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