Iris Carr is a wealthy English socialite who runs with a fast crowd. She is on vacation with the crowd in an unidentified European country – most likely a Baltic state considering the train route – when she tires of them and decides to stay an extra day or two in the small village hotel they had taken over. Initially relieved by being alone, she soon feels isolated from everyone – the natives because she does not speak the language and the other English guests because the crowd’s behavior alienated them. When she gets lost on a solo hike her isolation turns oppressive and morphs into fear. Stressed, anxious to return to England and suffering from a sunstroke, Iris boards a train and meets an English governess in their overcrowded compartment. The lady, Miss Froy, takes Iris under her wing, buying her tea in the dining car and encouraging Iris to sleep. When Iris wakes up, Miss Froy is gone and the other passengers in their compartment claim she never existed.
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.
Just when Iris gives up hope, just when she believes what everyone is telling her, that Miss Froy was a figment of her imagination, just when the reader starts to believe she is a figment as well, White inexplicable decides to deflate all of the tension she has so brilliantly created. She shifts the action to England and the illusive Miss Froy’s home where her parents are eagerly awaiting her. So, Miss Froy is real. Now the question is whether or not the people who have abducted Miss Froy will succeed in driving Iris crazy and carting her off to an insane asylum at the next stop. White does manage to escalate the action again, to shift the focus to Iris’s increased isolation even from people she wants to trust and her tenuous grasp on her sanity, but I can’t help but believe the last 1/3 of the book would have been even better if the reader doubted the existence of Miss Froy until the end.
Speaking of the ending, it is a bit too easy, but satisfying nonetheless because Iris “saved” herself. Throughout the novel, the men were ineffectual. For one of them to rise to the occasion after all of their condescension would have belittled Iris’s journey as a character. Kudos to White for resisting the White Knight.
I posted an update on Good Reads for The Wheel Spins, noting how similar the book was to the movie. Immediately after reading the book I watched the 1938 movie. It was interesting how different my memory was to the reality. A Read the Movie post will be coming, though I am not sure when. I think the time is almost right to start the Hitchcock project I’ve been mulling for some time.
The Wheel Spins (★★★) was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 movie, The Lady Vanishes (a much more apt title for the story). The version I read is a Kindle version by Rosetta Books, a company that appears to be publishing novels that inspired movies. It is a wonderful niche to be in, especially if they would publish more of the novels that inspired Hitchcock. However, they need to take a bit more time in their editing phase. This edition was riddled with typos. There were times I wondered if the strangely worded sentences were mistakes or just the difference between 1930s vernacular and the 21st century. I will buy more of these books if the Amazon reviews improve. The other Hitchcock movie novel received abysmal editing reviews.