#133: Everything is Rather Frightening in The Black Rustle (1943) by Constance and Gwenyth Little

Over at the excellent and superbly-titled Exploring the History of Women in Mystery blog, wrangler “Unpredictable Notes” recently put up this brief summary of the EIRF school as outlined in Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor’s A Catalogue of Crime (1971).  EIRF is a step on from HIBK (Had I But Known) and stands for Everything is Rather Frightening:

In fact, since the modern psychological novel has devoted itself to exploring the abnormal and oddly alarming, no great originality was needed to raise the emotional pitch of the murder another notch and made HIBK into EIRF – Everything is Rather Frightening.

This is a new one on me but, by the same serendipity that seems to manifest itself throughout my blogging, I was reading The Black Rustle — one of the middle period novels from the Little sisters — when I encountered this lexicon, and it struck me how perfectly all the Littles’ books fall into this categorisation.

Black RustleSee, for all their output, the Littles only ever wrote standalone novels.  Admittedly, it would be the work of but a moment to go back and simply change some names to have the books feature a roster of recurring characters — which is a nice way of saying that variety didn’t exactly present itself front and centre from book to book — but each time we start over with a new Plucky Young Woman (stopping just short of being a Bright Young Thing, thankfully), her Inevitable Beau with whom she Has Several Disagreements before Realising They’re Made for Each Other…and all the while A Murderer is at Large and Must Be Caught.  Hey if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it, and for an easy read with a liberal smear of ghastly imagination and the odd sub-Carrian flourish you can do far, far worse than the Littles.

Before going any further, we should probably address the Standalones vs. Continuing Series issue: obviously in a continuing series each novel must, in part, be written like a standalone because as an author you have no control over the order in which readers will come to your books.  This is perhaps less of an issue in Fantasy, where publishers have taken to numbering books so that readers know if they’re starting the Malazan Book of the Fallen five volumes in (good luck with that, btw), but with detective fiction — and Golden Age detective fiction in particular — such issues are much less common.  Nonetheless, if Dorothy L. Sayers kills Bunter after six books, she knows that a fair proportion of her audience will be inconsolable even if it’s the death itself which is the important thing and its emotional impact more of a concern for the faithful.

With standalones there’s no such guarantee, and part of me wonders if this almost makes it easier: you have your 100,000 words to give your readers characters, make them care (if you’re bothered about this), and then provide a context in which an emotional response can be garnered from the resulting crime.  No subtle evocation of past joys and triumphs and agonies; if Uncle Marcus dies on page five, the maximum amount of time anyone has had with him is five pages, and you as an author have had five pages to give us a reason to get involved and care about his death or the people involved in it.  Of course, even in a series this is also true: you’re only going to have a handful of recurring characters, and so we as readers need a reason to invest in the situation which will be encompassed by those others who are only going to get this one shot to imprint themselves on our psyche.

Either way, the emotional pitch of all detective fiction has to be a bit higher.  Threats must actually be threatening at their first or second appearance, the sense of jeopardy must be established and the consequences of this understood.  John Dickson Carr, of course, did this beautifully with both confounding situation and a staggering brilliance of language that could turn from a laugh to a shudder in about four words flat.  I would argue that this is a different thing to EIRF, though, which takes the more direct way of simply turning everything into a possible sense of threat.

The Black Rustle exemplifies this rather nicely.  My Rue Morgue Press trade paperback is 150 pages long and composed of thirty-nine chapters, with all but arguably two of them ending on some kind of cliffhanger — that’s a point of drama every 4 pages.  The first few chapters alone end on the promise of a shocking surprise, the disappearance of a china doll rumoured to walk around at night killing people, the theft of a key object, a character bursting into tears after a dramatic proclamation, the disappearance of a sinister object, the discovery of a dead body, and — ending chapter 10 — a revelation about that dead body that convinces people a murder has occurred.

Black Rustle 2Some of these are very effective — the ending of chapter twenty-three, for instance, is not something I’ll forget any time soon — but key to their success is that after a while you start to expect them: even as everything seems like it might be okay, a line is dropped in at the end to show a sudden implication or throw in another unknown, and away you go again.  Everything is rather frightening: there are so many doors in the unfamiliar house that our heroine can never be completely sure what or who she’s walking in on, even her sleep is affected by the noise of footsteps and a rustling dress as the doll walks by night, one death occurs in a location which was associated with fun but for all its use thereafter is imbued with sinister overtones at the potential for another death…and that chapter twenty-three ending even casts a retrospective sense of menace over events that preceded it and so imbues a further sense of fear in both directions.

