The Spiral Staircase


A lonely mansion, with its strangely assorted guests, and its terrible secret…

The silhouette of a murderer, seen at twilight moving ever closer through the ancient elms…

The frantic turnings of a beautiful young girl, as she is sucked down into a whirlpool of shrieking fear.

All in one of the greatest novels of mystery and suspense ever written – a book filled with “astonishing and diabolical shock.”

New York Herald Tribune

Written by Ethel Lina White. Original title: Some Must Watch.

Though it’s been a while since I’ve read this, I remember it as being a bit of a gem.

Our heroine, Helen Capel, works as a maid for the wealthy Lady Warren and family. Her home is an isolated mansion called Summit, set in a large plantation, surrounded by darkened woods and ghoul-like trees. Intelligent, quick-witted and imaginative, Helen’s too poor to go to the movies but finds the odd assortment of characters inhabiting the household more than enough entertainment for her. 

Then things get even more exciting. For there is a serial killer on the loose. One with a predilection for young girls, just like Helen. The murders are becoming more frequent and closer to home.

One stormy night, a woman is found strangled to death just up the road and the Warren family are put on red alert. As the storm draws ever closer, the house is shuttered up and locked down. To protect the family from the killer, it is agreed no-one, but no-one, will be allowed to leave the house that night and no-one will be allowed in. Sounds like a plan – but will it be enough to keep everyone alive till morning?

Ethel Lina White was one of the best known crime writers in Britain and the USA during 1930s and 1940s. First published in 1933 and made into a film in 1946, The Spiral Staircase is beautifully written – the constant slow-creeping suspense combined with deft touches of humour reminded me a lot of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat.  Not sure this book is graphic or gory enough for today’s crime fans but if you’re in the mood for an atmospheric, slow-building whodunit, I would recommend this. Four out of five stars.

And a much more in-depth review with another great cover, can be read over at The Rap Sheet.