Friday, 29 April 2016

She Faded Into Air by Ethel Lina White


published 1941

She Faded into air


[A London block of flats: a young woman and her father have arrived to meet the owner]

The porter gazed speculatively after them, watching the drifting smoke of the girl's cigarette and the silver-gold blur of her hair in the dusk. The skirt of her tight black suit was unusually short so that he had an unrestricted view of her shapely legs and of perilously high-heeled shoes.

[The young woman goes missing: her father is giving her description to a detective]

"She's about nineteen. Say five feet seven inches in her heels. I don't know her weight, but she's slim. …Blue eyes. Round face. A goodish bit made-up. She's got to cover a small red patch near her left eye."

"That birthmark is a bit of luck for you," said Foam bluntly. "It will save dragging you all over the country to identify casualties. Was she wearing distinctive clothes?"

"No, the usual smart west-end rig. Black suit, very short skirt, tan stockings, string of pearls and a white camellia." As he jotted down the particulars, Foam cursed modern standardization. He felt he would have had a better chance had the missing girl been black haired and green eyed, with a thin, vivid face.

 
commentary: In my bargain ‘boxset’ of Ethel Lina White novels (£1.49 for seven books on Kindle) this one is something of a makeweight – the last one, and not one that is rated by readers, not well-known (click on the author’s label below to see more reviews of her books). Spiral Staircase and The Lady Vanishes both became famous films, while this one rather faded away and seems to have few defenders. But actually I loved it, and couldn’t put it down. There is a classic setup, a really splendid mystery: the young woman above steps into a flat in the small building, and disappears into thin air, despite being surrounded by people just a few feet away. Has she run off, has she been kidnapped? But more to the point, whether she chose to go away or was abducted, how did she get out of the closed area?

I thought this was a satisfying setup, and an excellent puzzle. The plot, and the eventual explanation, are amazingly complex, and there is another disappearance later which is even more impressive. Yes of course all this is completely unbelievable, nobody could make a plan like that, but still I enjoyed it hugely because of two simple facts: I sooo wanted to find out how it happened, and when the explanation came I was satisfied. It was like a really good John Dickson Carr book, and there is no greater praise when it comes to impossible exits and inexplicable happenings (the usual term is ‘locked room’, but that’s not exactly the case here.)

As ever, White’s young women are bright and lively, sharp and active. In this one, Viola is strong-minded and brave – although sadly she has to have the crime ‘explained’ to her at the end by the young detective, despite the fact that he would have got nowhere without her. And, compared to other writers of the era, young women characters are allowed to be human and not virginal and easily-shocked. The hall porter is being questioned about the missing girl:
"And Miss Cross?"
"Ah, there you have me. I know a lady and I know a tart; but when they try to behave like each other, I get flummoxed."
"You mean--Miss Cross was lively?"
"That's right."


-- but this is just an observation, no-one thinks the worse of her.

I think it’s a pity White is mostly forgotten – her books are like Miss Cross: they have a lively quality. They are a breath of fresh air, very readable and highly entertaining.  Although I have come to the end of my set of novels, I will happily look for more by her.

Definitely a suit here on the young woman, not a coat and skirt, or a costume, as discussed in a post on a 1950s book yesterday. The camellia reminded me of La Dame Aux Camelias, here - surely not a clue?

The picture, from the Clover Vintage Tumbler, appeared in Vogue in 1940.











17 comments:

  1. Little black suit and camellia is very much a Chanel trope, too, although I wonder if White was conscious of that, or just wrote it because it sounded smart.

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    1. Interesting - she was definitely trying to define the woman as generic, the plot relies on that, as implied in the extract above. White definitely was good on clothes and their implications - not necessarily designers as such, but how they affect people's perceptions.

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  2. Oh wow, OK, I would probably have ignored this one - right, you're on, if it is available in an actual paper format, I'll see what I can muster - thanks Moira.

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    1. PS darn, looks a tad expensive on paper actually - I will keep scouting!

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    2. Oh shame - I suppose it's true that the obscure ones are cheap on Kindle (because no-one wants them..)but hard to find on paper (because no-one ever did...).
      But I would really like to see how you get on with this one, and what you would think about comparing it to JDC.

