. The police view the women as a nuisance.

Cormac finds himself an outsider back in Galway, and is relegated to reviewing cold-case investigations – including the 1993 death he attended as a rookie. It turns our Jack who was found in the river was the little boy Cormac took to the hospital.

Cormac, Aisling and Maude’s trajectories begin to intersect as issues including child abuse, addiction, abortion and corruption are explored.

Book review: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Normal programming resumes this week with a book review of Kate Atkinson’s novel, Case Histories, book 1 in the Jackson Brodie series. I listened to this one in audio book format whilst working on the shed renovating iso project. More on that story later.

She should have done science, not spent all her time with her head in novels. Novels gave you a completely false idea about life, they told lies and they implied there were endings when in reality there were no endings, everything just went on and on and on.

In 1970, a girl called Olivia goes missing at night from a tent in her parents back yard. She is never found. A young woman called Laura is brutally murdered in her fathers city law office in 1994, the killer never identified, leaving her father wracked with guilt. An isolated young mother called Shiriley feels trapped with a baby and a demanding husband and takes to her husband with an axe during an argument in 1979. She goes to jail. Her child, given over to her husbands parents has for all intents and purposes, vanished.

The survivors of the tragedies are haunted by unresolved grief.

When you chopped logs with the ax and they split open they smelled beautiful, like Christmas. But when you split someone’s head open it smelled like abattoir and quite overpowered the scent of the wild lilacs you’d cut and brought into the house only this morning, which was already another life.

Ex-cop, and soon to be divorced private investigator Jackson Brodie is pursuing a flight attendant who’s husband believes she is cheating on him. His other case involves searching for an eccentric old ladies missing cats.

Time was a thief, he stole your life away from you and the only way you could get it back was to outwit him and snatch it right back.

Brodie is approached by Olivia’s sisters. They found their sisters toy hidden in their dead fathers belongings and want Brodie to investigate her disappearance thirty years after it occurred. Laura’s father hires Brodie to find the man in a yellow golfing sweater believed to have murdered his daughter. Shirley’s sister asks Brodie to find her niece who disappeared after her sister went to jail.

The seemingly unconnected cases begin to converge.

Doing nothing was much more productive than people thought; Jackson often had his most profound insights when he appeared to be entirely idle. He didn’t get bored, he just went into a nothing kind of place.

The novel jumps back and forth in time and from case to case. The threads are held together by the sense of isolation of each of the characters as they journey to find connection beyond their own tragedies. The reader is challenged to keep track of the many narratives, and compelled by Atkinson’s vivid and funny character sketches that draw the reader to them. Atkinson lightens the sense of grief and loss that permeates the novel with plenty of humour and perceptive insights.

The plot thickens,” he said, and wished he hadn’t said that because it sounded like something from a bad detective novel. “I think we have a suspect.” That didn’t sound much better. “My house has just exploded, by the way.” At least that was novel.

An intelligent and novel detective novel.

Book Review: Metal Fish, Falling Snow by Cath Moore

Fourteen year old Dylan lives in a tiny outback town. Her absent dad was black and her mum is a white French lady. The two of them dream of one sailing across the ocean to France. When her mother dies in a tragic accident, Dylan is left with her mum’s boyfriend, Pat, a man with a bit of a gambling habit.

I felt sick all through the funeral. Pat had put Mum in the dress she’d worn when they first met. Made it all about him, and I felt thunder in my chest. Death is like the last glass of milk when there is no more in the fridge and the shop is closed ’cause it’s late Sunday arvo

After a flurry of mysterious phone calls the grieving pair set off on a road trip across outback Australia to a destination unknown to Dylan. People keep asking Dylan where she’s from because her skin is the wrong color.

Out here with Pat in the middle of nowhere, I wonder if all these other gum trees are safekeeping secrets too. Maybe there are stories deep down inside the roots or buried between layers of bark.

Dylan has a very specific way of seeing the world. She likes forks and Tina Arena and water. She doesn’t like bad parking or the wolf that lives inside her. She eats white before green and often finds herself in other people’s dreams.

The air is filled with Pat’s other memories trying to be heard. Some fall into the fire, they screech out with pain as they die. Others make a run for it hoping Pat will forget about them all together. One of them dances over the fire and flickers into my dreams.

On the road trip Dylan’s anger and grief get her and Pat into all sorts of strife, but an unlikely bond forms between the pair. Until Dylan realises their destination.

