The opening scenes of this classic thriller take place in the mountains of an unnamed Balkan country, where Englishwoman Iris Carr and several of her compatriots are on holiday. In these early pages especially, White’s prose is sublimely good, evoking with a perfect mix of taut irony and lush description the ways and wiles of the British middle class during the “Long Week-End” between the World Wars. The Continent, to Iris and her pals, is an amusing yet dangerous fairlyland, a nice place to visit as long as you don’t get enmeshed in its war-bent intrigue. Soon enough, the action shifts to a train bound toward England, and suspense begins to replace satire. Will these proud, insular Brits return safely and speedily to their homeland, or will a European spot of bother halt the train’s progress? Behind that question lurks a political parable of sorts—one that takes the form of another question: Can the British preserve their “Splendid Isolation”? (White, in fact, uses that very term to describe one of her characters.)
Iris, for her part, cannot remain aloof from the troubles of Europe. On the train, she befriends a garrulous middle-aged spinster, Miss Froy, who promptly goes missing. Everyone else onboard joins a de facto conspiracy to deny that Miss Froy ever existed, and Iris nearly goes mad in her efforts to rescue first the memory of the vanished lady and then the lady herself. The mystery of what happened to Miss Froy is cleverly conceived, but its unraveling is needlessly drawn-out: White lets the suspense element of her story outpace the mystery element, to the detriment of both. Overall, though, she offers a subtle, sassy entertainment that holds up well after seven decades.
[ADDENDUM: Alfred Hitchcock made one his classic early films from the raw material of this novel, published originally as The Wheel Spins. In bringing the book to the big screen, he and his script writers changed more than just the title. The Lady Vanishes, the movie released in 1938, fundamentally alters the nature of Miss Froy’s secret, for example. It also beefs up the male character (played by Michael Redgrave) with whom Iris (Margaret Lockwood) both spars and collaborates. Nowadays, when publishers re-issue White’s novel, they usually replace her title with Hitchcock‘s. If it weren’t for his film version of her work, White herself probably would have vanished from cultural memory.]