Waking up on the Orient Express with the Wrong Wife

A fraught journey by train in the 1930s; an engaging thriller with one wife too many; and a great debut Australian crime novel.

Issue #58, Saturday 20 January 2024


My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

As I mentioned last issue, my New Year’s Resolution for 2024 is to try to read a good number of the books I have purchased but have had sitting on my shelves for a long while unread.

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

Cover of Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

Graham Greene is one of those well-regarded authors whose work I have been meaning to read for years but have somehow never got around to it. I’ve had a Heinemann/Octopus omnibus volume¹These were a great bargain when they came out. I have similar omnibus volumes for Thomas Mann, H. G. Wells and John Wyndham. The Wells and Wyndham have been well-used, but I don’t think I’ve cracked open the Thomas Mann (though I’ve read other works by that author, notably Joseph and His Brothers). of his more-well-known novels on my shelf unread since 1980! So as part of my New Year’s Resolution I decided to pick it up and make a start.

I chose Stamboul Train out of the omnibus simply because it’s the earliest novel included in it. This novel, published in 1932, was the first commercially successful work by Greene (he apparently disowned his two previous novels).

Stamboul Train follows a variety of characters who board the Istanbul Express in Ostend, Belgium. After they set off, the train for a while effectively becomes its own world to the passengers, distinct from the normal world which rapidly passes by the windows.

One of the passengers is Carleton Myatt, a wealthy Jewish businessman heading for Istanbul to sort out a problem with his family’s business there. I mention his Jewishness only because in the book it’s something Myatt is constantly dwelling on in his own mind, and because it impacts his relationships with other characters. While Greene doesn’t make Myatt a particularly sympathetic character, I wouldn’t call the book anti-semitic. On the contrary, it’s interesting to see Myatt’s reactions to the not-infrequent anti-semitism directed towards him. This of course, is a few years before the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.

Also boarding at Ostend is a young woman, Coral Musker. She’s a chorus girl, heading for an engagement at a theatre in Istanbul. But she is too poor to afford a sleeper compartment on the train, and so plans to sit up for the three or four days travel. When she faints from cold and lack of sleep on the journey, Myatt comes to her assistance and insists that she take his sleeper compartment for the night while he sleeps in the corridor. Though they have a brief liaison, and she declares that she is in love with him, he on the other hand feels mostly pity for her. He finds her mildly attractive and considers making her his mistress, but his heart is not really engaged.

Another major character, whose presence turns out to have an outsize impact on the story, is Dr. Czinner, an elderly man who we discover is travelling under on a false passport. He turns out to be a Communist returning to his home town of Belgrade in Serbia, intent on leading a revolution there. Some years ago, he had escaped Belgrade before he could be imprisoned for similar activities. Tragic events occur when Dr. Czinner’s journey is discovered, and the Serbian authorities move to intercept him.

I enjoyed this book. Though it doesn’t have a complicated plot, the story is nevertheless engaging and occasionally exciting. I also found it interesting how Greene manages to make a number of unattractive characters on the train come to life, letting us see things from their point of view even while arousing in us no sympathy towards their actions. These would include: Mabel Warren, an unscrupulous journalist who is responsible for identifying Dr. Czinner and revealing his journey in a telegraphed story for her paper; Josef Grünlich, a thief who has murdered a man in Vienna; and particularly Carleton Myatt, whose head for business easily overrules his heart, and who quickly (though to his credit not immediately) forgets his brief liaison with poor Coral Musker.

I’m definitely planning to work my way through my Graham Greene omnibus over the next year or so. Sadly, it doesn’t include Travels With My Aunt, which I’ll have to find elsewhere.

The Other Wife by Michael Robotham

Cover of The Other Wife by by Michael Robotham

This one has only been on my bookshelf unread for a mere six years!

The Other Wife is part of Robotham’s long-running series featuring Joe O’Loughlin, a clinical psychologist with slow-developing Parkinson’s Disease. The series began in 2004.²In the first book in the series, The Suspect, O’Loughlin himself had to go on the run as he became the prime suspect in the murder of a young woman, a crime of which he was of course innocent. Published in 2018, this one is the ninth in that series, and it looks as though it might be the last, as Robotham was gone on to develop a new series featuring yet another psychologist called Cyrus Haven.

In The Other Wife, O’Loughlin gets a call from a hospital in Paddington. Joe’s father William, a top surgeon and a rather remote, judgemental figure during Joe’s childhood, has been found after a fall down a flight of stairs and is in the ICU. He’s told that his mother is already with him. When Joe rushes to see his father, however, his mother isn’t there. Instead, there’s a woman by his father’s side who he has never seen before. When he asks her who she is, she claims to be William’s wife, and says that she’s been with him for 20 years.

Joe realises in a series of shocks that he didn’t know or understand his father at all. And he also has to radically re-assess his knowledge of his mother, Mary. His father is in a medically-induced coma and can’t explain. Worse, it’s clear that his father’s injuries are not simply those of a fall. He has suffered many severe blows to his head by someone obviously intent on killing him. Who? Why? To say that complications ensue is an understatement. The complications absolutely proliferate, and Joe is bewildered. Naturally he takes it on himself to discover what has been going on and who wanted his father dead, despite being warned off by the detective in charge of the official police investigation.

What makes these Robotham novels stand out from the typical pack of crime novels is that they have a great deal of human interest, and the characters have considerable depth. Joe O’Loughlin has two daughters: the oldest, Charlie, studying at Oxford; the younger one, Emma, 12 years old, just started at secondary school. The girl’s mother, from whom Joe was separated some time ago,³As a consequence of the events in the novel Shattered. died tragically and unexpectedly sixteen months before the start of this novel. Joe and both his girls are struggling to cope with her loss, but none of them more than young Emma. Her travails run throughout this book, and you are really made to feel for her and for Joe’s efforts to keep his family together and safe. These efforts are frequently undermined by his tendency to get involved in criminal investigations and violent confrontations, as certainly happens in The Other Wife.

