RogerBW's Blog

The Wheel Spins, Ethel Lina White 11 May 2021

1936 thriller. Iris Carr is a poor little rich girl travelling by train from "a remote corner of Europe" back to England via Trieste. She talks with a Miss Froy, who's briefly amusing. Then after a short rest she discovers that Miss Froy is no longer there, and everyone claims that she has never existed… Vt, and loosely filmed in 1938 as, The Lady Vanishes.

It's interesting to compare this with the film, because it's a far bleaker story. Not only are there no spies or cricketers, in the film Iris rapidly picks up a solid ally… while in this version she's entirely alone, with nobody truly believing her story. Some are opposed to the fuss she's making; some are trying to avoid fuss in general (such as the beautiful "honeymoon couple" both actually married to other people, or the two spinsters who'd much rather panic about their luggage); some are distracted by illness or worrying news; and the locals are all either in the grip of the conspiracy or just uncaring about an hysterical foreigner. ("Hysteria" is used a lot in this book.) Even her eventual romantic partner connives at drugging her to calm her down.

She was used to the protection of a crowd, whom—with unconscious flattery—she called "her friends." An attractive orphan of independent means, she had been surrounded always with clumps of people. They thought for her—or rather, she accepted their opinions, and they shouted for her—since her voice was rather too low in register, for mass social intercourse.

Nobody here is a particularly pleasant person; not only are they all self-interested, even after Iris has had the sense to get rid of "the crowd" and travel alone for a bit, she rapidly gets bored and finds her fellow-travellers insufficiently amusing. A little more positivity about somebody here would have gone a long way with me.

This book is described as a mystery, but I don't think that's really valid: other than Iris's doubts of her own recollections when everyone disagrees with her, it's clear to her roughly what has happened and indeed who must be responsible. The tension is in whether she will do something about it in time, whether by persuading someone else or by her own actions.

There's some oddly obscure language; clandestine meetings are described as "under the seal of the apple". There's even a passing reference to the urban legend of the Vanishing Hotel Room. But in a moment I particularly prized, after all Iris can remember of Miss Froy's appearance is that she was "middle-aged, and ordinary—and rather colourless", someone has the sense to ask about her clothes:

"Tweed. Oatmeal, flecked with brown. Swagger coat, finger-length, with patch pockets and stitched cuffs and scarf. The ends of the scarf were fastened with small blue-bone buttons and she wore a natural tussore shirt-blouse, stitched with blue—a different shade—with a small blue handkerchief in the breast-pocket. I'm afraid I didn't notice details much. Her hat was made of the same material, with a stitched brim and a Récamier crown, with a funny bright-blue feather stuck through the band."

Because Iris is very unhappy for most of the story, there isn't as much fun here as I found in White's The Third Eye where Caroline Watts knows she's in danger and can try to take steps to do something about it, and the book can be a bit of a slog at times. Still enjoyable, though, and interesting to see the bare story before the film people got their hands on it. (I gather the 2013 film version is rather more faithful to the original, but I haven't seen any of them.)

Freely available from Project Gutenberg Australia.

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