Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Wheel Spins (The Lady Vanishes)

Ethel Lina White (1876-1944) was a popular British crime writer who would now be entirely forgotten but for the fact that two of her novels were made into extremely good movies. Her 1936 novel The Wheel Spins was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes while her 1933 novel Some Must Watch was filmed by Robert Siodmak as The Spiral Staircase. It is The Wheel Spins with which we are concerned at the moment.

White seems to belong to the dreaded Had I But Known school of crime fiction. In this case, given that the book is narrated in the third person, it’s more of a Had She But Known story. It’s also more of a suspense novel although with some detective story elements.

The heroine is a very rich and very unpleasant young woman named Iris. Iris and her friends are holidaying in an unnamed central European country and they are displaying their usual mix of boorishness, pretension and shallowness. It’s clever to display rudeness and cruelty because all the smart people do so. In the 20s Iris’s crowd would have been known as Bright Young Things.

The early part of the book tells us far more than we wish to know about Iris and about the motley collection of English guests staying in a hotel in the mountains. We assume that these people are all going to be passengers on the train which is to be the novel’s main setting. In fact they will be passengers on that train but mostly they don’t play much of a role in the story. This introductory section of the book also gives White the opportunity to throw in lots of Had I But Knowns.

The season is almost at an end and the English visitors are about to head back to England. Iris has an odd experience at the railway station, an experience which is put down to a touch of sunstroke. On the train she encounters an English spinster, a Miss Froy. Miss Froy then vanishes. Vanishes into thin air. The view of the other passengers, and the railway employees, is that there never was a Miss Froy. After a while Iris has her doubts as well. If Miss Froy existed then the mystery of her disappearance can only be explained by a vast and elaborate conspiracy theory, which just doesn’t seem possible.

Iris’s big problem is that nobody will believe her. Even her one ally, an amiable young English linguist, doesn’t believe her.

The basic story idea is good but the execution is very disappointing indeed. White does not really seem to know how to maintain suspense. Her pacing is poor and she is inclined to reveal too much information too soon. She spends too much time on unimportant peripheral characters and irrelevant sub-plots. She has a tendency towards sentimentality. Most of all she seems to lack the ability to structure a suspense story.

There’s a romance here. I am one of those people who dislikes romance in mystery novels but I have no problem with a romance element in a thriller. The difficulty in this book is that the romance is unconvincing and worst of all it just isn’t very romantic.

White obviously wanted to focus quite a bit on Iris’s character flaws and the ways in which she learns to overcome at least some of them and transform herself from an unsympathetic and very flawed protagonist into a reasonably sympathetic and rather less flawed heroine. This is actually a worthwhile idea and it does succeed to a certain extent.

With all its flaws there is as I said a story idea with potential and it’s easy to see why Alfred Hitchcock saw that potential. Fortunately he had the services of two very competent screenwriters, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, and they were able to eliminate most of the novel’s flaws. Hitchcock also had a fine cast and characters who were tedious in the novel become quite entertaining in the movie. The screenplay made some significant plot changes, all of which were beneficial.

Hitchcock’s film is a masterpiece of suspense and it’s also great fun. White’s novel is a bit of a mess and it’s rather lacking in fun.

If you’re a fan of Hitchcock in general and The Lady Vanishes in particular then The Wheel Spins will be of some interest. It’s actually a textbook example of the ways in which good screenwriters and good directors can produce great results working from mediocre source materials. If you’re not a fan of the movie there’s really no pressing reason to seek out this book.


  1. I do want to read this book mainly to see how it compares to the movie. Hitchcock seemed to do that a lot, take an idea and make it better, or at least more suited to film.

    1. Thrillers can often work better as movies. The movie adaptation can strip the story down to the bare essentials.