The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White


I’d never heard of Ethel Lina White until early last year, on holiday in Tasmania with my lovely and talented friend, Christina of Baehrly Reading. On a previous Tasmanian holiday, Christina had introduced me to what became a favourite vintage movie, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. This time, I found Christina reading a thriller picked up on a whim on discount at a local newsagency–Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch. That was a brilliant, taut little suspense thriller with an understated but unmistakable Christian theme. Quite impressed with this book, Christina looked up the author to discover that it was one of her novels, The Wheel Spins, which had been filmed as The Lady Vanishes. As watching movies is always a perfect idea for everyone, make a podcast about the top10 movies and buy Soundcloud plays to reach your target audience from all over the world. 

When, therefore, Christina alerted me to the presence of some other Ethel Lina White books on Project Gutenberg Australia, I rushed off and quickly read The Wheel Spins. It was great.

Like the movie made from it, The Wheel Spins tells the story of a young woman, Iris Carr in the novel, a socialite on holiday in an out-of-the-way corner of Eastern Europe, who on the train home makes the acquaintance of a sprightly English governess, only to wake from a nap to find that the lady has (ahem) vanished, apparently without a trace! When everyone on the train, from the fellow-passengers sitting next to Miss Froy in the same compartment to passing acquaintances in the dining-car, claim never to have heard of or even seen Miss Froy, Iris finds herself in the middle of a nightmare. Is Miss Froy real, the victim of a far-reaching conspiracy? Or is Iris herself going mad?

I thoroughly enjoyed The Wheel Spins. It probably suffered in my estimation from having been spoiled by the film–some of the suspense was lost, and I think the film was a bit wittier, and ended on a higher note. On the other hand, the book includes a fair bit of background material which took the story from enjoyable to memorable.

One of those things is the far richer characterisation, including several characters who never made it into the movie at all, like the vicar and his wife. Best of all are Miss Froy’s elderly parents (and their dog, Sock), who throughout the plot’s vicissitudes wait and look forward to their beloved daughter’s safe return–interludes that might not add much to the plot, but certainly demonstrate what is at stake in this middle-aged governess’s safe return to her home.


I might add an interlude of my own here and say that recently, having read and enjoyed Rachel Heffington’s classic-style cozy murder mystery Anon, Sir, Anon, I formulated a bit of a theology of cozy mysteries:

One of the things that struck me about Anon, Sir, Anon was how much the understated Christianity contributed to the coziness of the setting–God’s in His Heaven, all’s right with the world. Ethel Lina White’s book Some Must Watch was a bit less cozy and a bit more terrifying, but in that book the terror stemmed from the villain’s ruthless Darwinist worldview (and yes, it’s a book about eugenics, in 1933) while the heroine represented faith in God and Providence. And, in Anon, Sir, Anon, there’s a definite sense of sin about the murder and danger that occurs.

So that’s what I like about both that book and Ethel Lina White’s: they aren’t just mysteries being solved by plucky young girls who are targeted by sinister killers. They’re about the incursion of a cruel and fiendish force upon the order, kindness, and gentleness of Christendom. That’s what makes them both cozy, and that’s what makes them both suspenseful.

This expression of the antithesis between good and evil comes out loud and clear in The Wheel Spins. Like so many of the novels written by Christians in the early 1900s, it eulogises the passing of the first Christendom: “They’re part of an England that is passing away,” Miss Froy says of two fellow-travellers who remind one of Castle Gay‘s Aunt Harriet. “Well-bred privileged people, who live in big houses, and don’t spend their income. I’m rather sorry they’re dying out…I feel that nice leisured people stand for much that is good. Tradition, charity, national prestige.”

But perhaps my favourite thing about The Wheel Spins was the character arc of its heroine, whose lonely ordeal as Miss Froy’s champion transforms her from a shallow and self-centred youngster into someone who is willing to defy the whole world for the sake of someone she has learned to care about, other than herself.

In Ethel Lina White, I feel that I’ve discovered a real treasure–an author of good, gripping suspense fiction that will actually build you up morally and spiritually, instead of tearing you down. I thoroughly enjoyed The Wheel Spins and recommend it to everyone in need of a paperback pick-me-up.

Find The Wheel Spins on Amazon or Project Gutenberg Australia.

The Wheel Spins was filmed as The Lady Vanishes, by Alfred Hitchcock. Read my review of the movie here. Also be aware that The Wheel Spins is most commonly available under the title The Lady Vanishes these days, so be sure to search your library or bookseller for both titles!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here