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Graham Greene: Stamboul Train (US: The Orient Express)

Greene labelled this work an entertainment and later said that he expressly wrote it to make money, hoping that it would be made into a film, which it was. It is a pretty good story and it is easy to see why it helped make Greene’s reputation. It takes a traditional plot, namely a group of passengers on a long train journey, all of whom have somewhat interesting pasts. Unlike Agatha Christie‘s far better-known Murder on the Orient Express, published two years later, no-one is murdered on the train, though a couple of deaths do take place away from the train. However, the Orient Express journey from Ostend to Istanbul still provides plenty of action.

We join the train at the start of its journey, in Ostend, and follow seven characters, four who get on at Ostend and three later. Carleton Myatt is a Jewish currant trader, headed for Istanbul, where there seems to be problem with the agent of his firm. Myatt is subject to anti-Semitism throughout the journey, not least from Greene himself. He meets Coral Musker, who works as a vaudeville dancer and who is heading out to a job with Dunn’s Babies, also in Istanbul. She is ill and Myatt helps her and even pays for a ticket upgrade for her. In the short space of time of the journey, she goes from being somewhat suspicious of him, not least because he is Jewish, to sleeping with him. When she has difficulties later in Yugoslavia, he makes an effort to rescue her. A relatively minor character is the writer, Mr. Q C Savory, a professional Cockney, who has had success with a novel and now is travelling out East, where he is to set his next novel, seen through the eyes of a London tobacconist. It has been alleged, not least by Priestley himself, that the character was based on J B Priestley. Finally, there is Dr. John, a teacher from a boys’ school, who is soon unmasked as Dr. Czinner (presumably pronounced, at least by Greene, as sinner). Czinner had escaped from Belgrade five years ago, after a trial in which he was alleged to have perjured himself. He is of left-wing views and is clearly attempting to join his colleagues for a revolution but is too late, as the failed revolution takes place before he arrives.

Czinner is unmasked by Mabel Warren, a journalist who lives in Cologne with her Lesbian friend Janet Pardoe. Pardoe was planning to travel to Istanbul (as we later learn, to meet her guardian). Warren was not planning to travel but when she sees and recognises Czinner, as she had covered the trial where he allegedly perjured himself, she realizes that there is a big story and joins the train with her companion. Our final passenger is Josef Grünlich, a professional thief, who had just murdered a man in Vienna in a failed burglary attempt and joins the train to escape justice. As he does not have enough money for the ticket – what money he has has fallen out of a hole in his pocket – he steals Mabel Warren’s bag, meaning that she has to stay in Vienna. With Warren’s story blowing Czinner’s cover, everything starts to unravel and, while some of the passengers do make it safely to Istanbul, others do not.

Greene of course, tells a gripping story with all sorts of dirty deeds going on and is certainly true to his aim of giving us a commercially successful yarn. As he will do in later books, he also shows us that the rest of the world is fascinating, if only because of a chaotic political situation and an attractive sense of mystery, whether it is well-known places such as Vienna or Istanbul, or places which most of us have never heard of, such as Subotica, where a key part of the action takes place. All the characters are linked by a sense of not being quite secure in their positions, whether in their relationships, their professional life or in their broader roles in life. Their struggles will be mirrored in many of his later novels.

Publishing history

First published 1932 by Heinemann