The Wheel Spins – Ethel Lina White
One of the many advantages of hardly ever watching a film is that when you come across a book which was the basis for a classic piece of cinematography, the basis of the plot is not spoilt for you. Take Ethel Lina White’s 1936 novel, The Wheel Spins, which formed the basis of the plotting for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, The Lady Vanishes. As I had not seen the film, my loss I’m sure, the twists and turns of the plot were new to me and made the book more enjoyable.
Mysteries on a train are a bit of cliché now and were even in 1936 when White’s novel was published. They allow the writer to add a splash of glamour to an environment where a motley collection of characters are thrown together in close proximity and where during a journey the passengers are effectively imprisoned. What could have been a rather down-market version of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is saved by the quality and elegance of White’s writing, her ability to build up and sustain suspense, and her underlying humour and willingness to tease the reader and send up British stereotypes.
In some ways the plot is a bit far-fetched. The protagonist, Iris Carr, is a society gal who with her rich pals have had a riotous holiday in an Italian resort, at the same time annoying the rather staid English guests staying there, plus ca change. She travels back to Blighty later than her other chums but at the railway station becomes unwell and just catches her train by the skin of her teeth, bundled into a carriage occupied by an Italian family, a rather formidable woman dressed in black and a middle-aged English woman, Miss Froy.
Invited for some tea in the restaurant car by Miss Froy, Iris is perturbed to find the guests from the hotel whom her party had disturbed are on board. Irritated by her companion’s incessant chattering, Iris returns alone to the compartment and falls asleep. Miss Froy doesn’t return. The English guests, all of whom have their own reasons for not wanting any unseemly investigations delay the train in Trieste, deny seeing Miss Froy and when Iris enlists the help of a Professor and his young student who speak the local lingo to interrogate the other travellers in the compartment, they all too deny the existence of Miss Froy. The woman in black, who turns out to be a Baroness (natch), goes as far as to suggest that Iris is hysterical and suffering from delusions brought on by sun stroke.
What has happened to Miss Froy and will anyone believe Iris?
I won’t spoil the story and, indeed, it is all a bit obvious. But that doesn’t spoil the tale and for those looking for something a little deeper in their reading material, this book obliges. It explores the reliability and integrity of witnesses. Do they have their own motives that colour their perception of what they have seen or encourage them to deny seeing what they have seen? Iris descends into a Kafkaesque nightmare where she begins to doubt her own sanity but with plucky British perseverance she soldiers on.
Another nice touch is White’s portrayal of the Brits abroad. The youngsters are loutish and the older ones impervious to the culture and mores of the country they happen to grace with their presence. When she cannot make herself understood by these foreign Johnnies, Iris just shouts louder, in English, of course.
An interesting narrative touch is that throughout the book White cuts to Miss Froy’s parents who, with mounting anticipation, await the much longed for return of their daughter, a device which adds an extra layer of pathos to the tale.
White is a much underrated writer and this book, I found, is gripping, well written and, I’m sure, much better than the film.