Fast train through Europe

The wheel spins by Ethel Lina White has been one of those books on my To Be Read list for far too long. It's also, for even longer, been one of my favourite films, as The Lady Vanishes is based on the book.

Published in 1936, as a thriller it's an entertaining enough read, although pales besides other contemporary writers of the genre such as Eric Ambler or Graham Greene. But there's much to admire here, and plenty to marvel at. Not least the way in which Alfred Hitchcock kept much of the essentials of the original and by a little bit of judicious tweaking turned the film into something that worked so much better than the original.

The novel tells the story of Iris Carr, a spoiled socialite with a broken engagement behind her, who is on holiday in a remote part of Europe. Left behind when her friends return home, Iris takes a later train to Trieste, but is taken ill on the station platform. Once on board the train she is befriended by the sole English woman in the compartment, a Miss Froy, who has been working in Central Europe, and confides in Iris that she has been in the employ of a senior member of state. Feeling unwell, Iris falls asleep and on waking discovers that Miss Froy has disappeared. All the other members of the compartment deny any knowledge of Miss Froy, as does the mysterious doctor and his nurses next door who are nursing a seriously ill, and heavily bandaged, patient.

Iris appeals to a British professor and his friend, Max Hare, for help. They don't believe her, although Hare has swiftly fallen romantically for her. More puzzling is the reaction of other British passengers, the Misses Floode-Porter, a vicar and his wife, and the "honeymoon" couple, the Todhunters; all of whom have met Miss Froy; all, for purely selfish reasons, deny any knowledge of her. The reader is swiftly aware of the motivation behind this, and that Iris is indeed correct that something sinister has happened to Miss Froy. In an attempt to stop Iris's interference, the mysterious doctor, who is attempting to abduct Miss Froy with a view to assassination, drugs Iris, only for his plan to backfire when she reveals the real Miss Froy and saves her life.

The story is paper thin, but there's a nice vein of humour running through it, and White is excellent at ramping up the tension. There's also a rather more serious side as she looks at the motivation of the passengers who refuse to acknowledge that Iris's companion is indeed missing.

Hitchcock's version follows the plot fairly closely. Iris is on holiday, this time on a sort of civilized stag-do pending her marriage back in London. Miss Froy is ostensibly a governess on the way home, though she actually is a most unlikely British spy, and is slightly older than her equivalent in The Wheel Spins. The Misses Floode-Porter are replaced by male cricket-buff friends, Charters and Caldicott (played to brilliant humorous effect by the wonderful Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), and the vicar and his wife disappear from the cast list. The British professor also vanishes, though his friend Max Hare continues in a changed form (he's renamed Gilbert, and is a rather potty ethnomusicologist - there can't be many of those in films! - but his character stays true to the original). The unpleasant doctor and fellow foreigners largely remain unchanged except that they now have international secrets to safeguard, and so the film becomes much more dramatic (there's even a gun battle) than the book.

Hitchcock was brilliantly clever at maintaining the humour of the original, while sweeping away the bits of the story that don't quite work. For instance, the unveiling of Miss Froy that fails to quite deliver in the book is presented in a much simpler fashion in the film and so works better. The reason for Miss Froy's kidnap in the book is down to her accidentally being able to disprove the alibi of a murderer, in the film there are sinister European politics at the heart of her abduction. On the cusp of a second world war, this makes much more sense, and also makes the thriller more of an Everyman tale. What Miss Froy knows is something that will affect everyone, not just a single sordid crime.

Seldom have I been so impressed by a film adaptation. Hitchcock and his screenwriters, Launder and Gilliat, who would later become top British directors and producers in their own right, make a superb job of improving on the original with a little judicious polishing and some adept changes of pace and direction. Ethel Lina White was also, I believe, involved in the screenplay, and I think this is most noticeable in the character of Iris and the vein of humour that remains largely untouched throughout.

I don't think the book is as good as the film, though it is a fun read. Its mores are very much of the period - British are best, and foreigners are distinctly dodgy and potentially dangerous. Ironically the only person who disagrees with this is Miss Froy herself, who is sadly proved wrong in placing her trust in foreigners. White though shows that it's not just the Central European characters terrified of the sinister Baroness who are capable of lying, as the British characters consistently lie too, and usually for much weaker reasons that the scared foreigners. It's an entertaining period read, and I look forward to reading much more of Ethel Lina White.


The first time I read the book I was quite disappointed in it, much preferring the film, but when I read it again recently I was very impressed by it. And have very much enjoyed some other EL White books.
Margaret Jones said…
Funnily enough, I'm pretty sure that it was one of your posts about EL White that encouraged me to get the book. Would definitely like to read more of hers, though I think nothing was ever going to top the Hitchcock film for me, having loved it so much.

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