The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White

…aka The Lady Vanishes

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the-wheel-spinsA young Englishwoman, Iris Carr, is travelling home alone from an unspecified European country. Suffering from sunstroke, she nearly misses her train but a helpful porter shoves her into a carriage at the last moment. The people in the carriage clearly resent her presence – all except one, that is. Miss Froy, another Englishwoman, takes Iris under her wing and carries her off to have tea in the dining carriage. When they return, Iris sleeps for a while. When she awakes, Miss Froy has gone, and the other passengers deny all knowledge of there having ever been another Englishwoman in the carriage…

This is the book that has been made into more than one version of a film under the title of The Lady Vanishes. The basic plot is very similar – Iris is struggling to get anyone to believe her story, partly because she has made herself unpopular with her fellow travellers, and partly because each of those travellers have their own reasons for not wanting to get involved in anything that might delay the journey. But Iris is determined to find out what has happened to Miss Froy, as much to prove herself right as out of genuine concern for the other woman.

We first meet Iris when she and a group of her friends are staying at a hotel in the mountains. They are modern and loud, with the arrogance of youth, and are entirely unaware and uncaring that they are annoying the other guests. When Iris has an argument with one of her crowd, she decides not to travel home with them, but to wait a day or two and go on her own. But as soon as they leave, she begins to realise how lonely and isolated she feels, especially since she doesn’t speak a word of the local language. White is excellent at showing the superior attitude of the English abroad at this period – the book was published in 1936. When the locals don’t understand her, Iris does that typically British thing of speaking louder, as if they could all just understand English if only they would try a bit harder. White also shows how Iris and her gang use their wealth to buy extra attention, and Iris’ assumption that money and looks will get her whatever she wants. All this makes the book interesting reading, even if it doesn’t make Iris a terribly likeable character.

The Hitchcock version - The Lady Vanishes
The Hitchcock version – The Lady Vanishes

Once the mystery begins, White adds an extra dimension to Iris’ concern for Miss Froy by making her begin to doubt her own sanity. There are shades here of the way women were treated as ‘hysterical’ – not really to be depended upon, creatures of emotion rather than intellect. There’s an ever-present threat that the men, baddies and goodies both, may at any time take control of Iris’ life, deciding over her head what’s best for her, and that the other passengers would accept this as normal. With no friends and no language skills, Iris finds herself very alone for almost the first time in her life, and growing increasingly afraid. Oddly, it reminded me a little of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper – the idea that a woman could so easily be declared unstable or even ‘mad’, and find herself treated so dismissively that she might even begin to doubt herself.

Ethel Lina White
Ethel Lina White

There’s also one of those romances of the kind that would make me snort with outrage if it happened in a contemporary book, but which works fine in a novel of this period. You know the kind of thing – man meets ‘girl’ and falls instantly in love even though he thinks she’s a hysteric and quite possibly insane, because she’s very pretty, after all; and she loves him right back even though he treats her like a slightly retarded three-year-old, or maybe like a favourite puppy, because he’s awfully handsome and quite witty. Admittedly the rest of the men are all so much worse that I found myself quite liking him too…

White’s writing is excellent and, although the motive for the plot is a bit weak, the way she handles the story builds up some great tension. She’s insightful and slightly wicked about the English abroad and about attitudes to women, both of which add touches of humour to lift the tone. And she rather unusually includes sections about Miss Froy’s elderly parents happily anticipating the return of their beloved only child, which gives the thing more emotional depth than I’d have expected in a thriller of this era. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and am looking forward to seeking out more of White’s work, and to re-watching the Hitchcock version of the movie.

Book 4 of 90
Book 4 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

41 thoughts on “The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White

  1. Perfect timing FF! I was just reading a short story by this author yesterday (Waxworks – as creepy as you’d expect with that title) and Martin Edwards’ introduction mentioned this novel. I really like the Hitchcock film & I was wondering if it was worth a read – you’ve answered my question 🙂

    • Definitely worth a read! I’ve only read one other of her stories – An Unlocked Window – which was also great. It was in one of the Martin Edwards’ collections too, I think – they’re great for introducing us to ‘new’ authors, aren’t they? This one was different enough from the film to keep it interesting – I’m going to rewatch the film now and do a comparison. Enjoy! 😀

  2. It’s nice to know the source book for that film. Great review! Now for some reason, I can’t help thinking of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train which aren’t exactly like White’s book plot-wise, but are granddaughters, I guess from White’s thriller lineage.

