Step in the Dark by Ethel Lina White

published 1938

Step in the Dark

[Georgia, travelling in Europe, meets an interesting new family. One of them is a Count she likes the look of.]

Mrs Vanderpant—aunt to the Count—was the widow of a wealthy and distinguished American. She was accompanied by an impressive-looking scientist—Professor Malfoy—and a youth named “Clair”—both connections on the American side. They were installed in the most expensive suite, from whence issued the fateful invitation.

Georgia found herself stationary at the dinner-table.

She was on approval.

The meal was laid in the private sitting-room, which was a chill apartment with a vast expanse of waxed parquet flooring. Starched white net curtains hung at the three long windows, framing narrow slices of cobalt-blue night sky. The golden glow of candlelight was reflected in a large Regency mirror upon the wall.

Georgia could see herself in it—small and very fair, in a backless black dinner-gown. She always looked younger than her age, but tonight, in spite of her efforts at sophistication, she appeared too immature for her writing record.

She moved her head and her reflection vanished.

“I’ve gone inside,” she thought. “That mirror has swallowed so many faces—so many scenes.”

commentary: This is the fifth of my ‘box set’ of Ethel Lina White books, cheap on Kindle – see other entries. This is a comparatively weak one I would say, but still an enjoyable read. And it has a strange internal spiral about it: Georgia is a writer of thrillers, who gets caught up in a plot resembling something she might have invented. The writing of her books becomes a key part of what is going on… White was being pretty post-modern about it.

It is difficult to describe the plot without spoilering it. Georgia is a widow with two young daughters: she meets a potential new partner, the Count, and wonders what the future holds. They fall in love, and she goes with him to one of his homes – a remote island off the coast of Sweden. But then things start to go badly wrong.

White may have been playing with her audience a little – she is often associated with old dark houses, Gothic mansions, traditional villages. Here, most of the action takes place in an ultra-contemporary Swedish house:
It was light, airy and modern, with the minimum of metal furniture, spaced to resemble a stage-setting. There was evidence everywhere of Sweden's new movements in arts and crafts, demonstrated in delicate colouring and original designs.
What happens in this beautiful house is tense and creepy.

The daughters, Merle and Mavis, are nicely portrayed, quite refreshingly naughty and strange children. Georgia’s mother, Mrs Palfrey, is described as having a ‘relapse into unconventionality. She wore only a skirt and a handkerchief knotted around her neck and waist.’ I presume this gives more coverage than it sounds like – you can sort of see what she means, and they are at a beach cottage, but still….

Mind you, one of the best things about White (for me) is that she does describe people’s clothes, and they are often vaguely relevant, at least to suggest character. I liked this one:
She wore a rest-gown of petunia, patterned with blue poppies, in combination with purple-red lipstick and ultramarine eye shadow. Around her head was wound a swathe of chiffon …
The same character has another rest-gown, this time of filmy fuchsia and cyclamen, worn with long amethyst earrings.

As in her other books, the women are resourceful and independent-minded, and brave spinster ladies save the day.

This is not an essential read, but is a tension-filled entertainment. And I like Professor Malfoy, obviously about to go and take up a post at Hogwarts.

The picture, a 1930s evening dress, is from the Clover Tumblr.


  1. OK, will definitely tackle THE WHEEL SPINS first but sounds like fun - thanks Moira.

    1. I found it an intriguing read, Sergio, though not as good as Wheel Spins....

  2. This may not be White's best, Moira, but it still sounds like a decent read. And I do find it interesting when authors innovate with plots (in this case, the writer who, in a way, lives one of her stories). I'm keen to see what you think of the others in that 'boxed set.'

    1. The business of the heroine being a writer - and one very like White - is what tipped the book over from being an OK read to something more thought-provoking.

  3. Nothing to see hear...move along now.

    1. There are thriller-ish aspects, and some very great nastiness, but I can see I would never persuade you to read her...

  4. Interesting. I must read more White - recently I've been focusing on her short stories rather than the novels. My wife just read White's The Man Who Loved Lions and tells me it's very good.

    1. Great title! That one isn't in the collection I bought - I must try and track it down. I definitely feel she is unfairly neglected - at least as good as some better-remembered authors.


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