Written as an “entertainment” as distinguished from serious works, Graham Greene’s 1932 novel, and arguably his first major literary success–it was made into a movie in 1934–lives up to its billing.
Stamboul Train unfolds over the course of a trip from Ostend to Istanbul, with the action worked into the train’s course between major relays where additional protagonists leap onto the train of love, lust, obligation, revolution, and theft. Unwittingly at the center of these schemes is Coral Musker, a poor chorus girl who took a job in Istanbul and could only afford a third-class ticket for the three day trip and caught cold and faints. She is helped out by Dr. Richard Czinner, a communist returning to Belgrade, and catches the eye of Carleton Myatt, a Jewish businessman who buys her a first-class sleeping cabin, in return, of course, for favors. In Cologne this troika is joined by Janet Pardoe, and almost by accident by Janet’s (jealous) partner, the lesbian journalist Mabel Warren who is sure she recognizes Czinner, who the rest of the world thinks is dead. At Vienna they are joined by Josef Grünlich, a thief seeking to escape detection.
The first part of each section is dedicated to events surrounding the station, including the individuals coming and going from the train before it picks up and heads into the ever-snowier east. This is not a mystery like the more-famous Agatha Christie novel and the actions and ambitions of each character are laid out quite plainly. Instead, there is banter as the characters try to deceive one another and the intrigues swirl as they each try to determine what their obligations to each other actually are. For instance, what does Coral owe Myatt for having paid for her to have an expensive room? What does Myatt owe Coral for effectively promising to take her on as his mistress (she isn’t Jewish, so she cannot be one he takes on as a wife)? What do Janet and Mabel owe each other and is the partnership replaceable? Does Mabel owe Czinner anything or should she angle simply for her front-page by-line? Does Grünlich have any loyalties?
Issues of class and money loom large. The the passengers on the train are divided by class, but the roots run deeper. In particular, Czinner is a communist revolutionary indulging in expensive tickets on this journey and Myatt is a wealthy businessman who can afford to throw around money in order to draw women to him and yet he is subject to insult on the grounds that he is Jewish.
Stamboul Train was a pleasant and quick read, but, beneath the snappy exterior, the novel has a grim message. The conductors are totalitarian, the world is burning while the train hurtles along, the good and innocent are utterly at the mercy of those with money and largely without morals. It is an entertainment, but Greene sells it short by distinguishing it thusly.