Now that I've read Maurice Dekobra's 1927 bestseller, The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars (La Madone des Sleepings), I guess I need to pick up an Alan Furst novel, since I've read his characters are often seen reading the novel on their own journeys. I very much enjoyed the story and had images of a dashing French secretary and an elegant and beautiful Lady of the British Peerage running through my mind à la vintage B&W classic movies, and if this story has not been filmed it surely should be.
I was thinking as I was reading that it was a charming period piece, but really it is probably far more authentic in setting and atmosphere than other books that are out there these days. I think it relies more on intellectual motivations to move the story along than on edge of your seat thrills, though there are a few of those along the way as well. Although this is a story of political intrigue, it's not a traditional spy story per se. There are the requisite villainous Russians, a number of oil wells, several long train journeys, secret agents, double crosses, at least one love story, and fortunes gained and lost. All in all great fun.
Lady Diana Wynham, daughter of a Scottish Duke, leads a decadent sort of lifestyle. She's intrigued by the science of the subconscious, has a gaggle of admirers, and is known to create a stir by her unconventional behavior. She gets a kick out of making headlines by her audaciousness. Unfortunately she's practically broke. Her story is told by her French secretary, who also happens to be a Prince, Prince Séliman. Gerard Dextrier married into this royal title in America, but when he was caught in a seemingly compromising position with his stepdaughter, he left New York and ended up in London.
Not so much down and out as depressed by his failed marriage and with fond memories of his wife's tender kisses never far from his thoughts, Gerard agrees to become Lady Diana's personal secretary. He doesn't need the money, but must have something to take his mind off his personal affairs, and who better but the lovely Lady Diana whose own life and affairs always seem to need sorting out. What mostly needs sorting out are her financial affairs, which soon become entangled with a Russian diplomat who agrees to help her gain access to oil wells she owned in the Soviet Republic of Georgia--before the Revolution that is. It's all very tricky trying to obtain what is now held by the Soviet people to return to a Western capitalist--a meeting and clashing of ideologies. In exchange for the oil wells, Lady Diana must agree to certain romantic liaisons. It all seems easy enough, and might have been pulled off without a hitch had it not been for one jealous Russian woman with ties to the deadly cheka.
The story is quite whirlwind and moves along at a nice pace once the offers are made and accepted. Written a decade after the Russian Revolution, Dekobra offers and interesting look inside the Soviet Union when it was all still fairly fresh in the collective memory. Although Lady Diana is the Madonna of the Sleeping Cars, it's Gerard who takes most of the risks and finds himself locked in a battle of wills that's very life or death, but Lady Diana pays the emotional price by story's end.
This was an entertaining yet surprisingly thoughtful story. Dekobra wrote quite a few books, his career spanning 40 years, though I'm not sure how many were ever translated into English. His later works were 'whodunits'. Although I read the original 1927 edition of the book, Melville House is reissuing The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars next month. They are publishing the same translation that I read, which was by Neal Wainwright, and it passed my own test. I forgot as I was reading that it was even a translation to begin with. I may have to see what else is being released in the Neversink Library (more overlooked and underappreciated books). I'm not sure what thriller/spy story I'll pick up next, but I plan on continuing my (very slow) survey of the genre.