“Be careful,” she said, in a shaking voice. “They’re listening. And they’re watching you. They’ll know you again. Don’t you ever spend a night here.”
They’ve been watching Riverpool for almost a hundred years, the wax figures. As the decades pass and the figures become shabby and pockmarked, the wax museum goes from a source of civic pride to a disreputable, slightly embarrassing relic. By day, the wax statues must share their space with illicit lovers. But at night, the building belongs to them. There is a legend that no one can spend the night there—and live.
Sonia Thompson is fascinated by the lore of the waxworks and begins to write about it for the local paper. But someone wants to keep the gallery just as it is. When Sonia decides to stay all night in the waxworks, that person may just get their chance.
Wax is a wonderfully creepy mystery that not only makes the most of the wax-museum setting, but also credibly connects it to a number of small town secrets. Sonia is a lively and intelligent amateur sleuth. As a newcomer to both Riverpool and journalism, she eagerly jumps in to investigate situations that others have been content to let lie. The new crime of purse-snatching has taken the town by storm, for example, along with burglaries and even darker tragedies. Are these random crimes, or, as Sonia comes to suspect, can they be traced back to the waxworks?
Part of the reason Wax is so successful is due to how likable Sonia is. It would be easy to go wrong with this character, a poor little rich girl who is trying to escape an unhappy home life in London by becoming a star reporter. Yet the reader is on her side immediately. Sonia really likes people and eagerly enters into the life of the town. And, as she soon learns, just because the town is small, that doesn’t mean the stakes are low.
“You think [it’s petty] because you’ve never lived in a small town. It’s the world viewed through a reducing-glass. Remember that if you hope to get our angle. If you wish to be a success here, your paragraphs must seem more important to you than the leading article in the Times. You’ve only to look at our subscription lists to realise that we think in shillings and half-crowns. And that is why the Devil can drive such good bargains in small towns. He knows we will sell our souls for the lowest cash offer. We’ll do any sort of cruel and dirty work for a few quid. ‘If I lay damned in the deepest hell, Mother o’ mine,’ I’d look up and see on the sign-post the name of some small town.”
One of the things I appreciate about Ethel Lina White is that many of her female characters are seriously pursuing careers. Sonia has higher ambitions than the Riverpool Chronicle, but in the meantime, she works hard and is fully accepted by her male colleagues, the “demonic” reporter Lobb and easy-going editor Wells. When Sonia briefly worries that she isn’t a real journalist because she has no experience, Wells sets her straight: “But you’re here. That’s your answer.”
In fact, all of the unmarried women in Wax work (with the exception of two middle-aged sisters, showing how quickly social norms have changed). Sonia’s boarding house is home to a lively group of working women whose major complaint is the difficulty of getting men to understand that they are competent professionals who aren’t just killing time until marriage. As pharmacy technician Caroline points out, “Aren’t men funny? It’s all right if you act or type, or serve in a shop; but if your work is outside the recognised things they seem to look upon it as a huge joke.”
One of those patronizing men is Alderman Cuttle, a bluff, charismatic man with political ambitions. He always seems to be accompanied by his assistant Miss Yates, who clearly intends to be the next Mrs. Cuttle. The question is how far she, or the alderman, would go to achieve that. Sonia is alert to the dramatic possibilities here. White is not that predictable, however, and the present Mrs. Cuttle defies all of Sonia’s efforts to warn or sympathize with her.
Sonia was baffled by her impenetrability. She had a hopeless sense of picking away at a wall of rock in order to rescue an entombed intelligence. Only a charge of dynamite would reach Mrs. Cuttle’s brain.
The delicate social balances of the townspeople provide a great deal of amusement, but always laced with tension. For instance, when Sonia finds herself at a tea party that includes Mrs. Cuttle and three rivals for the alderman’s affections, just knowing about that situation lends a menacing undertone to even the most innocuous conversation.
As she gets know to know more about her new neighbors, Sonia cannot help noticing that some of them are strangely drawn to particular wax mannequins. Sonia herself is not immune to the lure of the waxworks. After several sinister events threaten to close down the attraction, she feels oddly compelled to defend the wax figures, almost as if they were human friends accused of wrongdoing. To prove their innocence, she locks herself in the building overnight. The whole book is leading up to this, and White does not disappoint.
She realised that she was letting herself be hypnotised by wax.
These figures were only so many pounds of candles, moulded to human shape. But they were bound to take advantage of her weakness, since she had taken the fatal step of treating them as equals.
They’re only wax. They shall not frighten me. But they’re trying to. One by one, they’re coming to life.
Every moment of this long night is terrifying. White skillfully extracts every drop of horror from the situation, hitting all the expected beats and adding some new twists of her own. In fact, perhaps one too many; the last line of the book lands with a clunk, rather than being the devastating twist that was obviously intended.
Wax manages the neat trick of being both an engaging satire of small-town life and a first-rate work of suspense that is suffused with dread on every page. Both sides play into each other perfectly. The wax museum is a physical manifestation of the sins of Riverpool and the entire town tacitly agrees to turn a blind eye to it. But what happens in the waxworks doesn’t always stay in the waxworks. Inevitably, guilty knowledge leaks out, poisoning even the most mundane interactions. This results in enough mysteries, big and little, to keep the reader intrigued, but plotting is not the focus here. Wax is a mood piece about a spooky wax museum in a wicked little town, and that’s exactly what Ethel Lina White delivers.
My verdict: A short but terrific novel. The wonderfully written chapter in which Sonia spends a night in the Riverpool Waxwork Gallery to gather material for her series on the waxworks will give many readers the creeping heeby-jeebies. I particularly liked the way the Gallery is revealed to be connected to a matter ultimately tying in an unexpected yet logical way to an outbreak of seemingly unconnected crimes, while the denouement sports a terrific and yet fairly clued sting in its tale.
I find White a much more lively read than some of her contemporaries – her young women particularly have a lust for life, and there isn’t nearly so much of females being divided into ‘nice’ and ‘unrespectable’ as in many books of the 30s. White makes you realize how other authors want their heroines to be easily-shocked and moral and pure, to be viewed as classy.
Wax is a compelling – if somewhat lurid – portrayal of a small community heading inevitably towards a crisis, and a young woman determined to make her name as a reporter and getting in too deep.
Wax is an expanded version of White’s earlier short story “Waxworks.” This yuletide crime story is included in the British Library Crime Classics anthology Silent Nights as well as Vintage/Black Lizard’s The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries.