Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 2, 2021

Stamboul Train, by Graham Greene

My battered copy of Graham Greene’s first popular book Stamboul Train has been knocking about as a ‘handbag book’ for a while, but until my recent misadventures, I haven’t had much occasion to be in a waiting room.  Last night because my brain was like marshmallow from tiredness I put aside Jennifer Mill’s intriguing new novel The Airways and began again at the beginning of what I thought would be one of Greene’s undemanding ‘entertainments’.

Ha! Wrong again.  I think I finished it at about four o’clock in the morning, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

You can, if you want to, read a plot summary at Wikipedia, but though of course I don’t recommend that, I don’t think that knowing what happens would ruin the book.  It’s a novel about character, and it is a perfect example of something I read in Russian Roulette, Richard Greene’s bio in which GG cited a snippet from Browning’s long poem ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology‘ as an epigram for all his works:

Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist, demirep
That loves and saves her soul in new French books—
We watch while these in equilibrium keep
The giddy line midway…

In Stamboul Train the reader follows the giddy line midway as the train makes its way from Ostend to Constantinople (Istanbul).  The characters are introduced as they board the train after the ferry from England:  Carleton Myatt, en route to sort out a fraud on his business in Constantinople; the dancer Coral Musker, on her way to join yet another shabby show; Dr. Czinner, a Communist agitator who’s been hiding out in Britain as a schoolmaster but now aiming to lead a second attempt at revolution in Belgrade; and Q. Savory, a writer researching his next novel.  In Cologne the journalist Mabel Warren unexpectedly joins her lover Janet Pardoe on the train because she recognises Czinner and thinks she has a scoop.  Her plans are foiled by Grünlich who steals her bag (i.e. money and ID) when she briefly leaves the train in Vienna to phone her story through to London.

So, how do all these flawed people behave when the zealous (and disgracefully corrupt) police and military of Belgrade intervene in a heart-stopping (sleep-depriving) episode amid a snowstorm?  How do they juggle their own self-interests and their fidelity to others? And what do we think of them, when we see what they do?

By coincidence, I happened upon this article, The Value of Novels by expat author Gillian Bouras at Eureka Street.  She reminds us about Obama and the importance of reading fiction:

Obama, who has always found time to read (how?) then remarked that the ‘most important stuff’ he has ever learned came from novels; he went on to make the connection between the reading of novels and the concept of empathy. An obvious connection when you think about it, because novels are about imagined people living in places other than your own: thus they enable you, at best, to experience other minds and the inner lives of others, to imagine what it is like to walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins, as the nineteenth-century American poet Mary Torrans Lathrap put it. Nearer to our own time, novelist William Boyd says succinctly: ‘If you want to know what makes people tick, read a novel.’

I know I wasn’t able to hide my dismay when the ortho surgeon saw me reading Stamboul Train in the waiting room and announced that he hadn’t read a book for 30 years.  Any book.  If he had read just one each year, would he be a different person?

I just can’t imagine being in his moccasins…

Author: Graham Greene
Title: Stamboul Train (also published as Orient Express in the US)
Publisher: Penguin Books, 1967, first published 1932
ISBN: none, pbk., 220 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Salvos Stores for $2.00!


  1. I never understand why people who can read don’t. I have a couple of friends who read and that is all. My family aren’t readers and most friends would rather stream programs. How people like Obama find the time on top of their lives is interesting. They know not what they miss🤠🐧🎈


    • It’s amazing, isn’t it? When you think of the struggle to make literacy a human right around the world, to have people scorn it is just bizarre.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel the same. It has taken such a long time to develop this amazing system of writing and still so few are willing or even interested in exploring. I cannot understand for it has been an anchor in my life since first learning to read. I grew up in a house without books and the excitement at having my first library card can still remember.


    • I love that expression ‘an anchor in my life’. That’s true for me too:)


  3. I would be dismayed too – 30 years! I would have missed out on so much if I hadn’t read a book in the last 30 years. I hope he’s a good surgeon & able to help though Lisa.


    • Well, fortunately, I don’t need to have any surgery, it’s a neat and tidy break and he thinks the ligaments will sort themselves out without help.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Good news Lisa.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lisa, What a great choice as a handbag book. Graham Greene’s “entertainments'” are almost all fine novels driven by both plot and character. I have been a huge fan of Greene since my teen years and constantly revisit them and find new elements to enjoy. My suggestion for your next handbag book would be either “Travels with my Aunt” or “The Quiet American”, both excellent Greenes.
    Good to hear that you are on the mend.


    • Your suggestions are indeed fine ones, I’ve read them both, The Quiet American twice, I think…
      On my TBR (all sourced from OpShops) I have The Honorary Consul and also The Last Word and Other Stories, The Human Factor, The Third Man and The Fallen Idol, Monsignor Quixote and England Made Me. The only one of these not destined for the handbag *chuckle* is The Human Factor because it’s a hardback.
      These days everything gets published in large paperbacks which are admittedly easier to read, but they are a pain to carry around whereas the old orange Penguins are perfect.


      • The Human Factor is a very fine novel indeed – I reread it recently. I would strongly suggest moving it to the top of your list!


        • Thanks for the recommendation!


  6. Gillian Bouras? Long time since I’ve heard her mentioned, but I must read that article. And I must read more Greene, because he writes about an era that is so interesting. I love that epigraph, “the dangerous edge of things, the honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist….”

    PS you don’t need surgery do you?


    • I’ve read something by Bouras, I’ve just looked her up at Goodreads and I think it might have been A Foreign Wife. If I remember rightly it was a misery memoir, complaining about life in Greece when she migrated there to be with her husband.
      Yes, it’s a superb quotation because it gathers together what I like about good fiction: the complexity of human motivations and behaviour.
      (Surgery? The Ortho thinks not, but says arthritis is highly likely, and *sigh* the rehab expert has warned me that while the bone will heal in 6-8 weeks, the ligament will take months (plural). I’ve done a good job of it.


      • Yes, that’s the one I read, around the time I also read Farmer’s fiction on being a wife in Greece. I don’t recollect it being a misery memoir? I feel there was challenge but also warmth about Greek culture, though I have a feeling the marriage didn’t end up well? Hmmm, but wait!!! Looking at my reading list, I read A stranger here which is a novel about an expat living in Greece with her Greece husband. It’s autobiographical but fiction! I think I have A foreign wife on my TBR, but I don’t have my old TBR listed.

        Oh dear, it sounds like you have. :(


        • Whatever, it seems to have been a while since we’ve heard anything from her.
          But it’s a good article, and of course I agree wholeheartedly!

          Liked by 1 person

          • It does. I think she lived in London for a while but something I read – Wikipedia? Or somewhere else – suggested she’s back living in Greece. She was born in 1947.


          • Oh, and I’ve printed the article for reading later! (Clearly she’s still writing bits and pieces it seems.)


          • Oops I got confused with my research – Manne was born in ’47. She was born in ’45!

            Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow! I would literally die if I couldn’t read, so how he survived for 30 years…. As for the Greene, I read it quite a while back and loved it – he’s a wonderful author and I couldn’t put it down either. His so-called ‘entertainments’ are deeper than many people’s philosophy…


    • Yes… and another thing, he was really good at depicting class distinctions.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] On my bucket list is (a journey on the) Stamboul Train, by Graham Greene […]


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