When Agatha Christie published Murder on the Orient Express in 1934, she faced a dilemma regarding its title. Graham Greene had published a novel – what he somewhat dismissively called “an entertainment” – Stamboul Train in 1932 which had been published in the United States as Orient Express. A film of Greene’s novel, under its American title, was also released in 1934. In the United States, Christie’s novel therefore appeared under the different title, Murder in the Calais Coach, in an effort to avoid confusion between the two works.
The two novels are very different, with quite dissimilar objectives, and have perhaps only the setting on the Orient Express, in common. There would also, no doubt, be some overlap of readership though, as we shall see, the writers’ target audiences were somewhat distinct.
Fans of Golden Age detective fiction will no doubt be aware that Poirot takes the Orient Express from Istanbul for Calais and, ultimately, London. Greene’s novel sees the journey taking place in the opposite direction.
What also becomes apparent is that the trains in the two novels are in fact different variants of the Orient Express. As the map above shows, there were numerous routes taken by trains to and from Istanbul, connecting it with Paris and London. Christie has Poirot travel on the Simplon Orient Express which departs from Istanbul and travels via Belgrade and Venice to Paris, Calais and London via the Simplon tunnel, though, of course, it does not complete that journey before the murder takes place while the train is forced to a standstill by snowdrifts across the line in what is now Croatia between Vinkovci and Brod (marked on the map with “MotOE”) .
In contrast, Greene’s novel follows a route not shown on the map, from Ostende via Cologne to Vienna, joining the route shown on the map to continue via Budapest and Belgrade to Istanbul. The climax of the novel takes place close to the border between Hungary and what is now Serbia at the Subotica halt (marked on the map “ST”).
Both writers, therefore, chose to site their dramatic scenes (one cannot really refer to Greene’s novel having a denouement.in the sense that Christie’s murder mystery does) at the point on the journey where the travellers are passing through the northern Balkans. The area is perhaps perceived as being a lawless country beyond the norms of western European behaviour. Death and intrigue may take place here and the rule of law is subject to the corrupting influence of money.
That Christie, perhaps the most celebrated popular novelist of the era, with successes such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd already to her name, should have deferred to the little known Graham Greene with what was only his second mature novel, when choosing the American title for her book, indicates that she was aware of it and of its significance.
Certainly, in spite of the throw away label of “an entertainment” which Greene applied to it, his novel addresses more serious themes than does Christie. One of the principal characters is a Jewish merchant who reflects frequently on the treatment he receives at the hands of gentiles, culminating in a frightening encounter with a Yugoslav soldier, who is barely restrained from shooting him. The rich Jewish businessman, once out of the comfort and security of the affluent surroundings of the train, is brought face to face with the personification of the underlying anti-Semitic hatred which, he recognises, fuelled the pogroms. Ironically, he is able to distance himself from this by treating it as an anachronistic throwback to former times compared with his familiar western Europe. Yet the book was published barely a year before the rise to power of Hitler and the National Socialists in Germany which would all but annihilate Jews from much of the continent over which the Nazis ultimately gained control.
In another unconscious irony, Greene, has another passenger on the train be on a return journey to Yugoslavia where he hopes to lead a communist uprising against the government. However, due to an error in timing, the rising takes place before he arrives in the country and, possibly as a result of his absence from its head, fails, leading to the imposition of martial law in the country. Greene provides a sympathetic outline of the conditions of poverty and oppression which lead to the uprising but expresses doubt as to its ever having prospects of success with or without its figurehead. Certain biographical details of this character including foreign parentage coincidentally mirror the background of Joseph Tito who eventually led Yugoslavia as a communist state in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Greene, as a less well-known author, was also free from constraints which would apply to Christie. He was thus able to include an overtly lesbian character in a leading role and include her reflections on other women characters as potential sexual partners in a way that Christie could only touch on obliquely in her writings to avoid risking alienating her large and essentially conservative audience. In this respect, being perceived as a more serious writer, as distinct from a popular plotter, gave him greater licence.
A related freedom enjoyed by Greene, because he was not writing in the detective fiction genre, was that of presenting his characters’ inner thoughts. This without a doubt enables him to create fully rounded characters whose motivations and emotions are clear to the reader so that they are able to engage with them deeply. The writer of detective fiction must ensure that to a greater or lesser extent the motivations of his or her characters on the page are more or less obscured in order to sustain the puzzle. This makes the creation of fully developed characters significantly more difficult for the author and so they must rely on presentation of external clues to the interiors of their characters. These clues must be sufficiently recognisable that they may be seen as stereotypical leading to criticism that the writer creates only cardboard cut outs – two dimensional characters which lack the vitality of “better” writers. This accusation fundamentally misses the handicap under which detective fiction writers must perforce operate. Indeed, Christie is masterly in her use of such clues to the personality of her characters so as to either misdirect the too-casual reader or lead the more observant reader to make a more accurate guess at the solution.
The most striking contrast in approach between the two writers is, however, their treatment of the train. For Christie, the Orient Express is a hermetically sealed world of glamour, populated by exotic characters, rich Americans, an elderly exiled Russian princess, a “beautiful foreign-looking” young woman. It is a place into which the reader escapes from his or her humdrum exist ence to enjoy the thrill of the natural order being disturbed by that ultimate taboo – murder – in an atmosphere of suppressed or hidden passions.
Yet for Greene, the train, while also a sealed off world of its own, detached from the countries through which it passes, is a haven of normality. It is the outside which is threatening. Myatt, the businessman, spends the bulk of the journey in preparation for a difficult meeting concerning a potential takeover of a rival firm. He might be simply engaged in a long commuter journey – a state perhaps well known to many of the book’s audience for whom the train journey to and from work might be their opportunity to read. It is only when he is outside the safe confines of the train that he is confronted with danger. No-one dies aboard the train – any such drama takes place on the outside, in the exotic foreign locations. Any glamour attached to the train is debunked with his reflection that there is no point in buying expensive wines on the list since they would invariably be rendered inferior by the constant disturbance of the train’s motion.
How different this is from Christie, who, perhaps with tongue in cheek, and with, no doubt, a consciously ironic overlooking of Greene’s recently published novel, has a character in the restaurant car of the train say to Poirot, “If I had but the pen of a Balzac! I would depict this scene…you agree? It has not been done, I think? And yet it lends itself to romance, my friend.”
Postscript: I cannot let this opportunity pass without mentioning another fictional journey on the Orient Express taken some years later, in Ian Fleming’s 1957 novel From Russia With Love, which sees James Bond take the train from Istanbul accompanied by the glamourous Russian spy Tatiana Romanova. This cold war era, escapist thriller once again uses the lawless Balkans for the Russian agent to board the train but the climactic fight scene between him and Bond takes place while the train is in the Simplon tunnel (marked with an X on the map) – much further west. And I might add that in that novel, the train passes through Greece on a more southerly route than any shown – a necessary diversion to avoid passing through the Iron Curtain into Bulgaria as another portion of the train does, receiving only a passing mention in the book. Perhaps Fleming enjoyed his private joke when he name-checked Vinkovci and Brod as stations through which his secret agent travelled while on board, passing, for those of his readers who also shared a liking for Christie, the ghost of Poirot’s earlier train.