It never occurred to me that the Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes, which I have not seen, was based upon a novel. I forget how I even came across this one, but I like a good mystery and figured this would not disappoint. Turns out, this mystery is an amazingly suspenseful thriller, with the threat of evil and psychological imbalance on nearly every page. The Lady Vanishes, originally published in 1936 as The Wheel Spins, keeps both the reader and the story’s protagonist guessing until the the very end. The story manages to be both deeply unsettling and satisfying at the same time.
Iris Carr is a beautiful young Englishwoman enjoying a holiday on the continent with her friends. This crowd has commandeered a small mountain inn, where a handful of other older Englishmen and women are also enjoying the scenery. We learn immediately that Iris and her friends are loud and rude, which is quite off-putting to their fellow countrymen.
The crowd had gloried in its unpopularity, which seemed to it a sign of superiority.
Iris is single and somewhat alone in the world, having no living family, but she is not without means. She is described as a “typical semi-Society girl — vain, selfish, and useless.” During the holiday, she has a bit of a falling out with a member of her set, and she decides to stay an extra day at the inn when they all depart. From here, White envelopes the reader in a sense of foreboding and impending danger for Iris. Several disturbing incidents befall her before she leaves the inn for her journey home, and White tells the reader openly that on her journey, Iris “…would endure such anguish of spirit as threatened her sanity…” and that it would be over a person who might not even really exist.
The first six chapters of the book introduce the reader to Iris and the kind of person she has been, as well as introducing other key characters who will be on the train with her. There are the middle-aged upper class sisters, the Misses Flood-Porter, who find Iris impertinent and self-absorbed; Reverend Barnes and his wife, to whom Iris is especially rude; the Todhunters, a glamorous and aloof couple; and the Professor and Hare, intellectuals whom Iris will first encounter on the train platform. All of these characters are English, and we are to understand that there are certain ideals — such as honesty and duty — that they value above their own comfort. Whether this is true will be put to the test on the train journey.
Chapters 7 to 32 cover the train journey itself, and for Iris, serious problems start on the platform. She faints due to sunstroke and nearly misses her train all together. This is terrifying to Iris. As a young woman traveling alone, she is helpless due to her ignorance of foreign languages, and to make matters worse, she has no one at home to expect her and miss her if she were in danger. Fortunately, she just makes the train but finds herself sharing a compartment with a haughty duchess and her entourage. Iris is still not feeling well, her head is pounding and she is shaken from her experience. Unexpectedly, one of the people in her compartment is an Englishwoman, a governess named Miss Froy, who recognizes Iris’ distress and takes her under her wing. Miss Froy is middle aged and unremarkable in looks, and Iris finds her somewhat annoying, but she is in no position to turn down help. Miss Froy gets her to the dining car, no mean feat given the motion of the train and crowds of people in the way. It is on the walk to and from the dining car that Iris sees all of the people who had stayed at the inn with her, and she notes that none of them seem happy to see her. Back in the compartment, Miss Froy gives Iris some aspirin, and Iris sleeps. When she awakens, Miss Froy is gone, and the duchess and her people claim to have no idea what Iris is talking about when she asks after her.
Does Miss Froy exist? Has Iris gone mad? As she begins to investigate the disappearance of Miss Froy, Iris questions her own sanity and there are times when the reader wonders if her judgement can be trusted. Is she in danger or is she the danger? Is Miss Froy real? If so, why would she disappear? Who would harm her and why? If she exists, she’s a nobody. And what of the other English citizens on the train? Did they not see Iris with Miss Froy? Why would they not get involved to help an English governess who could be in distress?
The story is gripping and White does a marvelous job of slowly unraveling the mystery and answering all of the questions above. The fear factor is magnified by the fact that Iris has only until the end of the first leg of the train journey to get to the bottom of the mystery, the fact that she is a woman alone, without any protection, and that stirring up trouble makes her seem unhinged and dangerous to those who could help her.
If you enjoy suspense and mystery, I highly recommend The Lady Vanishes. It had me on the edge of my seat.