    • Ethel Lina White is one of these authors that really deserves to be brought back more into the public consciousness – she writes so well! Yes, the thrillers of today do owe a lot to these early writers, but I haven’t read either of these so don’t know how heavily they might have been influenced. Somehow I tend to find the older ones more fun… I think because they get on with it a bit more quickly! 😉

  3. I absolutely must read this, I am a big fan of the Hitchcock version. As you know, I love fiction from this period and it always makes me laugh how all the women have ‘funny turns’ all over the place – it is quite endearing for its time, but can you imagine that sort of thing happening in a contemporary novel? Almost tempted to try it, just to witness the outrage and horror 🙂

  4. That’s the thing about those older stories, isn’t it, FictionFan? There really are things that you put up with from them – even find endearing in their way – that you would never tolerate in a contemporary mystery. I’m exactly the same way about some of those Golden Age/classic stories. Perhaps it’s because, knowing what the views of the times were, it’s easier to imagine people behaving that way? Either way, I know just what you mean about that. And this one does have a nice bit of suspense to it, I agree.

    • I know. It’s odd – it doesn’t even bother me in books of this vintage. I don’t find myself very often having to consciously make allowances. I guess it’s because the whole setting – even the clothes and so on – set the tone and make it all seem quite normal. But I do think this is a great story – her writing is so good. A bit of crime, a bit of horror, a bit of humour – what’s not to love? 🙂

  5. I’m in the odd position of having read the book but having seen none of the films based on it – I’ll give the Hitchcock a go.

    • What??? Oh, you must watch the film then – it’s close enough to the book to be enjoyable, though Hitch did make some changes to up the humour level and to take account of the increasing threat of war by the time he was filming it. But the basics are still the same. I’ll be doing a comparison at some point… 🙂

  6. Oh, how funny. I had wrongly had it in my might from my knowledge of the film that it was based on a Christie. Might try this one now. Did you (whispers discreetly….buy this, if so, surely praise indeed!)

    • Not this time – to be honest, I never enjoyed Christie’s attempts at thrillers nearly as much as her mysteries. This one is fun – I think you might enjoy it. The writing quality is good, and there’s a lot of observational stuff as well as the basic plot. Haha! I did indeed buy it! I think it cost me 49p – a major investment! So it’s just as well it was good… 😉

  7. Another one that sounds most tempting! I definitely do NOT need to add more to my TBR, but I just might make an exception. See how good you are at reviewing these things, FF?!?

  8. I’m feeling a bit dim now – I didn’t realise this was a book – I know, I know but in my defence the title is different! Love your review, as always your delivery is perfect, especially the part about being treated like a slightly retarded three-year old… One for me to add in to read in 2017. I’ve now got a dilemma as one of my challenges is books purchased before the 1 January 2017 so do I add it now, or wait until the TBR is not quite so huge?

    • I only found out recently too – probably from Margot! That’s where I usually discover these things. Haha! Thank you! These romances were so sweet – not like today when we actually expect ridiculous things like to be treated as grown-ups! 😉 Oh, go on, add it now! You know you want to… 😉

  9. I haven’t read the book, but love the Hitchcock film! Does the book have the two English blokes trying to reach the cricket match? They were my favorite characters; very Bert and Ernie. I do hate that moment in the film when the leading man says, “You know, I find you VERY attractive.” Uh, timing?

    • I’m afraid the English blokes were Hitchcock’s own addition to the fun – maybe because he did away with the sections regarding Miss Froy’s family back home. I love them too. Haha! In these old stories, romance always seemed to blossom at the most unlikely moments! I think there’s quite a lot of small changes in the film – I’ll be doing a comparison when I get a chance to rewatch it…

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