The ‘Orient Express’ You Think You Know But Probably Don’t
Did Agatha Christie Steal from Another Writer?
If you were to ask any ten people if they knew who wrote Orient Express, all ten would likely say, “Why Agatha Christie, of course.” And they’d be wrong.
That’s because two years after Graham Greene published Orient Express, the novel that put him on the map in 1932, Christie published a far more popular novel with a similar name. In the UK, there’d have been no confusion over the two. The original title of Greene’s book was Stamboul Train. It was only when his novel was published in the United States that its title was changed in 1934.
I’ve owned Orient Express for several years but only just got around to reading it. Still in brand new condition, it practically leapt off the shelf demanding to be read. This is one of the nice things about having actual books around. They whisper as you pass by to gather dishes or switch off the lamp.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy my eBooks in part because I can carry ten or twenty of them on a jet without having to pay extra for another bag. It’s also nice to look up an unfamiliar word by placing your finger on it. I mean, that’s cool. But once an eBook is stored away inside your eReader, it’s out of sight and mostly out of mind. It doesn’t jump off the shelf, reminding you of the day you made the purchase. The things that were going on in your life at the time. The reason you chose it in the first place. What you hoped to find between its covers. Demanding to be read… if not now, when?
Since Greene’s book was published first, I wondered if Christie had taken a rib from his novel to create her own. Did she believe, as Picasso did, that it’s alright to steal from another artist if you think you can do it better?
There is, for instance, a significant snow delay in both. Each involves a murder. Both include a diverse ensemble of characters. And there is a shared interest in foreign police to one degree or another as the train penetrates the east European hinterland.
But beyond those similarities — and the fact that both stories take place aboard a train — the two books are as unalike as Ice-T and Ice Cube.
Although some would argue that one of these Orient Express novels is superior to the other, I am not here to play that game. My purpose is to say simply that I was deeply affected by Greene’s novel. And I want to tell you why.
Reason Number One
Someone once approached author Annie Dillard and asked if he should become a writer. She answered, “I don’t know. Do you like sentences?”
Graham Greene must have loved them. There are sentences in Orient Express I read two or three times because they were so beautifully crafted. Some of the descriptions are breathtaking. This was Greene’s fourth novel. By the time he wrote it, he had sprinted well beyond those million bad words Neil Gaiman says every writer has to write before he finally knows how to write.
To my surprise, Greene called this book a mere “entertainment,” written to make money he hoped would come from a movie deal. In fact, it was made into a film in 1934, which the late Christopher Hitchens, in his introduction to my Penguin/Random House edition, described as “Greene’s worst filmic flop.”
The novel, however, is anything but. Looking back on the book forty years later, Greene felt it suffered too much from the Depression-era anxieties of the time, his own included. He was too poor to afford a ticket in the first-class compartment of the main Orient Express, the luxurious train between Calais and Istanbul, which is the subject of Agatha Christie’s novel. Instead he took a third-class seat on the Oostende-Vienna Orient Express, which ran from Oostend and Brussels via Frankfurt to Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, and beyond.
I think it was Henry James who once said a good writer doesn’t need to experience everything to get the whole story. Someone like Edith Wharton or Virginia Woolf, for instance, need go only to a landing on the stairs and peek through a slightly opened door to understand the complete picture. Add Graham Greene’s third-class seat to that category. I’d love to get a look at his notebook from that trip.
Reason Number Two
Six main characters are central to this story, supported by a seventh and several others who come and go as needed. Greene moves them around like the changing partners of a contra dance, pairing them one to another from the beginning to the end of the story. There’s the wealthy Jewish businessman. The communist schoolteacher doctor. The chorus girl. The lesbian journalist. Her fetching young lover. The murderer. And the nouveau riche cockney writer.
I have an idea of the slights suffered by a Depression-era Jew, despite his accomplishments, because they look very similar to the racism I’ve witnessed and experienced in my own life.
What I love about this diverse assemblage is that Greene gives each of them an inner life. They are not mere stereotypes. He’s gone to great lengths to record the doubts and insecurities that drive each of them. This is, after all, the Graham Greene whose first novel was called The Man Within. Although he later disavowed it for being too romantic, he remained preoccupied with humanity’s inner predicament throughout his career.
