Justice to a Forgotten Woman Crime Writer
The recent New York Times review by Mike Hale of PBS’s The Lady Vanishes struck me as remarkably wrong-headed and even borderline sexist. But I’m glad I read it, because it’s pushed me to champion the work of a 1930s crime writer who mystery fans should be better acquainted with.
As most mystery fans know already, The Lady Vanishes is the 1938 Hitchcock movie starring Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. Playing the spoiled little rich girl Iris Carr, icily beautiful Lockwood finds herself embroiled in a mystery on a train crossing the Balkans to Trieste. What happened to Miss Froy, the chatty middle-aged Englishwoman who was sitting opposite her in a compartment of foreigners? And why do those other people claim Miss Froy never existed? Is Iris losing her marbles?
The film gets high marks from critics. I love quite a few Hitchcock movies, but this one I find silly, incoherent, and something more: profoundly misguided as an adaptation. Most people who’ve seen the movie have not read the novel Hitchcock plundered: Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins. Yes, I do understand that movies and films are different creative works and events, but when a movie turns a book into something entirely different, attention must be paid. Imagine if The Lord of the Rings had been made into a stoner comedy.
White’s novel is a dark, gripping, nightmarish portrait of a woman who’s always felt free and untrammeled suddenly finding herself trapped in circumstances she can’t comprehend. Despite her wealth, privilege and charm, she’s vulnerable, frightened, virtually alone–and dismissed as a hysteric. Picture The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim crossed with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, with a layer of obsessional Poe. It’s a beautifully written novel and psychologically acute. Iris is not an admirable person (why should she be?): she’s self-centered and overly privileged. Yet she realizes these flaws and when she lurches into action to find out what happened to the missing and possibly endangered Miss Froy, her willfulness becomes heroic. And what predominates in the book is its dark, brooding, claustrophobic tone; it’s gripping from beginning to end.
Now, writing about the PBS movie, Hale complains that the new version cuts characters from the Hitchcock movie that didn’t appear in the novel. That strikes me as a bizarre comment, since despite the title, the new movie is obviously not a remake of Hitchcock but an adaptation of the book. Then there’s this:
The 1938 film is full of broad humor about the inferiority of everything not British [and] nearly all of the British characters are irritatingly superior or xenophobic to some degree. But it can be uncomfortable to watch, and the new film takes an opposite tack, looking censoriously at both the young British crowd that includes the heroine Iris (“That horrible rabble,” they’re called) and the older travelers on the train who initially refuse to believe her.
But it’s not a “tack.” Had Hale bothered to read White’s short novel, he’d know that the not entirely unjustified censoriousness directed at Iris’s crowd is an absolutely crucial part of the book, and motivates her fellow Brits being unwilling at first to help her. The book time and again raises questions about our responsibility when others are in trouble, and given the mid-30s publishing date, I wonder if there was a subtext about being drawn into another European war.
Hale also decries the absence of a comic pair of male cricket fans who were not in the novel: “Their space in the plot is occupied by a new couple, a lugubrious minister and his slightly hysterical wife, who aren’t any fun and who have a secret that only distracts us from the whereabouts of the old lady.”
The couple isn’t “new”–they appear in the novel. But more importantly, this passage is where I think the review veers dangerously close to sexism. The minister’s wife is not “slightly hysterical,” she is justifiably anguished about her toddler back home in England who she’s learned by telegram has influenza. Remember how many millions of people worldwide were killed by influenza after World War I? This is her only child, one who came unexpectedly late in life. Calling her even slightly hysterical completely misreads the situation. She’s on a train many hours from the next station where she can send a telegram requesting news–who wouldn’t be distraught?
In line with the charge of hysteria, Hale notes that the PBS film replaces the old film’s comic sexual banter for “melancholy, ominousness and sentimentality.” I do not believe anxiety about the health of one’s child is treated sentimentally here at all, but realistically. And this anxiety fits perfectly with the film’s focus on loneliness and longing, as when Miss Froy describes aching to see her beloved elderly parents and her dog again.
But Hitchcock’s the one who did the replacing; he turned The Wheel Spins into farce. The novel is in fact melancholy and ominous from the very beginning when Iris wonders about the meaning of her frivolous life, gets lost in the hills around her hotel, and is confronted with her absolute lack of resources because she doesn’t speak the language.
It can’t be said enough: the very things Hale objects to are all in the book or hew closely to what’s there. Women are front and center in the novel and in this admirable new film, ranging from muddled to heroic to malign. Hitchcock, however, cut down on the number of pivotal women characters, but felt obliged to pose others in their underwear and make tiresome and juvenile jokes about a maid changing her clothing. The first half hour of his movie feels like a sour attempt at a Groucho Marx movie and seems even goofier than what follows.
I thoroughly enjoyed Fiona Seres’s artful adaptation of The Wheel Spins, an unjustly neglected 1930s crime novel, and would watch it again any time. She’s written a splendid screenplay that’s subtle, exciting, and faithful to its source material in all the right ways. Maybe in time reviewers and others will be able to appreciate what she’s accomplished and not see it through the blurred lens of Hitchcock’s film. Meanwhile, if you haven’t read The Wheel Spins, I envy you the treat that lies ahead.
Lev Raphael is the author of seven Nick Hoffman mysteries set in the crazy world of academia, as well as seventeen other books in genres from memoir to Jane Austen mashup. His books have been translated into nearly a dozen languages, some of which he can’t recognize. But he has been able to do readings in German when he’s done book tours in Germany, thanks to a good tutor. Lev has been writing since he was in second grade and currently is a guest teacher of fiction writing, crime fiction, and Jewish-American Literature at Michigan State University. That university’s Library purchased his current and future literary papers for its Special Archives, carting off 93 boxes of all sorts of materials related to his long career. His attic is now navigable again.
For more about Lev’s books, check out his web site:http://www.levraphael.com.
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Read his book blogs at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lev-raphael/