The Wheel SpinsMay 4, 2011
I was doubly predisposed to like The Wheel Spins, by Ethel Lina White: first because it’s a train mystery and train mysteries are delightful, and second because it’s the basis for my favorite Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes. But I think I would have liked it anyway.
Iris Carr is an heiress who has been vacationing in an off-the-beaten-track town somewhere in Eastern Europe with her rowdy and obnoxious group of friends. She has a falling out with one of them right at the end of their trip, and opts to stay on for another couple of days so that she can travel alone and further indulge her tiresome fondess for thinking in cliches. Just before her train comes, she faints from sunstroke, and although she manages to make it onboard, she ends up in a car that’s already full. The other occupants are a pretty dour Baroness and a number of her hangers-on, plus Winifred Froy, an English spinster traveling home after a couple of years governessing.
Iris is feeling sort of hostile towards the world in general, so it’s somewhat unwillingly that she allows Miss Froy to drag her off to tea and tell her all about her octegenarian parents and their sheepdog that’s really a mutt. Afterwards Iris naps in the compartment, and when she wakes up Miss Froy is gone. At first Iris is glad not to have to listen to her anymore, and dreads Miss Froy’s return, but Miss Froy doesn’t return, and when Iris finally questions the other passengers, they deny that any such person was ever there at all. Iris enlists the help of a professor of modern languages and his friend Max Hare, but they find no trace of the missing governess, and soon they become convinced that Iris is suffering from the aftereffects of sunstroke, and made up the whole thing.
What’s really clever is that there’s no conspiracy, really. I mean, yes, Miss Froy has been abducted — White doesn’t leave you in doubt of that — but the rest of the passengers aren’t in on it. They all have different motives: backing up an employer, seeking publicity, avoiding publicity. One woman is convinced that her infant son is deathly ill and wants to avoid the possibility of the train being delayed. Two spinster sisters were victims of persecution after the last time they did something public-spirited, so they’re not trying that again. Hare keeps trying to get the Professor to do things, but all the Professor wants to do is sit down with the spinsters and figure out if they have any mutual friends.
And it’s not like Iris is the most altruistic person, either. The day before the the train trip begins, she vows never to help anyone again. When she first starts looking for Miss Froy, it’s because she needs her claim that the woman existed to be validated, not from actual concern. Later, she’s a bit haunted by the thought of Miss Froy’s family waiting for her at home — especially the dog. Whatever the reason, she can’t quite bring herself to give up on Miss Froy, even in the face of universal disbelief. Even Max Hare, Iris’ love interest, thinks she’s crazy — and, in my opinion, totally disqualifies himself from being anyone’s love interest when he decides to drug her for her own good. But even so, you can see how he came to the decision, and it’s not easy to condemn him. It’s not easy to condemn anyone, This is a book about how one person’s private motives can affect someone else’s life without either of them being aware of it. Nobody is entirely honest, but nobody is evil, either, except maybe the people who are planning on feeding Miss Froy to some eels.
The other thing about The Wheel Spins is that it’s insanely suspensful. Even basically knowing what was going to happen (from the movie) I was figuratively on the edge of my seat the entire time I was reading it.
It’s hard to talk about this book without talking about The Lady Vanishes, both because the movie is a lot better known than the book and because I personally have been very well acquainted with the movie for a long time. Having read the book now, I think The Lady Vanishes is a great adaptation as well as a fantastic film. It’s also a good illustration of the fact that a great adaptation isn’t necessarily a completely faithful one. Hitchcock changes a lot — the fact that Miss Froy is a spy in the movie is an obvious one, as is the shootout at the end.
The minor characters undergo quite a few changes, too: the glamorous Todhunters still may or may not be married, but the other hotel residents — the snobby spinsters and the doting mother and her vicar husband — are replaced by a couple of cricket-mad poster boys for unexamined privilege, while elsewhere on the train a banker has become a magician. And the Hare character believes in Miss Froy’s existence in this version (and doesn’t decide that Iris is incapable of rational thought, although he does apparently feel that invading her hotel room and threatening her reputation is an appropriate response to her entirely understandable reaction to the people dancing in clogs directly over her head), although no one else does. But, rabbits and high-heeled nuns aside, the core of the plot remains intact, and the core of the plot is really, really good. The tone of the film is lighter than that of the book, too, but I think that just goes to show how good the plot is — it works well either way. So I’m pleased for two reasons: first, because this gave me an excuse to rewatch The Lady Vanishes, and second because The Wheel Spins is kind of an awesome book.