The Wheel Spins
Ethel Lina White
First published in the UK 1936 by Collins Crime Club
190 pages in print
This edition Business and Leadership Publishing, oddly
With the triumph of near-pioneers, the crowd had swooped down on a beautiful village of picturesque squalor, tucked away in a remote corner of Europe, and taken possession of it by the act of scrawling their names in the visitors’ book.
The Wheel Spins is the story of socialite Iris Carr. As the story opens, Iris is on the 1930s version of a week larging it in Goa. Her gang of noisy friends have taken over a small Balkan hotel, much to the dismay and embarrassment of the other, more civilised, British guests. Then there is a falling out, and the friends decamp, leaving Iris to make her way home on her own.
Iris is a proud and determined young woman, but inexperienced and lacking in language skills, so getting home is a daunting task, especially after catching the sun at the station and almost missing the last train to Trieste. She is virtually thrown into a carriage by the porter, and finds herself in the company of a Balkan noblewoman and her retainers.
The sunstroke, lack of food, and her lack of understanding of the language all combine to give the train journey an unpleasantly feverish atmosphere. Iris soon falls prey to paranoid musings about her carriage companions.
As he was speaking, his glasses flashed round the compartment, and finally rested on her. His glance was penetrating, yet impersonal, as though she were a specimen on a microscope-slide. Yet, somehow, she received the impression that she was not a welcome specimen, nor one that he had expected to see.
Stooping so that his lips were on a level with the personage’s ear, he asked a low-toned question. She replied in a whisper, so that Iris was reminded of two blowflies buzzing in a bottle.
“Am I imagining things, or do these people really dislike me?” she wondered.
Unexpectedly, an ally appears in the form of one Miss Froy, a kindly English governess on her way home. Miss Froy feeds the wilting Iris tea and grounds her with a stream of inconsequential chatter before recommending she gets some sleep. But when Iris awakes, Miss Froy has gone.
“Where is Miss Froy?” asked Iris.
“Miss Froy?” repeated the baroness. “I do not know any one who has that name.”
Iris pointed to the seat which was occupied by the little girl.
“She sat there,” she said.
The baroness shook her head.
“You make a mistake,” she declared. “No English lady has sat there ever.”
Iris’ head began to reel.
“But she did,” she insisted. “I talked to her. And we went and had tea together. You must remember.”
Suddenly, all of Iris’s paranoia seems to be justified and she starts a frantic mission to prove that Miss Froy existed and is not just a figment of her imagination. Many people saw Miss Froy, but nobody is owning up. Even the English passengers on the train have their own reasons for avoiding getting involved in Iris’s quest. Only a young engineer called Max Hare will help her – and he has an ulterior motive…
The Wheel Spins is a good, simple suspense thriller. The cramped and somehow alien environment of the steam train rattling towards Trieste is well realised and amplifies the atmosphere of paranoia and Iris’s increasing desperation.
She made the shaky journey along the train. Nobody laughed at her or took any notice of her, for every one was too pre-occupied with affairs. Suitcases and bags had already been lifted down from racks and stacked outside the carriages, increasing the congestion. Mothers screamed to collect those children who were still chasing each other in the corridors.
They washed their chocolate-grimed mouths with corners of moistened handkerchiefs. Banana skins were thrown out of the windows—newspapers bundled under the seats.
The heat and the jam were so oppressive that Iris was actually glad to reach her own compartment.
(It gets like that on the Norwich to Cromer train in the summer.)
Ethel Lina White’s 1936 classic has been made into films three times, all called The Lady Vanishes. The 1938 Alfred Hitchcock version is more of a comic effort, enlivened by the cricket bores Charters and Caldicott (who, I have just discovered, went on to appear in other films). The 1979 Elliott Gould/ Cybill Shepherd version is perhaps best not mentioned. More recently, the BBC had a bash in 2013, which was a little too Downton Abbey for my liking, but I think was truest to the book.
Not used in any of the film adaptations, but a lovely element to the book, are Miss Froy’s elderly parents and their boisterous dog, waiting impatiently at home for their much-loved adventurous daughter to arrive home for her sausages and mash. A poignant end to Miss Froy’s adventure.
The Wheel Spins is my entry in the #1936book challenge – do join in if you’d care to review a book or film which appeared in 1936.
Booksnob: The stifling heat of the confined train carriages all adds to the tense and claustrophobic atmosphere, and the images of Iris being oppressed on all sides by faces leering as she makes her way down swaying corridors, frantically searching for a woman she is even starting to think may not exist, is pure Hitchcock. This is just the sort of novel I love; intelligent, thought provoking, beautifully written and absolutely gripping.
Melissa Lenhardt: If you have ever felt persecuted, or as if you are the only sane person in the world, reading The Wheel Spins might trigger a panic attack. Ethel Lina White crafts a tense psychological thriller using an overcrowded train, a looming arrival time, a skittish heroine who is discombobulated from an illness and a cast of narcissistic characters with their own agendas. Iris moves from certainty to doubt and back again, alienating everyone on the train and making the reader doubt her sanity along with the other passengers and, occasionally, Iris herself.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.