I think I’d seen two different versions of the film The Lady Vanishes (the Hitchcock and the remake) before I knew it was a novel, and after that I tried to keep an eye out for it in bookshops. There was the small issue that at no point could I remember the title or the author. Even writing the heading to this post, I wasn’t sure whether it was The Wheel Spins or The Wheel Turns. Hitchcock knew what he was doing when he changed the title.
With my unreliable memory, I don’t recall the exact ins and outs of this adaptations, so I can’t say precisely how the book differs, but there certainly seemed to be some difference in tone. But I shan’t assume any prior knowledge on the part of the reader, you’ll be pleased to know. And we’ll quietly forget the films for the time being, excellent though they are.
Iris Carr starts off the novel coming to the end of a luxurious Italian holiday with a group of friends who are lively or obnoxiously boisterous, depending on whom you ask at the hotel. They head off back to England a little before she does, and she is left to ignore the other residents – from the vicar and wife who are keen to tell anybody about their children to the spinster ladies who strongly disapprove of youthful insouciance. They, in turn, are quite keen to keep out of anybody else’s business, for somewhat unlikely reasons that later become essential to the plot but (more rewardingly, to my mind) also lead later to my favourite lines in the book:
“You live in Somersetshire,” he remarked. “It is a county where I have stayed often. I wonder if we know any mutual friends.”
“I hate every single person living there,” said Miss Rose vehemently, sweeping away any claimants to friendship.
Iris, let us be honest, is not a particularly sympathetic woman. She seems unrepentantly selfish, quite rude, and snubs the overtures of friendship that are offered. She hopes, indeed, to travel back to England without them – but they do all end on the same train after all.
She is not, however, in their carriage – instead, after a curious incident of being knocked out briefly on the train platform – she squeezes herself into a carriage next to a friendly middle-aged lady, Miss Froy, and a peculiarly unfriendly set of others – including a formidable-looking baroness. Miss Froy is something of an adventurer (not, I assure you, an adventuress) and babbles away cheerily to Iris about her travel and exploits. It may not surprise you to learn that her response is to be pretty bored and inattentive, but she puts up with it for a while.
After Iris has had a quick nap, she wakes up to discover Miss Froy is missing… and when she asks the people in the carriage, they deny having ever seen her.
It’s an excellent premise for a novel (or a film), but it does require watertight plotting. At no point do we ever truly believe that Iris has imagined any of this – which I seem to recall felt like a possibility in the film – so, instead, we have to try to work out where Miss Froy is, and why everybody is lying.
One of those is answered very well (if not entirely unguessably – it felt obvious to me, knowing what happened, but perhaps it might not have done if I’d not seen the film); the other had a fair few holes, but none that let the novel down overall. And that was because White writes both engagingly and well. Indeed, her prose is more fluid, witty, and accomplished than many of the detective novelists of the period that I have read.
If her characterisation tends to caricature at times, she demonstrates greater nuance in Iris – who is an impressively believable combination of damsel in distress and determined sleuth, picking the most realistic elements from both stereotypes to create a non-stereotypical character. She actually behaves in a way that one might believe a person would behave, unlike 90% of thrillers – for The Wheel Spins often feels like it has crossed the line into thriller territory.
But my favourite elements were closer to normal: Miss Froy has two elderly parents – which came as a surprise, as I’d rather imagined her to be rather elderly herself until they appealed – and the narrative occasionally heads back to England to see them proudly and enthusiastically preparing for Miss F’s return. As is their adorable dog. It is all rather touching, and lends pathos that is often missing from high dramas. You can’t, for example, imagine Bulldog Drummond’s parents flicking through a photo album.
All in all, this is an endearing and enjoyable classic crime that was well-serviced by being turned into a Hitchcock film. Thank you Kirsty for lending it to me!