But, and here’s the key for EIRF I feel, it is that sense of confusion, that constant barracking of one high-pitch response after another, that keeps it frightening.  You know that an explanation will be reached, but not when and not where from.  When Gideon Fell or Father Brown or Hercule Poirot appears on a scene, you know that they will get to the bottom of this no matter what — there’s a sense of comfort and trust that these characters bring with them through the accrued weight of their experiences.  Fell in particular is rarely baffled for very long, which is why Carr doesn’t belong in the EIRF school for me — he unsettles you, but feeds you little tidbits and sly asides that imply an understanding being formed (that midway revelation in Till Death Do Us Part that I spoke about — whaddaya mean you haven’t read it yet? — exemplifies this perfectly).

In EIRF the characters must always be kept away from elucidation for as long as possible.  They remain frightened and allow this fear to bleed into everything else because there’s no sense of where the demon-slaying will come from.  Indeed, further deaths are frequently encountered whenever anyone is silly enough to hint that they have a sense of what’s going on, as if knowledge — an understanding of the pattern itself — is the thing to be feared: staying in ignorance almost becomes the safest way to survive this type of mystery, making the act of seeking answers an even more frightening prospect..and so the intensity builds as the cycle repeats.

This is easier to marshal and maintain with a set of standalone novels rather than having the same detective going through the same agony time after time…I mean, doubtless this was done in some series or other — doubtless several of them — but I’m guessing it got old and wore thin, the Golden Age equivalent of Jack Reacher getting in yet another fist-fight or yet another shoot-out.  The Littles may be guilty of repeating the set of tropes that I’m seeing as comprising EIRF time and again, but they had the common sense to see that change was going to be necessary each time to make it at least have some sense of newness.  Journey(wo)men this may make them, but they did it very well indeed and should be celebrated for making it work as well as it did for as long as it did.

~

I submit cover of the Rue Morgue Press edition of The Black Rustle up top for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Skeletal Hand.

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13 thoughts on “#133: Everything is Rather Frightening in The Black Rustle (1943) by Constance and Gwenyth Little

    • That’s an excellent question. Upon a lot of reflection, I don’t think I would because of how the investigation develops: without wishing to spoil anything, there’s a point where the ‘detective’ begins to make plans to seek out the killer — activiely taking on the role of pursuit, and so deliberately insinutaing themself into the killer’s path.

      My (nascent) feeling on EIRF is that the solution come about more as a moment of sudden realisation than by any deliberate intention — the prosepct of pursuit is simply too frightening to consider. Once that decision is made to adopt counter-measures to comabt and find the responsible party I think a book steps out of the EIRF form. Perhaps.

      Dunno, what does anyone esle think?

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  1. Great review JJ, been meaning to return to these two writers. This book certainly sounds intriguing and in terms of suspense made me think of Ethel Lina White’s Some Must Watch. I have a couple of her books in my TBR pile so I’ll have to see whether she also fits the EIRF category.

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    • ‘Suspense’ is definitely the key aspect here, yeah. I wondered if there was an element of sensation fiction in this school, too, but I don’t have the experience of it to be able to judge. You’ve read far more of that than I have…whaddaya think?

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      • hmm that is a good question (and by that I mean a tricky one!). Gut reaction would be to say no, based on the details mentioned in your review. Things like gothic, HIBK, Sensation Fiction and now EIRF do sometimes appear very similar due to the suspense and thrills they raise and the female protagonists. But looking at the nuts and blots of each genre I think there are different things going on in sensation fiction. For example, the female protagonists in sensation fiction can often be culpable or transgressive in some way, whereas the female protagonist here is more in the position of helpless heroine or heroine in peril. You can get helpless nit wits in sensation fiction but they’re not used in the same way, often lacking the agency to do anything about their situations.
        Of course I’d need to read the book to put completely sure but this is a long winded off the cuff answer.

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        • I mean, my interpretation of EIRF could be wrong, too. No-one has told me I’m a mile off, but that doesn’t mean I’m right!

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  2. Is it me or are the stars not appearing? I’m presuming this title got at least a few stars? 😛

    Anyway, this was the title you recommended me when I was seeking to try something out by the Littles… And I enjoyed it – enough to purchase ‘Black Eye’ after that. 🙂 It was better clued than I thought it would be.

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    • No stars because it’s not a review — possibly I’m splotting hairs, but I’m mainly considering this from the perspective of EIRF than giving an overall summary (plotting, characters, solution, clewing, etc). Perhaps no-one else recognises the difference, though, so clearly I’m failing at something somewhere 🙂

      Did I specfifically recommend this one? Bold of me, considering I hadn’t read it…

      Liked by 1 person

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