In Orient Express that inner life includes a reflective aspect in which Greene’s characters evaluate the decisions they make. Sometimes these reflections are mired in self-delusion and rationalization, revealing misplaced priorities or the myopic perspective of one’s profession or class. The murderer, for instance, congratulates himself on having never been caught. It’s part of his motivation. Killing someone in cold blood is practically an afterthought. Several of these characters are unlikeable at best. But I felt as if I understood them all.
While I will never be a lesbian, for instance, I know what it feels like to fear the loss of an intimate relationship. I have an idea of the slights suffered by a Depression-era Jew, despite his accomplishments, because they look very similar to the racism I’ve witnessed and experienced in my own life. I don’t know what it feels like to be a murderer, but I’m right there with him, leaping across rooftops, running down the street trying to escape the police. I’ve seen enough of life by now to recognize the posturing of a newly rich bestselling author trying to live down his working-class origins. I’m not a communist or a doctor, but I understand the isolation of the idealist and the loneliness of those exiled by education.
Greene lets us see the view from each character’s train-seat window. We see the snowy landscape they look at. We’re privy to their thoughts about the past, their current predicament, their dreams and schemes for the future. When we get to the end of the story, we know all about the deals, compromises, rationalizations, treachery and dashed hopes that have landed them there.
This is the main difference between novels that are plot-driven from those that are driven primarily by character. In a successful plot, we just want to know who did it, and we keep turning pages to find out. In a character-driven book, we keep reading because we discover something of ourselves in it. The secret parts hidden beneath the Instagram and Tinder photos. The truth behind the public lie. In Orient Express, Greene manages to give us both.
While some will argue that this is not really a spy thriller since there are no actual spies, it is certainly thrilling enough beyond a certain point. It’s a page-turner that kept me reading far into the night. Who can resist a death-defying high-speed car chase alongside a stalled train in the snow? Especially when the destination is love. Or something like it.
But if you’re looking for a Nora Ephron ending, you won’t find it here. There is no When Harry Met Sally moment here. No New Year’s Eve kiss. No chance meeting at the top of the Empire State Building. This is a story about whether to reach for those Happy Endings or not. What you get when you don’t. And what you take with you when you do.
Reason Number Three
These Four Quotes
As writer Matthew Thompson noted recently in Murder & Mayhem magazine, “ Graham Greene excelled at capturing the moral disquiet of the human heart and stands today as one of the twentieth century’s most perceptive writers.”
Even his so-called “entertainments,” the term he used to distinguish his serious literary work from his spy novels and thrillers are peppered with insights that rumble through the soul. Here are a few that jumped out for me as I turned the pages of Orient Express.
1. “The world was divided into those who thought and those who felt… those who thought forgot; but those who felt remembered….I am one of those, thought Miss Warren, her eyes filling with tears…I am one of those who love and remember always, who keep faith with the past in black dresses…I don’t forget.” (When I added this quote to Twitter, it was viewed 37 thousand times. Apparently, I’m not the only one for whom it resonated.)
2. “You put the small thief in prison, but the big thief lives in a palace.”
3. There is a similarity in the relationship between the confessor and the penitent and that between the psychoanalyst and the patient. There is, of course, this difference — that one claims to forgive the sins. But the difference is not after all very great. In the one case, the sins are said to be forgiven and the penitent leaves the confessional with a clear mind and the intention of making a fresh start; in the other the mere expression of the patient’s vices and the bringing to light of his unconscious motives in practicing them are said to remove the force of the desire. The patient leaves the psychoanalyst with the power, as well as the intention, of making a fresh start. From that point of view, confession to the psychoanalyst seems to be more efficacious than confession to the priest.”
4. “Intimacy with one person could do this — empty the world of friendships, give a distaste for women’s kisses and their bright chatter, make the ordinary world a little unreal and very uninteresting.”
As you can see if you’ve stayed with me this far, Graham Greene’s novel, whether you call it Orient Express or Stamboul Train, has made little or no impression on me. That’s why I refuse to return it to my bookshelf.
After I find a copy of the movie version to see for myself just how “bad” it is, I plan to read this novel again. Soon. Like love, I expect it to be even better the second time around.
Originally published at https://www.andrewhillbooks.com.