When we are shelling peas for Friday night fritters, all you can hear is pop pop pop! Little peas tumbling into the bowl just like Mum and me used to do, and that was nice, finding a memory in something small and green.

Told in the first person, Dylan’s voice is unique, imaginative and lyrical. Metal Fish, Falling Snow is an emotional journey about grief, friendship, identity, family, coming of age, resilience, and internalised racism. The intensity of the subject matter is lightened by a good dose of magical realism and Dylan’s unique lens on the world.

Born in Guyana and raised in Australia, Cath Moore is of Irish/Afro-Caribbean heritage. Metal Fish, Falling Snow is the screenwriters debut novel. Highly recommended reading,

Book review: Ash Mountain by Helen Fitzgerald

Ash Mountain by Helen Fitzgerald is domestic noir meets disaster thriller – dark, tragic and funny.

Fran Collins returns to the Australian small country town she grew up in to care for her sick father, reluctant teenage daughter in tow for the weekends.

Ash Mountain is full of childhood memories – Fran’s son from a teenage pregnancy, old friends and rivals, and dark secrets in the seminary – all of which return to haunt her at the same time as she is falling in love. The attraction to her love interest, the Captain, is complicated by the fact that their daughters are also forming a budding relationship.

The story is set against the backdrop of a scorching summer in the days leading up to a cataclysmic bushfire as one timeline, and events from thirty years earlier in another. The claustrophobic small town setting and the knowledge of the pending doomsday bushfire keep the tension cranked, and the narration by a prickly resentful middle aged woman brings plenty of droll humour to the table.

If, like me you live in a bushfire prone are, I recommend reading it in winter.

Lockdown Thrills

Melbourne is filling up with bandits, bushrangers and bankrobbers this week after the Premier made mask wearing mandatory.

Bruce Springsteen says the writing life is a mix of high anxiety and grandeur

When I can’t take the thrill of lockdown life any more, I’ve been tuning into ThrillerFest, and it’s a hoot. Usually held in New York, the event was forced online this year by the pandemic. I bought tickets to the CraftFest and CareerFest parts of the program.

CraftFest is a thrilling feast of thriller writers.When I logged into the online site with my secret password I discovered about one hundred author video discussions brimming with ideas, hints, tips and motivation for writing.

I’m a pantser until I need to be a plotter and a plotter until I need to be a pantser

CareerFest contains five additional videos that take you behind the scenes to advice from top authors and publishing experts about pitching, publishing and brand.

The best news is you can still get tickets and access the videos for at least six months. It’s one activity you can do without wearing a mask, and I think it will see me through lockdown. My favourite piece of advice so far is:

How do you get that shit done when you work full time …. Because I’m sitting here writing on my phone, not playing angry birds.

Book review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Award winning All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews is a story of sisters, grief, and loss, told with an extraordinary sense of humour that makes the despair on the page readable. The novel explores the effect of growing up in a strict, closed religious community, the conflicting desires for life and death, the flawed and sometimes indifferent mental health care system, and the effect a family members mental health crisis can have on their loved ones.

Sisters Elfrieda and Yolanda grew up in the restricted confines of a Mennonite community in Canada in a family that indulged their rebellious daughters who strained against the communities restrictions.

Sometimes he referred to himself as a cowboy and these encounters as “mending fences.” But in reality it was more of a raid. He showed up on a Saturday in a convoy with his usual posse of elders, each in his own black, hard-topped car (they never carpool because it’s not as effective in creating terror when thirteen or fourteen similarly dressed men tumble out of one car) and my father and I watched from the window as they parked in front of our house and got out of their cars and walked slowly towards us, one behind the other, like a tired conga line.

Yoli grows up to be a divorced single mother and an author who writes YA books about rodeo romances. She carries around a plastic bag containing her latest manuscript – an attempt at a literary novel. Elf is a gifted and beautiful concert pianist who grows up to marry a loving man. She also wants to kill herself. The girls father committed suicide on a train track. Yoli, her mother and Elf’s husband dedicate themselves to keeping Elf alive, until Yoli starts to question that strategy and to search the internet for how to get hold of some Nembutal.