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  3. Oh, this is one I hadn't heard of, Moira! It certainly sounds like a really effective setup for a mystery. And I know what you mean about an implausible aspect to a story that still...works. Missing person, complex plot, satisfying solution and good writing? Little wonder you liked it so well.

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    1. It was a nice surprise Margot, I thought it might be a lesser work - but to me it was a really involving mystery, with a great plot.

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  4. I have this one! Coincidentally, late Thursday night I went on a mad search for my copy of THE THIRD EYE by White because I wanted to write about her for a special post next month on HIBK/Rinehart stylists. I had read the book a long time ago and enjoyed its very creepy story. Turns out I had two copies. I found a battered one with browned brittle pages that didn't want to read fearful that thing would fall apart. I knew I had another because there's a photo of it on my blog. But where had I stowed it? Took me two more hours to unearth (or actually unbox) the other copy. The exhausting search also turned up my copy of SHE FADED FROM AIR! Now I'll read both. Thanks for this encouraging review.

    Trivia that I can't resist writing about: I attempted to read WHILE SHE SLEPT (another rarely reviewed book by White)several years ago and so disliked the supercilious ninny of a heroine that I shut the book at chapter two and never finished it. I hated it so much I sold the book as soon as I could. I suffer from fits like that every now and then. ;^)

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    1. I'm impressed - I think I'd have given up in less than two hours. I hope you find them worthwhile. I haven't read Third Eye.
      I liked While She Slept because it was such a weird plot, so weirdly played out - but I can understand your not taking to it, she is a very, mmm, distinctive heroine...

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  5. Moira, I have got this (in fact I think I put you onto the 'box set') and haven't read this one yet. Now I am longing to!

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    1. Yes you definitely get the credit/blame - and I had to read them all because of my annoying completism, I didn't like the set being half-read. But I enjoyed them all in varying degrees, and this one was great. I'll be interested to hear what you make of it...

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  6. I will be looking for a copy of this, sounds worth trying. I suppose I will have to read The Wheel Spins/ The Lady Vanishes on Kindle, can't find a paper copy I am willing to pay for. I also finally bought a copy of The Emperor's Snuff Box. And now I have to have another book buying embargo.

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    1. Oh dear I feel guilty! When I first bought this whole collection I knew that I would need to read them all, but in the end was so glad I did so....

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  7. Heigh-ho, here's another book to read. It's your revenge for THE ALLEYN MYSTERIES! I read the original version of THE LADY VANISHES some years ago, and enjoyed it. At the time I assumed that she was simply a writer who had enjoyed a one-off fluke success with the Hitchcock adaption. It was only recently that I discovered how popular she was during her lifetime. There very often doesn't seem to be any rhyme of reason as to who stays in print after their death and who doesn't. One of the great things about Kindle is that way that it enables authors who have slipped into obscurity to be read again.

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    1. Yes, I'm surprised she didn't survive better - there's a kind of earthiness about her that is refreshing, her heroines are unusually strong and varied characters - far from the Had I But Known school.
      I am ploughing my way through the TV Alleyn mysteries - not first rate, but not bad enough to abandon. they vary a lot. I just watched Nursing HOme Murder, which suffered from not having Troy in it. (I don't think she was in the original book, but that never stops TV people...) They didn't use my favourite line from the book: a man thinking of his rather miserable marriage 'He supposed he had married her in a brief wave of enthusiasm for polar exploration.' Makes me laugh every time...

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  8. That's a brilliant line!

    The stories in the ALLEYN series are rather strangely chosen. You would think that with so many books where Troy appears, they could simply adapt the ones with her in. I don't think that any of them are out-and-out bad, but the ones with Troy are better. The way that these things are chosen are fascinating. I remember reading how the producer of the Jeremy Brett/Sherlock Holmes series had endless discussions with the writers about which episodes to adapt for the first series, not all of which he agreed with, but accepted anyway. ALLEYN is a very solid series, but having set up the relationship between Alleyn and Troy as a major sub-plot it does feel weird that they suddenly competely drop her out of certain episodes.

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    1. Yes indeed - it seems mad not to have Troy if you can. Perhaps the actress was unavailable.

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