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: Title
The title is a reference to the name of the setting of the story, the Orient Express, which travels between Paris to Istanbul (‘Stanboul’ being an archaic spelling of Istanbul).
Using the name of the setting is a classic title archetype (see How to Choose a Title For Your Novel)
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.
(For more on loglines, see The Killogator Logline Formula)
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 and hoping to lead 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 he 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 expects her to sleep with him. Myatt has in fact acted from charity – he is really interested in the more beautiful Janet – but he decides 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, hoping to give 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, leaving Mabel 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 they discover, and Coral, who is unlucky enough to accept a letter from Dr Czinner just before he’s arrested.
Myatt doesn’t realise until later that the police have arrested Coral, 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 forms a kangaroo court to sentence Dr Czinner to death, Grünlich to jail, and Coral to be deported. The police detain the three prisoners in the station waiting room until the morning.
Myatt drives through the night, hoping to get back to the border and retrieve Coral before they repair the Orient Express and it resumes its journey…
Lost and Found
Grünlich [blackout] picks the lock of the waiting room and the three prisoners try to escape. During the escape, the police shoot Dr Czinner, but 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 plans to take Coral as her new companion to replace Janet, not realising that she is ill and possibly dying. Whether Coral 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 besotted with Janet and to have forgotten all about Coral.[/blackout]
(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)
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 being homosexual was illegal.
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 Dr 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 unscrupulous behaviour 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, “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
Graham Greene set Stamboul Train on the Oostende-Vienna Orient Express, not the main Orient Express, which went to Paris and Calais. He couldn’t afford to travel all the way to Constantinople, but bought a third class ticket for part of the journey, to sample the atmosphere. He based the rest of the setting on research in travel books.
Although critics describe Stamboul Train as a spy thriller, there aren’t any actual spies in it, and few thrills. Dr Czinner is a revolutionary, though we see nothing much of his revolutionary activities, and there’s a secret policeman, but Stamboul Train is not 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, with 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.
Want to Read it?
The novel is available on Amazon US here and Amazon UK here.
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