“THE ENIGMA OF THE VANISHING GIRL”

In the West Kensington spacious loft where the SPR files are gathering dust on the shelves, I discovered under old canvases a drawer full of folders that had been torn from their filing cabinet. It was, I think, a kind of graveyard where the cases over which someone intended to draw a thick veil finished their days. Among these, I found the case that I am going to refer now. Its protagonist was a young girl of the London high society. One day the president of the Society for Psychical Research received the visit of an elegant woman who requested the services of the SPR to find her daughter. Mr. Sidgwick kindly informed her that this was not a detective agency but a scientific institution dedicated to the investigation of parapsychology and paranormal phenomena. The woman said she was aware and that was precisely why she had resort to them. Then she explained that she thought his daughter had evaporated, literally. A few minutes before her disappearance, she had left her daughter absorbed in reading a “roman-feuilleton” (a melodramatic novel: a literary genre typical of the time). And when she returned minutes later, the chair was empty.

Sidgwick exposed the case to his colleagues. Conan Doyle was immediately very interested and offered to take charge of it. Minutes later he left the office wearing the hunter’s hat and the characteristic cape of his literary character Sherlock Holmes (as he used to do occasionally depending on the case). And he went to the address left by the lady, ready to solve the mystery. He ordered that they show him the chair where the young girl had disappeared and, after examining it carefully, asked if it remained as she had left it. Upon receiving an affirmative answer, Doyle picked up from the cushions of the chair the book the girl had been reading. And, without further investigation, he requested permission to take the book, where he hoped to find the keys to the enigma.

The other members of the SPR began to worry when Conan Doyle did not show up at dinner time. He had spent the whole day locked in his office engaged in reading the book involved. Sidgwick and Crookes went up to his office and rapped on the door. “Go ahead!” Doyle’s voice was heard on the other side. His tone was euphoric and, indeed, they found him in a state of effervescence leafing through the book and noting in a notebook page numbers. With a glint of triumph in his eyes he explained that he had solved the enigma. With some impatience, they asked him what enigma he was referring to, whether Loch Ness, the Snowman or … (Doyle called all his cases that way). “To the enigma of the vanishing girl, of course”, he interrupted. And then Sidgwick and Crookes took a seat and attended stunned to the weirdest explanation they had ever heard in their lives. According to Doyle, the missing girl was inside the book. But not physically inside, he clarified: she had joined the convoluted plot that was developed in its pages. In the course of the explanation, the lower jaw of Sidgwick and Crookes was progressively separated from the upper one by the effect of stupor. Doyle went on to explain that he had identified the young woman as one of the characters in the novel, one Leslie Crawford, whose physical and psychological features coincided so closely with those of the missing girl that he had no doubt that it was the same person. In addition, Leslie burst into the novel when the plot was well advanced and its role in this plot was unclear: it seemed a completely superfluous character who simply passed by as if by chance but that acquired progressively more relevance, ending by relegating the true protagonists to the rank of mere bit players. At this point of Doyle’s explanation, the jaws of Sidgwick and Crookes had almost touched the ground. It was then that Gurney burst into the office to announce that a servant had brought them the happy news that the young girl who had allegedly evaporated had returned safely to her house. Apparently, she had pretended to be absorbed in reading so that her mother would leave her alone and in this way she could go out the window with the help of a rope in order to play truant with a group of girlfriends.

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