This is one of Greene's 'entertainments'; he did not consider it worthy of the title of novel.
It is based around a journey on the Orient Express from Ostend to Constantinople. Carleton Myatt is a Jew who trades in currants; he is travelling to explore a proposed takeover of another firm. He meets Coral Musker, a dancer. Also on the train is the mysterious Doctor John who, though a doctor, is not what he seems.
At Cologne the train is joined by lesbian reporter Mabel Warren and her 'companion' Janet Pardoe. Miss Warren recognises Doctor John for what he is. A criminal on the run joins in Vienna. As the train travels into the Balkans a rebellion erupts with tragic consequences.
These characters are thrown together by chance for the journey. The plot brilliantly shows how they weave together and then untangle, although a knot or two are left. For the most part things are unresolved as they are in life: we rarely know what happens to those people that we meet in the course of our life.
Is it a thriller? It has all the characteristics of one but the quality of the prose life it head, shoulders, chest and waist above the normal thriller. Greene creates real characters with hopes and fears and purpose and pointlessness. His settings are luxuriously described: "small flakes of snow were falling; they were blown against the windows like steam." Even the action scenes are vividly described; even the minor characters have quirks and peculiarities and, in particular, inconsistencies that put flesh on their bones. This is writing of the highest order.
At the outset, I was slightly alienated because it is so very clearly of its time. Like many writers of the period, Greene assumes that physical characteristics encapsulate character. One person has fingers that show no "sign of acute sensibility. They were short, blunt and thick." This leads Greene on to what would now be regarded as racism. When one character asks "'ow did you know I was English?" the other replies that he is "always thinking the best of people." More seriously, the character of the Jew is portrayed as extremely mercenary and cunning; the predatory lesbian is ugly, cruel and mannish. And yet, Greene seems fully aware of the anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe that would, within months of publication, become a serous problem (the book was published in 1932; Nazi Germany's first laws persecuting Jews were enacted in 1933.) Myatt the Jew is a real human being whom we understand, though he is flawed. The lesbian report Miss Warren is more of a stock villain. In this, Greene reminds me of Shakespeare who could create the villain Shylock whilst still evoking sympathy for him.
This is a very good book indeed. September 2013; 216 pages
More Greene: if you liked Stamboul Train you will like The Ministry of Fear and you will love A Gun for Sale.
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57