Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Orient Express by Graham Greene: More Murders But Fewer Mustaches Than Agatha Christie


Over the past weekend we took a mini-break to Paris, which is in theory only three hours away by high-speed train. Unfortunately a technical problem cause our train to stop a mere 10 kilometers away from the station. After much radioing and banging and conductors walking back and forth, a backup train had to come out and literally drag our train into the station, causing our arrival to delay by nearly four hours -- at three a.m. instead of the more reasonable 11 p.m. !! Seriously, I probably could have walked to the station in the time it took. Not fun.

It was especially ironic since my choice of reading material for the trip was Graham Greene's novella Orient Express. I'd chosen it because I thought it would be fun to read a book set on a train while actually riding a train. Not so funny at the time, however. Ultimately, we did have a good trip and I did enjoy the book. (I'll post photos from the mini-break later this week).

Set between the wars, Orient Express is of course about a group of disparate characters who get to know one another while on the three-day journey from Ostend, Belgium to Istanbul; ultimately, the trip changes the lives of all of them, for good and for bad. The major characters include Coral Musker, an English chorus girl; Carleton Myatt, a wealthy Jewish businessman; Dr. Richard John, a British doctor with a mysterious past; an aggressive journalist named Mabel Warren with her companion Janet Pardoe; and a German robber named Josef Grundlich.

Greene does an excellent job of showing just how a small incident can connect these people and how this will change the direction of their entire lives. Coral, the chorus girl, falls ill and Myatt gallantly offers her his first-class sleeper cabin, and he asks Dr. John to assist her. The journalist Mabel Warren had come to see Janet off for a holiday, but recognizes Dr. John, and boards the train at the last minute, hoping for a scoop that will become the story of a lifetime. Greene weaves all the characters together with a plot that doesn't seem at all contrived or forced, and the writing is really wonderful. He's really good at describing scenes and character's inner thoughts without the writing getting too flowery.


I also found it very interesting that Greene tackled anti-Semitism in a time when it was so prevalent. He also touches on Communism, revolution, and is pretty open about a lesbian relationship between Mabel Warren and Janet Pardoe, which I found surprising considering it was published in the 1930s. Of course the book shifts the focus between the characters, but I much preferred the relationships between the people over the a subplot about political drama, but then political thrillers have never really been my genre. Also, I wish it had been longer, as it got even more interesting at the end and I would have liked to learn more about what happened to everyone.

I'd always wanted to read this because I love Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, my favorite mystery of all time. If you are interested in this book because the title is nearly the same as Christie's, you may be disappointed. Both books are written and set in the 1930s, and both take place on the Orient Express with disparate characters thrown together -- that's to be expected in a story set on a train -- but that's the end of the similarity. There are two murders, but they both take place off the train, and there's no mystery about them, and certainly no detective like Hercule Poirot. This could even go so far as to be called a crime classic (I did think briefly about using this for the crime classic category in the Back to the Classics Challenge, but I still want to use one of my British Library Crime Classics for that one). Also, Greene's novel begins in Ostend, Belgium, and travels east to Istanbul; Christie's novel starts in Istanbul and travels to Calais, France. Greene's novel was originally titled Stamboul Train and there is a very interesting explanation about the similar names here.

I'm counting this as my Classic Journey Narrative for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

6 comments:

  1. That sounds like a nightmare trip opener, and yes, you could have definitely walked that in about half the time at a leisurely pace! How frustrating!! I hope the rest of the trip was much improved!

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    1. It was pretty awful. Not as bad as being stuck on an airplane, but still frustrating, we were all really tired the first day. Of course they couldn't just let us get off in the middle of the night and walk there -- was no way to get us safely off the train with no platform, and I have no idea what neighborhood we were in! They did have scores of taxis waiting for us at the station, (260 passengers on the train) and gave us passes for free taxi rides. I don't think any airline would have done the same. We might also be able to get a partial refund on the fares.

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  2. Oof! Sorry about the travel hiccups! How frustrating.

    So funny that we both read this title for this category. I agree, Greene could have gone on a bit further with the story. In particular, I would have liked to know where Carol ended up.

    Interesting too your comparison to the Agatha Christie Classic. The train in the Greene novel seemed decidedly less luxurious (everyone seemed to be cold all the time!) than the one in the Christie classic mystery.

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    1. There are always hiccups when you travel. It could have been worse. Trains are far more comfortable than airplanes!

      I hadn't noticed that about the train luxury. You're right, they didn't mention being cold in the Christie novel, or in the movies. In the latest adaptation there's a bit were they all get out and sit in a tunnel, and Michele Pfeiffer's character is wearing hiking boots with her dress which I found odd. And I do wonder about Carol. I have my suspicions.

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  3. Frustrating journey but it makes for an amusing story! Interesting to compare two books written about the Orient Express at the same time. I've not read Greene for years and still not read the Agatha Christie classic. Must do that this year.

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  4. I have yet to read my first Graham Greene but I'll put this on the list once I get going. It sounds like I would like it!

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