by Ethel Lina White
“It was a dark and stormy night.”
That line sums up The Spiral Staircase, Ethel Lina White’s 1933 whodunit that inspired a classic movie starring Dorothy McGuire and Ethel Barrymore.
Staircase is a quintessential “cozy mystery” because it checks all the boxes: the obligatory dark, stormy night; a cast of colorful characters who disappear, one by one, from a creepy mansion; a plucky heroine; numerous shady suspects.
Who is killing young girls in the vicinity of an isolated house? Is it the masculine/feminine nurse? The not-so-bedridden, cantankerous old matron? The playful playboy? Is Helen the servant girl destined to be the next victim?
White might not be in Agatha Christie’s league as a writer, but in terms of giving the reader exactly what he or she wants, The Spiral Staircase is topflight.
Film vs. Book:
- The 1946 Robert Siodmak movie made several improvements to White’s novel — the killer’s motivation, for one. In the film, the murderer seeks to rid the world of “imperfect” women. McGuire’s servant girl is mute; not so in the book. Improbably, the novel’s killer is motivated by some nonsense about overpopulation.
- The titular spiral staircase is more prominent in the film. The book was originally, more aptly, titled Some Must Watch.
- Siodmak’s film was clearly an inspiration for director Bob Clark’s 1974 movie Black Christmas (the infamous “eyeball” shot; the killer is in the house!).
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