Crime Fiction Alphabet: E is for Ethel

I can never resist perusing the shelves of green numbered Penguin paperbacks in my local secondhand bookshop. Penguin picked up on so many of the great crime writers of the golden age, but I tend to look for intriguing titles by authors I don’t know, hoping to find lost gems.

The Wheel Spins was one of those intriguing titles, and the name Ethel Lina White rang no bells, but as soon as learned that Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes was based on this book, as soon as I read the opening words, I knew that this book had to come home.

Those opening words introduced Iris Carr, a society girl holidaying with a large group of friends. Iris was alone in the world and so her friends were important to her and she was generous to them. But she was beginning to see their failings, to understand how others might see them, and to realise just how shallow the ties between them were. And so, when there was a falling out, Iris decided to strike out alone.

A simple account of a turning point in a young woman’s life, beautifully observed and psychologically perfect.

Iris struggled, alone in a foreign country, not understanding the language, with no friends to turn to. Her determination was wonderful, but I realised, as she did, that she was so vulnerable. It was horribly unsettling.

Little things went wrong, and the tension grew steadily.

Waiting to board her train for a railway journey across Europe to London, Iris collapses, apparently with sunstroke, on the station platform. She finds herself, befuddled, in a compartment with a group of travellers disinclined to be at all friendly or helpful.

Except for one: Miss Froy, a middle-aged fellow Englishwoman, is warm and friendly.

But Miss Froy disappear while Iris is dozing in her seat. How can a woman just disappear on a moving train? Why does everybody else on the train deny ever having seen that woman?

Iris is disturbed, questioning the designs of the people around her. She questions her own sanity too, but she is quite sure that Miss Froy is real, that something sinister must be going on…

The plotting is so clever, the tension grows and grows, and the restrictions of the train become more and more oppressive.

A perfectly drawn central character and pitch perfect dialogue allowed me to see the train and the passengers, and to hear their voices. I was completely caught up.

The latter part of the story lost some of the tension that had built up as more viewpoints were introduced and Iris faded into the background. And the secondary characters, though wonderfully diverse and vivid, were mostly underdeveloped, as the story raced a little too quickly to an incomplete conclusion.

But I hung on, so wanting to know what had happened, what would happen.

The resolution was dramatic, if not altogether surprising. But that’s often the way with seemingly inexplicable mysteries, and I really couldn’t fault the logic at all.

The Wheel Spins is a compelling psychological mystery, an unusual coming of age story, and a striking picture of the attitudes of a certain social class in the 1930s.

Intellectual and emotional insight combined with fine writing really made the story sing.

And ultimately, like its heroine, The Wheel Spins is flawed but fascinating.

*****

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

So next week, F is for … ?

9 responses

  1. Jane – What a fascinating choice for “E!” I know exactly what you mean about the Penguin imprint. I’ve found lots of very fine old classic crime under that imprint. And this looks terrific – I’m intrigued :-).

  2. Completely new to me. I shall have to keep my eyes open for a copy in our local second hand shops as I can guarantee that the library system won’t have it.

  3. The cover of this book alone is fascinating. It is very unusual to see a Penguin crime with the vertical grid; they used it almost exclusively for fiction and continued to publish the crime series in their traditional horizontal format.

  4. These Penguin paperback series are gems!

    As a Danish reader I am so envious because no publisher in this country has ever been smart enough to see that to make more people read, you should lower the price, not raise it.

  5. Sounds like one of those stories where you read the first line and before you know it you’re on page 53!

    On my locker at work I have one of those magnetic photo frames. On Mondays, I slide in a new Penguin postcard with their wonderful titles. The ladies get a kick out of seeing what’s going to show up next.

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