Stamboul Train by Graham Greene (1932) 197 p.
Where did I pick up the notion that it was a good idea to at least try to read an author’s books from beginning to end – even if they’re not connected, just so you can get an impression of the author’s growth? I think it was Gun With Occasional Music, though that was mostly just because I liked the sound of it. Most writers, naturally, take a while to grow into their style, and don’t produce their best works until later in their career. Graham Greene, in any case, doesn’t make it easy for the modern reader working back over the English canon: not only were his books divided into “serious” novels and “entertainments,” but he was apparently not particularly fond of his debut, The Man Within, and hated his next two (The Name of Action and Rumour at Nightfall) so much that he refused to allow them to be republished. So we begin with Stamboul Train, his fourth novel but the first to gain any real traction; the faintest hint of a mention in his bibliography.
It’s not particularly good – or at least, I didn’t enjoy it. It follows the fortunes of a mixed bag of travellers (a journalist, a dancer, a novelist, a Jewish business magnate, a Serbian communist revolutionary) as they travel by express train from Ostend in the Netherlands to Istanbul in Turkey. Really, that should have been right up my alley: political intrigue, a train journey, Europe in interwar period, shades of the hugely underrated video game The Last Express. (Which, obviously, horse before the cart.)
But I found myself unenthused by it, and halfway through it became one of those novels where I was no longer waiting for it to grab me, and instead counting the number of pages left until it was finished. But does that matter, really, when Greene is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and I’ve never heard anybody mention Stamboul Train as one of his better novels? Probably not. It may be time to stop trying a new author with their first works, unless they sound particularly compelling.