Ethel Lina White was born in Monmouthshire, England, in 1876. She was employed for some years by the government at the Ministry of Pensions in London and began writing fiction in the 1920s, making her debut with the mainstream novel The Wish-Bone (1927). After two more mainstream novels, Twill Soon Be Dark (1929) and The Eternal Journey (1930), she moved into the thriller and mystery genres, where her popularity flourished for the next 14 years. Starting with Put out the Light (aka Sinister Light, 1931) and Fear Stalks the Village (1932), she began building a reputation as a brilliant storyteller in the field. Her third novel, Some Must Watch (1933), about a mute servant in a household that is stalked by a killer, later caught the eye of Hollywood producers, but it was her sixth novel, following The First Time He Died and Wax (both 1935), that first brought White to the screen, in rather convoluted fashion.
In 1936, she published The Wheel Spins, which was licensed by Gaumont British studios, to be made into a movie by director Roy William Neill, under the title Lost Lady. A disastrous attempt at shooting location footage in Central Europe, however, led to a shelving of the project for a year, at which time it fell into the hands of Alfred Hitchcock. The director was normally loathe to take on projects that had already been in the hands of others, but the story was too tempting. The result was The Lady Vanishes (1938), which is usually regarded as the pinnacle of Hitchcock's British period. The novel told the story of an innocent elderly English governess, working in the household of the royal family of a small European country, who chances to spot the leader of that country in a place that, officially, he isn't supposed to be anywhere near; as we later learn, this is information that could jeopardize his control of the country. The woman is kidnapped as a result, and nearly killed, but for the intervention of a young Englishwoman. The screenplay to the Hitchcock movie, authored by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, added elements of espionage to the plot, but retained the basic threat to the young heroine. Hitchcock's own analysis of White's plot brought it back to its modern origins, the story of the Vanishing Lady, which dated from the Paris Exposition of the 1880s. A woman and her grown daughter arrive from India, the mother not feeling too well, and check into their hotel; the daughter leaves to take care of some errands and returns to find that not only is her mother not there, but that no one at the hotel will admit to having ever seen her. Utimately, it turns out that the mother had been exposed to plague and had died, and in order to prevent a panic and the closing of the exposition, the authorities hid the fact that she'd ever been there. That plot, as carried forth by White, was later utilized on such varied television programs as The Adventures of Superman, The Big Valley, and The Rockford Files.
White wrote eight more thrillers, ending with They See in Darkness (1944), which was published in the year of her death, at age 68. Curiously, there was a flurry of film activity involving her books around the time of her death. Her 1942 novel Midnight House (aka Her Heart in Her Throat) was picked up by Paramount Pictures and producer John Houseman, who were looking for a vehicle with which director Lewis Allen and leading lady Gail Russell could follow up their 1944 triumph The Uninvited -- the resulting film was titled The Unseen (1945), based on a screenplay co-authored by Raymond Chandler. Around that same time, director Robert Siodmak, working very much in a Hitchcock-like mode, brought Some Must Watch to the screen as The Spiral Staircase, starring Dorothy McGuire. White is primarily remembered today by mystery buffs -- both The Lady Vanishes and The Spiral Staircase were remade in the 1970s without too much success. The original film versions of both stories occasionally lead modern viewers back to her work, as both books have reappeared in print every few years under their film titles. The Lady Vanishes/The Wheel Spins and the Hitchcock adaptation were also the subjects of a landmark copyright infringement case in the United States during the early '80s.