THE CHARACTERS: There may be few monstrous women to compare with Maude Yaxley-Moore in crime fiction history. There is no better summation of The Third Eye (1937) than The Saturday Review's pithy phrase "hard to excel as a study in malevolence, fear and lurking terror". Yaxley-Moore is a mixture of all-consuming egomania, bitter jealousy, superiority, and subtle tinges of self-loathing. Such a conglomeration of unattractive qualities in one character is unmatched in most crime novels of this era. As a movie fanatic at matinee western might be rooting for the guys in the white hats and waiting for the bad guys to finally get their comeuppance any reader devouring the pages of The Third Eye cannot help but wish for a vile demise for this truly dreadful woman.
Yaxley-Moore is a stark contrast to young Caroline. Though she naively finds herself bonding quickly with strangers, Caroline is far from stupid and not wholly virtuous either. She does have an unlucky habit of placing her trust in the wrong people and realizing it too late. The novel takes on a Perils of Pauline aspect in the very suspenseful middle section where Caroline is trying to return to Abbey School via a bus armed with some evidence that proves Miss Yaxley-Moore was responsible for a student's death through negligence.
|That bloody dagger is a bigger mystery.|
No one is stabbed during the course of the story.
ATMOSPHERE: This is an extremely well done contemporary Gothic novel. White has a thorough understanding of how landscape, weather and houses all add to an oppressive atmosphere. One passage in particular caught my attention and perfectly encapsulates how Yaxley-Moore's personality infects everything and everywhere she goes:
The air grew cloudy with smoke--while the mental atmosphere was charged with the poison-gas of hatred. Had they been articulate, the gracious walls might have panted for the open windows and invigoration of youth, in a whisper of crumbling plaster and creaking wood.Caroline herself finds herself pleading for youth and vigor when she is beset by troubles and mishaps after trusting only older women. In the chapter entitled "The Village of Old Women" late in the book she chants to herself "Please be a young beautiful woman" as she rings the doorbell of a house of a stranger who she hopes will help her find her way back to the bus. "Please let her be young. Anything but an old woman!" And who answers the door, do you think?
"Air...Give us air...Send us children, young life--that we too may live."
INNOVATIONS: The narrative is told from multiple viewpoints creating suspense and using dramatic irony to heighten the tension. The reader knows of the plotting against Caroline but also of Caroline's plans. Yet White still holds a few surprises in check for the final pages so that all the villainy is indeed thwarted. That we get to know the inner thoughts of both our intrepid heroine and her two villainous antagonists makes the reading enriching, engaging and unnerving all at once. While this really cannot be considered a crime novel in the true sense there are acts of amorality and anti-social behavior that make several of the characters (including a handful of minor players on the coach bus) appear to be the worst kinds of sociopaths. The introduction of a paranoia and mistrustfulness on Caroline's part is well served. Each act of kindness seems tainted with self-serving evil. No one on the bus can be trusted. Which person is an emissary of Miss Yaxley-Moore? The woman dressed in brown? The aristocrat in furs? The androgynous creature who looks like a man in woman's clothes? Or all they all part of a plot to keep Caroline from reaching the school? It's remarkably well done and told literately and often movingly.
EASY TO FIND? The Third Eye has been reprinted by the independent UK press Greyladies and can be purchased directly from their website. A handful of used copies of both the 1940s and 1960s paperback reprints seem to be easy to find and are all affordable. Take your pick -- new or old. Probably the best edition will be the newest one from Greyladies. But act now since this press only prints a limited number and when they're all sold they don't put out another edition. Either way, you'll find this unusual suspense novel to be a rewarding read on so many levels.