The Lady Vanishes by Ethel Lina White

Spoilers ahoy!

I got this book online because I made the mistake of thinking that it was Raymond Chandler book, but I honestly never heard of the author before. In this way, I’m kind of glad that I went into the book cold and not knowing what the plot will be and thus not having any expectations. It is probably the best way to read this book: the less you know the better.

Iris Carr is a socialite, one of the post firs world war gentries with enough money from inheritance to live a good life, but also to inherit superficial friends. On a holiday in the Alps, things come to a head with her friends and she decided to go back to England alone. She was staying in a guesthouse where she was isolated from the other guests to the point that she was stand-offish arrogant, not knowing that they will soon join her train back to England.

In the train she met another Englishwoman who she struck up a conversation with, but who was a bore. She fell asleep on the carriage and found that the Englishwoman disappeared with no trace of her existence. It is up to her to convince everybody else that the lady exists and that she may well be in peril.

A younger Hitchcock directed the movie adaptation back in 1938, two years after the publication of the book. The premise of the story is so simple, and the story is just fitting for Hitchcock’s résumé that even without the movie, you can imagine the movie so well in your head just by reading the book. Part of the reason is because of its sense of claustrophobia — we are stuck in the train with Iris, and we are forced to see everything through her experience, at least in the beginning.

For some time we don’t know whether Miss Froy is a product of her imaginings, or whether she is of physical substance. Iris had a bout of sunstroke earlier, and she is unreliable as protagonists go. We don’t trust her sense of judgement, and if she ends up being delusional, we won’t be surprised. We are stuck with her, as she was stuck with Mrs Froy during the duration of the journey, and there is no leaving the conversation.

The claustrophobic atmosphere is exacerbated by the fact that Iris does not speak the language of her fellow passengers. She was lost in the foreign tongue and culture of European strangers and only relying on secondhand translations from people who also saw her as psychotic delusional. In my opinion, it is here that the book goes beyond its standard genre as crime, mystery, thriller — call it what you will. I love it when books explore language and what it does. After all, the balance of power between the characters are tipped in linguistic scales.

The premise of the book is terrifying and it makes me feel like a bloody hypocrite. When I think more and more about it, it terrifies me that I can just as easily ignore the plea of a stranger who is in distress, not because we don’t believe her, but because we gain nothing out of it, and perhaps even lose something in the process. Actually, I do this every day. Look at what’s happening in Afghanistan right now, when people genuinely need help — the headlines are full of it. But I scroll down my BBC app and try to find cricket scores instead. I’m no different than the two characters in the Hitchcock version of the movie -I prioritise cricket scores of someone’s life, and the thought honestly makes me sad and sick.

But there is something ironic and heroic about Iris Carr, who is selfish and socially inept, that she still manages to rescue Miss Froy. Another underlying theme that gets puts to shreds is the English identity — proud, arrogant and self-righteous, like all Iris’s fellow passengers who have their own motives not to help, even though they are fully aware of the existence of Miss Froy. The Lady Vanishes wholesale makes a bunch of people plainly hypocritical.

For a crime thriller published in the 1930s, The Lady Vanishes is an important read. Personally for me, it triggers self-examination as you’re deep into questioning yourself: what would you do? This book reminds me of the Kitty Genovese effect, where the sense of responsibility is diluted among the crowd that whatever atrocity is happening is allowed to continue — It is something that’s happening now. We’re all the other passengers in the train, and the wheels keep on spinning.

A full time project manager who loves to read on the side. Connect with me to chat anything tech and lit.