Fear Stalks The VillageCrime, Mystery
Series: British Library Crime Classics
Ambling along the lanes of a sleepy village in the Downs, passing cosy Tudor cottages rustling with wisteria, a novelist imagines the sordid truth hidden behind the quaint, rustic facade. Her musings are confirmed when a spate of anonymous poison pen letters shocks the community, turning neighbour against neighbour and embroiling everyone from the rector and the ‘queen of the village’ Decima Asprey to the high-born Scudamores. With venom in the air, the perpetrator a mystery and dark secrets threatening to come to light, a shadow of shame and scandal stretches over the parish, with death and disaster following in its wake.
Revelling in the wickedness that lies beneath the idyllic veneer of village life, White’s 1932 mystery is an inventive interwar classic and remains one of the foundation stones of the village mystery sub-genre of crime fiction.
Ethel Lina White is great at creating a tense atmosphere and then drawing every possible ounce of drama out of it, and she’s very successful here. It gets a little melodramatic at times, but it makes sense given the febrile atmosphere of the story. It opens in an idyllic village, where everyone knows one another — and where everyone is suddenly a suspect after poison pen letters begin to be received.
I found the resolution of the mystery fairly obvious, though I hadn’t anticipated some of the dramatic twists and red herrings along the way, so it took a while to figure out why it worked out that way and how the mystery gets unravelled.
White also does some interesting things with the characters, making them feel surprisingly real for a crime novel of this period. There’s some genuine psychological depth to the doctor in particular, and they aren’t all straightforward stereotypes. I actually felt sad about some of these scenes, and much more involved than I usually do with classic crime — there’s three in particular that really struck home.
As a note, anyone with triggers concerning suicide should read this book with care. There are two successful suicides, with varying degrees of description, and an additional almost-suicide that’s quite closely described.