It's easy to see why Ethel Lina White's first novel The Wheel Spins was snapped up by Alfred Hitchcock as movie material. It's a mixture of mystery and suspense which verges on horror as a young Englishwoman's very sanity is questioned. The movie was called The Lady Vanishes and the novel later followed suit when it was reissued under the same title. It has all the right elements to create a perfect suspense story--a speeding train crossing Europe filled with holidaymakers returning home, a woman who mysteriously disappears, and a lone witness whom none of the passengers believe. What I liked most about the story is that it takes place almost entirely on a train, turning it into a locked room type of mystery, which is the perfect setting for this claustrophobic tale.
Iris Carr is a beautiful socialite with no fixed address who has been vacationing with a group of friends in an unnamed Eastern European country (mostly likely the Balkans). It's a rather rowdy group which has managed to aggravate most of the rest of the proper English guests in one way or another. Iris is cool, calm and collected and very prickly. She has knack for rubbing people the wrong way, and not caring a jot that she's done so. Just before boarding her train home to England she's struck with a violent pain and loses consciousness waking barely moments before her departure in a state of confusion and anxiousness.
The train, one of the last leaving the resort at the end of the season, is crammed with travelers, and Iris is stuck in a compartment with unfriendly natives who don't seem to speak or understand any English. She finds an unlikely ally, however, in a middle aged woman of vague coloring wearing tweeds--Miss Winifred Froy. Miss Froy is returning to England, too, after working as governess in the home of a high ranking family. She may be a spinster, but she has a great sense of adventure. Mild mannered and gregarious she can hold her own in any conversation and is comfortable speaking the language. Despite Miss Froy's blandness Iris takes a liking to her even though she is a chatterbox. She speaks with a deep affection for her elderly parents and her dear little dog named "Sock" (short for Socrates!) who she already envisions racing to the station to meet her.
Not quite recovered from her touch of sunstroke, Iris falls asleep and when she wakes Miss Froy is no longer in her seat. As a matter of fact she's nowhere to be found on the train, and Iris has looked up and down the corridor and in all the compartments. No one admits to seeing her and when Iris demands something be done, she's neither believed nor supported in her accusation of foul play. As a matter of fact her fellow travelers believe she's something of a trouble maker since her bad behavior at the hotel did little to endear her to them. As for the rest they think she's simply had too much sun and needs a nice rest.
What makes this such a great read is White's plotting. From the first page the reader anticipates something awful, as premonitions abound. She sets the perfect tone, creating in Iris a character who is ultimately friendless and alone which makes her fruitless search so harrowing. Even those few passengers who are 'on her side' are still not convinced that Miss Froy exists. White gets into the heads of the other passengers, so the reader sees their secrets and motivations. Most just want to get home, each having their own reason for not wanting the train to be held up en route. The tension mounts as Iris becomes ever more distressed about Miss Froy, while the other passengers begin to lose their patience with Iris and her seemingly erratic behavior.
I love a good suspenseful novel, and I totally enjoyed this one. White turns a satiric eye on travelers abroad and their foibles in a way that helps move this story along at a good clip. Now that I've finished reading the book, I'm due for another viewing of the movie, which I recall enjoying though a few liberties were taken with the story. The novel was published in 1936 and the film made in 1938 which has a slightly more political/espionage slant than the book had.
This is the first book I've finished for Carl's RIP Challenge. I'm also working on Ruth Rendell's A Demon in My View, Nicci French's The Memory Game and I've just started Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. I'm planning on reading Deborah Lawrenson's The Lantern as part of a group read as well. I had hoped to read three books, so we'll see what I manage by the end of October.