Christmas has come early for fans of crime fiction this year.
Last month, Hachette India released a veritable treasure trove of 175 titles in The Great Yellowbacks series. The Yellowbacks, so called because of the distinctive colour of their covers, originated in the late 19th century. These cheap and cheerful best-sellers, telling sensational stories of adventure and crime, may have begun with books by writers like Robert Louis Stevenson but thrived well into the 1960s. The revival of these books in affordable paperback formats isn’t just a triumph of nostalgia but also a service to collectors, students and scholars of mystery and thrillers.
Equivalent to our modern-day airport reads, some of the most popular Yellowbacks were written by legends like Arthur Conan Doyle and Maurice Leblanc (creator of Arsène Lupin). Strikingly, names that readers would never associate with genre fiction—Jack London, A.A. Milne, L. Frank Baum—were also responsible for a number of these titles. Browsing through the revived catalogue, therefore, is sheer serendipity, a source of wonder and discovery.
It’s hard to single out one volume from such rich pickings but the obvious first read for me was The Wheel Spins by the British writer Ethel Lina White (1876-1944). Although virtually forgotten now, White enjoyed as much fame as her illustrious compatriots, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, the acclaimed legends of crime fiction.
Born into a wealthy British family at the peak of the Industrial Revolution, White was one of nine children. She began publishing in her 50s and rapidly became a popular name in the 1930s-40s. White’s most enduring success, however, remains The Wheel Spins, which inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 adaptation, The Lady Vanishes, with Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave in the lead roles. Till date, it has been adapted several times for the screen and has also inspired a radio play.
The persistence of White’s novel in popular culture isn’t surprising. The Wheel Spins is a spin-off on the classic locked-room mystery, immortalised by Conan Doyle in one of his iconic Sherlock Holmes stories, The Adventure Of The Speckled Band, in 1892. Apart from the stifling air of suspense and chilling inscrutability that characterise such plots, there is drama galore in White’s novel, even a hint of romance, and frequent deliberations on the virtues of a stolid “English character”, not without irony.
The protagonist Iris Carr, rechristened Iris Henderson by Hitchcock in his version, is an orphan of independent means, attractive but a spoilt brat, and quite unlikeable. She has a gaggle of bright young friends, who go on exotic holidays in “remote corners of Europe”, sun themselves in skimpy outfits and create a lot of commotion, much to the chagrin of the more genteel vacationers.
In White’s version, Iris has more colour and depth than Hitchcock’s, where her appeal is accentuated by Lockwood’s riveting screen presence and beauty. However, the core of the mystery, in the novel as well as the movie, remains unchanged. On her way home after an eventful continental trip, Iris meets an English spinster, an off-duty governess called Miss Froy, on the train to Trieste. Although Iris isn’t particularly fond of the dowdy little lady, she soon becomes obsessed as Miss Froy suddenly goes missing without a trace. Her anxiety begins to spiral, bordering on hysteria, as everyone around her begins to deny having ever seen Miss Froy. Very soon, Miss Froy’s whole existence turns into a giant question mark.
Faced with this collective conspiracy, Iris is left indignant, confused and ill, partly due to an alleged sunstroke that had knocked her out prior to boarding the train (once again, there is a different spin given by Hitchcock to this incident). Only one passenger, a young man called Max Hare (renamed Gilbert by Hitchcock), is sympathetic to her, not least because he is attracted to her. But other than him, Iris keeps hitting a wall. The plot moves through a series of bitter altercations between Iris and her opponents, ending with a grand finale.
Hitchcock’s movie, written by British directors Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, is markedly different in its approach to the characters as well as the circumstances that bring all of them together. Miss Froy, played by Dame May Whitty, is an elderly lady, seemingly innocuous but actually full of hidden depth. Her steely intelligence is the big reveal in Hitchcock’s movie.
In contrast, White’s novel, with its more elaborate unfolding, builds up Miss Froy as a rather ordinary character with a well-defined backstory. She is sweetly dotty and eager to return to her elderly parents and dog in England. Like her screen counterpart, White’s Miss Froy, too, is a victim of a conspiracy, even though the causes and consequences of her tragedy are far less “Hitchcockian”.
That said, White’s accomplishment is not to be belittled, considering she had to live up to the Olympian standard of cleverness set by Christie, the “queen of crime”, with the publication of Murder On The Orient Express in 1934. Happily, White manages to prove her mettle robustly in The Wheel Spins. From the psychological depth she brings to her characters to the gentle, at times caustic, ribbing of English pride and vanity, there is much to savour in the flow of her story.
Above all, the tautness with which White constructs her plot, leaving no scope for incredulity, stands out till the end. It’s impossible to imagine such a plot with any degree of credulity in the age of cellphones, internet and biometric identification but the absence of these tools adds to the interest of The Wheel Spins.
Unlike the familiar formula of crime fiction, White’s novel isn’t about a chase or an obvious crime that needs to be solved. On the contrary, it is interested in the evil that is the human mind, with its infinite powers of suggestion and coercive control, always ready to “gaslight” women, especially those with independent means and mind. Every page of her novel has more than a frisson of the contemporary, even though it is set nearly a century ago.
Somak Ghoshal is a Delhi-based writer.
Rereadings is monthly column on backlisted books that have much to offer in contemporary times.