First published in the UK as The Wheel Spins in 1936, this story was made popular when Alfred Hitchcock made it into a movie in 1938 and changed the title to The Lady Vanishes (the book is often reissued under the Hitchcock title). It is Ethel Lina White’s most well-known novel, and it is a cracker. The book is under 200 pages, a rarity these days, and the lean narrative is packed, driving the plot forward. Set on a train travelling through Europe, the protagonist is Iris Carr, a beautiful, young socialite on her way back home to England after vacationing in the mountains of central Europe. She is a pampered and protected young woman who feels isolated and afraid while travelling alone and befriends Miss Froy, who disappears without a trace. No one on the train believes that Miss Foy is missing in fact they don’t believe she even exists. Is the narrator reliable? That is the crux of the story.
This is a well written mystery which comments on the decline of the English concept of national identity, with elements of classism, racism and a heavy dose of misogyny. How much is of its time or is deliberate commentary from the author is up to the reader. But you do get a sense that it is a bit tongue in cheek, and you can understand why Hitchcock adapted it into a film.
Ethel Lina White was born in 1877 and authored 15 mysteries stories before she died in 1944 at age 68. She is not a household name now like her contemporaries Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers, but in her day, White was very popular. She started writing as a child, mainly essays, poems, and short stories. It was a while before she started writing novels. Her first three were mainstream novels, before her focus on suspense. She strongly believed that thrillers should be well written and would write and rewrite her manuscript until she was satisfied with it. A writing ethic I sometimes wish we could see in some overblown modern thrillers on the current top 10 lists.
I will certainly look up the White’s other mysteries, and see if they hold up just as well as The Wheel Spins does.