How are you doing? she asked me. Fine, fine, I said. I wanted to tell her that I felt I was dying from rage and that I felt guilty about everything and that when I was a kid I woke up every morning singing, that I couldn’t wait to leap out of bed and rush out of the house into the magical kingdom that was my world, that dust made visible in sunbeams gave me real authentic joy, that my sparkly golden banana-seated bike with the very high sissy bar took my breath away, the majesty of it, that it was mine, that there was no freer soul in the world than me at age nine, and that now I woke up every morning reminding myself that control is an illusion, taking deep breaths and counting to ten trying to ward off panic attacks and hoping that my own hands hadn’t managed to strangle me while I slept.

The story is told from the first person point of view of fortyish Yoli. The long rolling paragraphs pull the reader through the narrative, and the dialogue, which lacks quotation marks, makes you feel as if you are right inside Yoli’s head as she tells the story. It is a beautiful, sad, funnny and uniquely written book.

Book review: The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner

When I mentioned to a friend I had just read a great Helen Garner novella, they said they were conflicted because they love her writing, but couldn’t stand the person. Tongue in cheek, I said I didn’t know her personally so couldn’t comment on her character but thought her writing was beautiful. It was an interaction that sums Garner up quite well…both the woman and her work seem to attract controversy and elicit strong feelings.

‘Course I care. I always care. But there’s no point in making a song and dance about it, like that night he stayed here. Know something? There’s only one thing that’ll bring ’em back, and that’s indifference. The one thing you can’t fake.’
‘But you are faking it.’
‘At the moment I might be. But as soon as it stops being faked and starts being real, he’ll turn up. Rule number one of modern life.’

Beyond the personal satisfaction gained through the creative process of writing, we write with the hope that we will entertain, inspire, broaden horizons, challenge, or provoke, all outcomes which require the elicitation of emotions. It lends me to wonder then, whether Garner is not the personification of success if both the woman and her work can excite such polarised views.

The Children’s Bach (1984), Garners third published work, invites us into the 1980’s Melbourne suburban household of loving middle aged couple Athena and Dexter Fox who are united by their children, Billy who has autism and their a bright articulate son called Arthur. At its heart it is the story of a stable and caring couple’s life being interrupted by a the introduction of a disruptive influence. For Anthea (who is a bit suffocated by her own domesticity) and Dexter, it is the introduction into their orbit of Dexter’s old friend Elizabeth, her bohemian lover Philip and sister Vicki that fuel unrest.

‘She’s a frump,’ thought Elizabeth with relief; but Athena stepped forward and held out her hand, and Elizabeth saw the cleverly mended sleeve of her jumper and was suddenly not so sure.

Among the turmoil of relations between the adult characters, it is Billy who represents the manifestation of the parts of ourselves that are inaccessibility to others.

‘I used to be romantic about him,’ said Athena. ‘I used to think there was some kind of wild, good little creature trapped inside him, and I tried to communicate with that. But now I know there’s . . .’ (she knocked her forehead with her knuckles) ‘ . . .nobody home.’

Family, morals, ideals, and naivety are pitted against hedonism, freedom and independence. The Children’s Bach has been mooted as one of the best novels of the twentieth century and Garner is certainly a master of domestic drama, of female desire and the complexity of love and relationships. The point of view moves rapidly between the characters, and music, in which each of the actors finds a kind of solace, echoes through the book and lends a rhythm to Garners exquisite, precise, efficiently crafted, intimate and lyrical prose.

The novella was turned into an opera by Andrew Schultz as part of the Canberra International Music Festival in 2008. If we still have an arts sector post COVID-19 and the show is ever re-staged, I’ll definitely go and see it.

Book review: Missing Pieces by Caroline de Costa

Indigenous cop Cass Diamond is asked to help with an unusual missing person search. Wealthy businessman Andrew Todd died in 2012 and left directions in his will to search for a child, Yasmin Munoz, who went missing from a picnic spot near Cairns in 1992.

Whilst poking around, Cass discovers that in 1990 Todd’s daughter-in-law to be went missing from a Brisbane party thrown for her engagement. At the time police believed there was no link between the two events, but Cass has a hunch. The search leads Cass to a farm on the Atherton Tablelands and she becomes the victim of a kidnapping herself along with two other women.

Missing Pieces published by Wild Dingo Press, is the second novel in a series by Caroline de Costa and was shortlisted in the 2016 Davitt Awards. Set in Queensland it is great to see a strong, shrewd and feisty Aboriginal woman as the protagonist. Many twists and turns are woven through the story and it touches on a range of themes including single motherhood, politics, race and the environment.

For readers with a social conscience who like police procedurals.