As a minor criticism, I’m getting a little tired of Joe’s old friend, the ex-cop Vincent Ruiz, coming to Joe’s rescue in almost every book, sometimes with a bit of a deus ex machina feel to it. That said, Ruiz is a very interesting character in himself, and there are a couple of (very good) Robotham novels featuring him as the protagonist.

Currently Reading

Covers of A History of the Bible by John Barton, Exactly by Simon Winchester (audiobook version) and An Atomic Phantasy by Karel Čapek

Want to Read

Cover of The Book of Elsewhere by Keanu Reeves and China Miéville

More information here.

A Lost Review

In putting together the indexes for my new website here at biblioscope.org, I discovered that over the years there were a couple of books which I had definitely intended to review in this newsletter but so far as I can determine never did. So this is my opportunity to provide them to you. This issue I’ll give you:

Wake by Shelley Burr

Cover of Wake by Shelley Burr

Read in August 2022

This is a terrific debut crime novel by an Australian author.

It opens with a woman called Mina McCreery doing some grocery shopping in a small town in rural NSW when she notices a stranger in the store who is paying her a great deal of attention. Strangers are rare: the town is out of the way and few travellers stop to buy things at the tiny general store. Uncomfortable, she heads out quickly, but he catches up with her in the street.

She has a good idea what it will be about. At best it will be a journalist trying to get an interview for a story for the 20th anniversary of the mysterious abduction of Mina’s twin sister, Evie, at the age of 10. At worst it may be a random individual who has been reading about the case on the Internet and wants to try out their pet theory, or worse still, accuse Mina herself of some part in the crime.

The case created a sensation at the time because Evie disappeared at night from the girls’ shared bedroom, with no sign of a break-in, no fingerprints, no unusual tyre marks around their remote property. The case is still unsolved.

The stranger shadowing Mina in the store, however, turns out to be neither a journalist nor an Internet-inspired pest. His name is Lane Holland and he says he’s a private investigator who has had success in cracking cold cases. In point of fact, he hopes to solve old cases in order to earn the reward. There’s a $2 million reward outstanding on the Evie McCreery case.

Mina harshly rejects his offer to look into the case, and she drives off in anger. Eventually, though, through the influence of a friend who has also lost a sister, she’s persuaded to work with Holland.

Through the book, Mina’s point of view alternates with that of Lane Holland, and we gradually start to understand that there are complexities to him: he’s not just a bounty hunter, but there’s something driving him to solve this particular case. Though he’s made money this way in the past, he’s now nearly broke and desperate, and he’s deeply worried about the well-being of his much younger sister Lynnie, about to start as a student at the ANU in Canberra.

So there are two mysteries: firstly the original case as to what happened to Evie McCreery; and secondly why Lane is so emotionally invested in its solution. The author handles the slow development of answers to these mysteries in a very assured way.

A clever technique used in the book is the inclusion of excerpts from a Reddit-like forum of people obsessed with cold cases, and the arguments back and forth between the participants, coming up with exotic theories about who abducted Evie and more importantly how. Evie’s father and the residential farm manager are not suspected because they could prove that they were both away from home at the time on separate business trips to Sydney and Adelaide. Many posters therefore accuse Mina’s mother or the wife of the farm manager or even Mina herself (though of course she was only ten years old at the time).

The closing chapters go in an unexpected direction and lead to a shattering conclusion, and a resolution I didn’t see coming.

I thought this was a very impressive debut novel. The book is deeply engaging, one of those books which you are very reluctant to put down and which even when you’ve finished it, you think about for quite a while afterwards. The characters are really well drawn and have considerable depth, and the confident depiction of the remote rural areas and rural life of Australia is interesting in itself.

I’ll definitely be keen to read anything else Shelley Burr writes.


And that’s all for this issue of Through the Biblioscope, the first one exclusive to my new website. I’d love you to send me a comment at this address:

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(the above is an image to deter scammers scraping the email address).


Footnotes
  1. These were a great bargain when they came out. I have similar omnibus volumes for Thomas Mann, H. G. Wells and John Wyndham. The Wells and Wyndham have been well-used, but I don’t think I’ve cracked open the Thomas Mann (though I’ve read other works by that author, notably Joseph and His Brothers).

  2. In the first book in the series, The Suspect, O’Loughlin himself had to go on the run as he became the prime suspect in the murder of a young woman, a crime of which he was of course innocent.

  3. As a consequence of the events in the novel Shattered.


Comments

20 January 2024

From: Roman Orzanski

Nice look to the new issue!

Not only a good read, but nice use of the footnote and footnote returns links.

Just wondering if you’d tried the pop-up footnote solution, where clicking on the links makes the footnoteVisible/invisible in place?

The lines separating sections at the end seem excessive (particularly on large screens); perhaps reduce to half length and centred?

Thanks, Roman. Good thoughts. Step by step I'll try to improve it. I've adjusted the horizontal rules as you suggested, and I'm experimenting with using your solution for pop-up footnotes. Still tinkering, though!

—David

20 January 2024

From: Perry Middlemiss

Thanks as always for the issue.

Re your review of WAKE by Shelley Burr: the only question I would ask of the plot is "where was the dog"?

As you'll recall from the Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story "The Silver Blaze" Holmes notices that the dog didn't bark in the night which helps him solve the case. In this instance the dog also doesn't bark but there isn't one. At least not as I recall. Which seems very strange for an isolated farm.

Yeah, picking nits again. That aside, I agree, she is a writer to watch.

You make a good point, but it doesn't stop my appreciation of the novel.

—David


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