Monday, May 07, 2007

The Lady Vanishes - Ethel Lina White

First published 1936; cover shown is the 1979 Fontana Books (UK) paperback impression. 192 pages.

Iris Carr is one of the Beautiful People. Young, attractive, wealthy and an orphan, Iris has spent the last few years holidaying in Europe, living in London hotels and declining marriage proposals. She feels a slight sense of unease about her dissolute lifestyle, but not enough to change it.

Travelling home across Europe on a luxury express train, Iris chances upon a middle aged yet young at heart English governess, Miss Froy. While Iris as a rule cares little for anyone but herself, the caring and friendly Miss Froy makes an impression.

After awakening from a drugged sleep, Iris realises Miss Froy is no longer seated in their carriage. She questions the foreigners sharing the carriage, only to be told she has never been seen with anyone else. Feeling increasingly frantic, Iris seeks out two English men, the Professor and Hare, a student. Acting as interpreters, the Professor and Hare question a variety of passengers on the train who Iris knows saw her with Miss Froy... but witness after witness deny ever seeing her.

As the express hurtles across bridges and through towering mountains in Italy, the Professor and a disturbing East European man who says he is a doctor begin trying to convince Iris she is hysterical and delusional. Soon Hare also proves his disbelief in her story, and Iris realises that Miss Froy's fate - which must surely be a matter of life or death - rests in her hands alone.

I enjoyed this story, and even though the whereabouts of Miss Froy seemed obvious from an early stage, the uncertainty of Iris overcoming her self-doubts was enough to keep a sense of tension alive. The glimpse into the lives of Miss Froy's elderly parents was a nice touch, and the big reveal at the end was exciting, if only over much too quickly.

Ethel Lina White (1876 - 1944) started writing as a child, but did not pursue it as a career until later in life. She wrote her first novel at the age of 51 and The Lady Vanishes (originally titled 'The Wheel Spins') at the age of 60.

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