I watched a new BBC version of The Lady Vanishes a few weeks ago, and was enthralled by the concept of a woman having to prove the existence of a supposedly imaginary missing governess. The intriguing plot coupled with the 1930s glamour, Orient-Express style setting and eclectic mix of stock Period British Mystery Novel characters made me desperate to read the original story (actually called The Wheel Spins), and thankfully my local library had a copy. I thought I might find White to be a bit of a second rate Agatha Christie, but instead I was surprised to discover a writer who not only weaved an excellent tale of suspense, but whose prose is vivid, elegant and beautifully evocative, in a style vaguely reminiscent of Ann Bridge. I loved it so much that I genuinely couldn’t put it down; I read it in just a couple of hours, and went onto amazon as soon as I’d finished to find more. Sadly she’s almost entirely out of print; surely this is a terrible oversight? I can’t believe that writing this good is practically impossible to get hold of!
The tale begins thus; Iris Carr is a rich orphan with bad taste in friends and a fondness for frivolity. She is staying at a rustic hotel in an Italian beauty spot with a large group of hangers on; a misunderstanding leads to a falling out, and Iris decides she would like to stay on alone for a few days, leaving them to go home without her. Iris is disapproved of by the other English guests; two spinster sisters, a glamorous honeymooning couple, and a middle aged Vicar and his wife. They are all planning to go home on the last day of the season, and so Iris books herself on the train leaving the day before to avoid travelling with them. However, while Iris is waiting at the station for her train, she passes out with sunstroke, and almost misses its departure. She is shoved into a stiflingly hot carriage at the last minute, and finds herself sitting with an Italian family, an overbearing woman in black and a middle aged English governess.
The governess, Miss Froy, takes pity on Iris and invites her for tea; she explains that the black clad woman is a powerful Baroness, and part of the family she used to work for. Iris quickly becomes bored of Miss Froy’s incessant chatter, and is perturbed by the strange presence of all the other English guests from her hotel on the train. Feeling unwell, she heads back to her carriage and falls asleep. However, when she wakes up, she finds Miss Froy gone. Her enquiries as to where she is are met with blank stares and denials that there ever was a Miss Froy. Concerned, Iris seeks help from an English professor and his young student, who agree to translate for her. Their questioning of the other occupants of the carriage results in the same outcome; all deny that there ever was a governess, and a doctor travelling with the Baroness’ party suggests that Iris may be suffering from a temporary madness resulting from her heatstroke. Iris is adamant that they are wrong, but with everyone on the train denying Miss Froy’s existence, and thinking Iris is a hysterical madwoman, how can she find a way to prove it before the train reaches the end of the line?
There are many twists to the tale, and these provide an interesting exploration of how reliable anyone is as a witness, and how easy it is to manipulate the truth in order to suit your own ends. Iris’ inability to make herself understood, and the confusion she finds herself in after everyone starts to undermine her and label her as mad is truly terrifying. The stifling heat of the confined train carriages all adds to the tense and claustrophobic atmosphere, and the images of Iris being oppressed on all sides by faces leering as she makes her way down swaying corridors, frantically searching for a woman she is even starting to think may not exist, is pure Hitchcock. This is just the sort of novel I love; intelligent, thought provoking, beautifully written and absolutely gripping. Someone needs to reprint White’s work for a modern discerning reader; this is vintage crime at its best.