I was going through withdrawal, so I thought it was high time for a return to Greeneland.
After his first moderate success with The Man Within, Greene wrote two other novels which he thought were so bad that he consistently refused permission for them to be reprinted. After this failure, suffering from a shortage of money during the early days of the world wide Depression, Greene set out to write a popular pot boiler.
The result was Stamboul Train: An Entertainment published in 1932 (published in the United States in 1933 as Orient Express). This was the first book which Greene labeled “an entertainment” to distinguish it from what he felt was his serious fiction.
As the title implies, Stamboul Train is a thriller about a group of travelers aboard the Orient Express which ran across Europe from the English Channel to Istanbul, Turkey. The descriptions of Istanbul are based upon a visit which Greene once made during a vacation cruise. Short on funds, Greene could not afford to make the full trip aboard the Orient Express but bought a third class ticket for the trip across France. At the German border, he was granted a free pass to Cologne
As an ensemble piece, Greene invented a diverse group of characters. Coral Musker is a dancer in her late teens or early twenties who is traveling to Istanbul to take a job as show girl. Carleton Myatt is an Jewish businessman. Dr. Richard Czinner is a Yugoslav Communist Revolutionary who has been living in hiding in England and is making his way back to his home country to foment revolution. Mabel Warren is an English reporter stationed in Germany. Janet Pardoe is Warren’s paid companion and lesbian lover. Josef Grunlich is an Austrian thief who is fleeing after killing a man in a bungled burglary attempt.
This book is full of the stereotypes and attitudes of the early 1930s. Myatt is described in unflattering anti-semitic terms throughout the book. Mabel Warren is the stereotypical predatory masculine lesbian with an unsatiable desire for pretty young girls. Dr. Czinner is the proverbial radical intellectual. The really chilling thing about reading this book was Greene’s editorializing, on the eve of the Holocaust, that Western Europe was now enlightened and above hatred of Jews which was sure to be a thing of the past.
The plot in a nutshell: (WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS!):
The wealthy Jewish businessman Myatt has a stateroom all to himself. When the attractive young Coral Musker, who could only afford to travel second class, falls ill, Myatt purchases her a first class ticket and allows her to sleep in his compartment. In gratitude, Coral loses her virginity to Musker the next night. Musker actually falls in love with Coral, however, and plans to set her up as his full time mistress. (After all, a rich Jewish boy like this can’t be expected to marry a lower class girl like Coral).
Mabel Warren is escorting her lesbian lover Janet Pardoe to the train station where Pardoe is to take the Orient Express to meet her aunt and uncle in Constantinople. When Warren finds out that the popular novelist Quin Savory is traveling on the Orient Express, she uses her press pass to get on board. Warren loses interest in interviewing Savory when she recognizes Yugoslav Communist leader Dr. Richard Czinner. Czinner, who is a wanted criminal in his own country, has been in hiding in England and is traveling under an assumed name. Warren discovers that Czinner is headed back to Belgrade to lead a revolt. After crossing the German frontier it is discovered that Czinner’s fellow Communists launched the revolt early and have been defeated. Warren also decides to try to make Coral Musker her new lover.
Leaving the train in Vienna to call in her story to her paper, Warren’s handbag is stolen by Grunlich who is fleeing from the police after murdering a man during a burglary. Grunlich then uses Warren’s money to buy a ticket and board the Orient Express. Having no money and no ticket, Warren is not allowed to reboard the train.
Meanwhile, the Yugoslav authorities have gotten word that Dr. Czinner is on the Orient Express. At the frontier, the Yugoslavian Army stops the train and arrests Czinner. They also arrest Grunlich for carrying a gun and poor Coral Myatt for conspiracy because she is carrying a message which she was handed by Czinner just prior to his capture.
After a summary court martial, Dr. Czinner is sentenced to death, Grunlich is sentenced to one month in prison, and Coral Myatt is ordered to be deported back to Britain. Myatt, in love with Coral, gets off the train and hires a car to take him back to the border to look for her. Grunlich, Coral and Dr. Czinner manage to escape but Dr. Czinner is shot. Coral drags Dr. Czinner into a storage shed where he eventually dies. Grunlich is rescued by Myatt and denies that he knows anything about the whereabouts of Coral. In despair, Myatt rejoins the train and continues on to Constantinople.
Coral is eventually rescued from the Yugoslav Army by the timely arrival of Mabel Warren. Coral, who apparently had a weak heart, collapses from exhaustion and is last seen lying in the back seat of a car being taken care of by Mabel. Unless she dies from her heart trouble, we can only assume that Coral now has the honor of taking Janet Pardoe’s place as Mabel’s “companion.”
Arriving in Constantinople, Myatt discovers that Janet Pardoe, who is half Jewish, is the niece of his new business partner. Although she had started a relationship on board the train with the novelist Savory, by the end of the novel, Myatt has come to an understanding with Janet's uncle for an arranged marriage with Janet which she is happy to accept. The End.
If that summary seems really sappy, let me assure you that Stamboul Train/Orient Express is a lot better than it sounds like it should be. After all, this is a Graham Greene novel and Greene is a master story teller. The book is very well written and well plotted and holds the readers' attention from start to finish. We even see glimpses of the “Catholic novelist” who is yet to come. There is a fairly lengthy section where Dr. Czinner, the now Communist and Atheist, remembers his Catholic boyhood and regrets the loss of his religious faith. There is a very humorous section where, knowing that he is about to be killed, Dr.Czinner wishes to go to confession. Seeing an Anglican Minister wearing a clerical collar, Dr. Czinner seeks to confess his sins to him, but all the Protestant Minister, Mr. Opie, can talk about is Cricket and Freudian psychology.
Stamboul Train became a best seller and saved Greene’s career as a writer.** Although it is 78 years old, like all of Greene’s novels this is entertaining and has to rank as a classic.
Coming Soon: The Eclectic Reader’s next stop in Greeneland will be Greene’s 1934 political drama It's a Battlefield.
*Carpenter, Humphrey. The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and His Friends (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990) p. 227.
** Ibid. P. 228.