Stamboul Train (Orient Express): Book Review
Stamboul Train (entitled Orient Express in the USA) was written by Graham Greene and published in 1932. It was his first commercial success, making his name.
Stamboul Train: Logline
A chorus line dancer and a business man begin an affair on the Orient Express, but when the Yugoslavian secret police arrest the dancer, the businessman has to decide what he is prepared to sacrifice to save her.
Stamboul Train: Plot Summary
Warning: My plot summaries contain spoilers The major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s the nineteen-thirties. The Orient Express leaves Ostend, heading to Cologne, Vienna, and Constantinople. In second class is Coral Musker, a plain, poor and sickly dancer travelling to a chorus line job in Constantinople. In first-class is Carleton Myatt, an affluent businessman travelling to Constantinople for takeover negotiations.
Also travelling in second class, incognito, is Dr. Czinner, a communist leader, returning to Belgrade after years of exile in the hope of leading a revolution.
Mabel Warren is an alcoholic journalist who joins the train in Cologne in the hope of a ‘scoop’ after she recognises Dr. Czinner. Mabel is travelling with her paid companion, Janet Pardoe, with whom she is in, perhaps unrequited, love. Myatt sees Janet and finds her very attractive but doesn’t dare to speak to her.
Myatt takes pity on Coral who has a fainting spell in the cramped second class carriage. He lets her sleep in his first class berth, while he sleeps in the corridor. Then he buys her a first class ticket of her own. Coral assumes Myatt has ‘bought’ her with the gift and she is obliged to sleep with him. Myatt has in fact acted from charity – he is really interested in the more beautiful Janet. But when Coral mentions her presumed obligation, he decides that Coral is ‘easy to talk to’ and they spend more time together.
The Orient Express arrives in Vienna. Dr. Czinner pretends to leave the train at in the hope of giving Mabel the slip.
Josef Grünlich is a thief in Vienna. He kills a man during a bungled robbery, and runs for the station hoping to stay ahead of the police.
Mabel phones her newspaper from the station to tell them of her scoop about Dr. Czinner. Grünlich steals Mabel’s bag while she is telephoning. It contains her ticket and money and so Grünlich boards the train and Mabel is stranded.
Coral spends the night with Myatt in his compartment. They make plans for Coral to become Myatt’s mistress when they get to Constantinople.
The Yugoslavian police arrest Dr. Czinner at the border, along with Grünlich, whose gun is discovered, and Coral, who is unlucky enough to take a letter from Dr. Czinner just before he’s arrested.
Myatt doesn’t realise until later that Coral has been arrested, but the Orient Express breaks down, giving him time to hire a car and go back for her.
The Chief of the Secret Police arrives and holds a kangaroo court. Dr. Czinner is sentenced to death. Grünlich is jailed, and Coral is sentenced to be deported. The three prisoners are detained in the station waiting room for the night.
Myatt drives through the night, hoping to get back to the border and retrieve Coral before the Orient Express is repaired and resumes its journey.
Grünlich picks the lock of the waiting room and the three prisoners try to escape…
Dr. Czinner[blackout] is shot and Coral helps him hide in a barn. Grünlich escapes in Myatt’s car, telling him Coral was not with him. Coral hears the car but feels unable to leave the dying Dr. Czinner. Myatt and Grünlich return to the Orient Express.[/blackout]
Dr. Czinner [blackout]dies during the night and soldiers find Coral in the barn crying over his body. They are going to arrest her again, but Mabel arrives by car and rescues her. Mabel seems to have decided to take Coral as her new companion to replace Janet. Unnoticed by Mabel, Coral is ill and possibly dying. Whether she actually dies, or survives in Mabel’s care, isn’t clear.[/blackout]
The Orient Express[blackout] finally arrives at Constantinople, and Myatt gets off. He takes up with Mabel’s ex-companion, Janet, who turns out to be the niece of his business partner. He invites Janet to dinner, where they see Grünlich. Myatt appears to have forgotten all about Coral and be besotted with Janet.[/blackout]
Stamboul Train: Analysis
The protagonists in Stamboul Train are all outsiders to the society of the thirties. Coral is plain at a time when a woman’s worth was her beauty. Myatt is Jewish in an anti-Semitic Europe. Dr. Czinner is a communist revolutionary. Grünlich is a criminal and murderer. Mabel is an alcoholic, and a lesbian at a time when homosexuality was not accepted.
Stamboul Train doesn’t offer a happy ending. What it does have is realistic characters and realistic consequences. Greed and selfishness lead the two least sympathetic characters, Myatt and Grünlich, to the best outcomes. The most sympathetic and selfless characters, Coral, and Doctor Czinner have the worst endings.
Grünlich is nothing short of the antagonist, causing most of the problems for the other characters with his amoral actions. He faces no consequences for his actions, and is last seen taking in the sights of Constantinople.
The love affair between Myatt and Coral is also not romantic. Myatt is only marginally attracted to Coral. Even when he realises he can have her he hesitates, drawn to her more from empathy than passion.
Coral is very conscious that she is not much of a catch. She describes herself as ‘A girl that men forget.’ Her brief moment of happiness with Myatt is when she thinks that perhaps “I have a life in people’s minds when I am not there to be seen or talked to’.
Of course being forgotten is exactly what happens to her. Myatt makes a half-hearted attempt to rescue her and then moves on without a backward glance, delighted to discover the more beautiful Janet might be available to him.
The Orient Express
Stamboul Train is actually set on the Oostende-Vienna Orient Express, not the main Orient Express, which went to Paris and Calais. Graham Greene couldn’t afford to travel all the way to Constantinople on the Orient Express, but did buy a third class ticket for part of the journey, to sample the atmosphere. He based the rest on research in travel books.
Although Stamboul Train is described as a spy thriller, there aren’t any actual spies in it, and not many thrills. Dr Czinner is a revolutionary, though we see nothing much of his revolutionary activities, and there is a secret policeman. But this is not really a spy thriller in the usual sense of the word. The only thriller element is the race against time as Myatt tries to get back to the border to rescue Coral.
What Stamboul Train does have is superb writing, great characterisation, masses of atmosphere and beautiful descriptions. It’s worth reading for the quality of the writing alone.
Stamboul Train: The Movie
Stamboul Train was filmed as Orient Express in 1934 starring Heather Angel as Coral. It doesn’t seem to be available.
Stamboul Train: Alternative Cover
A simple cover this, just the tracks and a hint of an onrushing train. The starkness suits the downbeat novel though.
Stamboul Train: My Verdict
Beautifully written and great characters. A sad and realistic story with no easy answers or happy endings.
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