This is one of Graham Greene's "entertainments", the term he used to describe those novels that he did not consider to be literary. It is, of course, entertaining but it has more literary value than Green believed. [amtap book:isbn=0099478366]
Set on the Orient Express, which was the title the book was given for its US publication, this is an atmospheric pre-war thriller that also feels surprisingly modern.
Greene said that he set out to write a book that would be turned into a film and it certainly feels that way when you read it. The opening, in which the passengers disembark at Ostend and make their way to the train, is so evocative that I felt as if I was watching it on screen - in black and white, naturally.
Coral Musker, a dancer, is on her way to a job in Istanbul. On the train she meets Myatt, a businessman whose potential business partner is in Istanbul. The pair begin a romance. Mabel Warren, a journalist, joins the train at Cologne to interview a novelist who is onboard. She becomes convinced that another passenger, Dr Czinner, is a Yugoslavian revolutionary who disappeared after a failed coup. She sets out to expose him. Finally, in Vienna, Josef Grunlich joins the train. He is a robber, on the run after killing a man in a raid that went wrong.
Greene weaves these characters together as the journey continues but their stories remain separate. In fact, the characters are seldom aware of each other's troubles.
Part of what is fascinating about this book is its portrayal of a world that is very different from ours, despite its relative recency. These days a trip on the Orient Express is a luxury holiday rather than a practical way of travelling and most of these passengers would have reached their destination in an hour or two on a budget airline flight. The Europe through which these characters travel would soon be torn apart by war. Dr Czinner's Yugoslavia has gone too.
Not that Greene would have known any of that when he wrote the book. His concern is with exploring loyalty, whether to a country, a professional partner, a lover or even to an idea. All of the characters are struggling with this in some way and their various problems illuminate different aspects of Greene's theme.
What makes the book feel literary - and also modern - is that Greene leaves several of these stories hanging. In fact, we don't even know where some of the characters are by the end. Having dealt with his theme, Greene ends the story. What happens to the characters is not his concern.