Graham Greene’s “Orient Express” (1932) is a mean-spirited book about human experience and condition, closer to Theodore Dreiser than to Evelyn Waugh, and not to be confused with Agatha Christie’s trip on the same train a couple of years later. In Greene’s book, the murders take place off the train. The writing technique shows the early influence of the cinema. A New York Times contemporary review from 1932 explains:
“Something of motion picture technique is used, with brief glimpses of the actions and thoughts now of one character, now of another, interspersed with the longer stretches of narrative.”NYT, March 12, 1933
The characters are drawn from stock and the plot from Naturalism. Film endings coming as they do only an hour or two into the story, are unexpected and stir the emotions of the audience. Yet the threads are there from the beginning, and the wall could have fallen only one way as brick by brick is pulled out.
I read the “Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition” (2004), with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens (“Hitch” to his friends), which I would not read because I don’t like reading introductions, at least not until I’ve finished the book, because, like movie trailers, they give too much away, and because I never cared much for Hitch. I almost did not buy the book when I saw that Hitch did the intro, but I did, rationalizing I didn’t need to read the intro. But I did, buy the book and read the intro – after finishing the book. All of which is nonsense, of course. And browsing through the reader reviews on Amazon, before deciding to click “buy now,” I found a curious and funny one from a guy who didn’t like the book’s physical format – the uncut pages and the folded end flaps of the cover – folded flaps that are like the book covers used on hardbacks. But I like these features, and the book has a nice heft and feel to its pages, which feel and look printed instead of photographed.
Hitch spends most of his intro worrying about Greene’s use of stereotypes and trying to arrive at some sort of apologia for Green’s alleged anti-semitism. But Greene was probably following his bent. “Orient Express” is really about Greene’s own human predicament: his place and fit in time and class and mood. The narrator is also on the train, trying to avoid its preordained lineal descent or ascent. Like Hitchcock’s brief appearance at the beginning of his films, Greene is the purser in his first paragraph:
“The purser took the last landing-card in his hand and watched the passengers cross the grey wet quay, over a wilderness of rails and points, round the corners of abandoned trucks.”3.
It’s a cracker of a book, crisp and salty, melts in your mouth, and leaves you wanting something with a bit of sugar in it.