This may be the most popular book you’ve never heard of. French author Dekobra (born Maurice Tessier) was wildly popular between the world wars, and The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars (1925) was an international best-seller. Though largely forgotten since then, its quick-moving intrigue set in widely dispersed European locales—before the jet set, there was the train set—helped provide a template for a whole new genre. (In acknowledgment, Alan Furst gave the book a cameo in The Foreign Correspondent, 2006.) Its contemporary popularity owed much to the character of Lady Diana Wynham, the “madonna” of the title, a beautiful playgirl who makes no apology for her long list of lovers or her extravagant lifestyle. But the narrator is Prince Séliman, who serves as Wynham’s unpaid secretary while recovering from a nasty breakup. He’s a perfect gentleman, but that doesn’t keep him from enjoying the frisson of his lady’s hugs and kisses. When the instability of Sumatran rubber and Bengal oil ruins Lady Diana’s finances, she attempts to recover Georgian oil fields lost to Soviet nationalization. A high-ranking Communist official, Varichkine, offers assistance in exchange for a night in bed; Lady Diana ups the ante by extracting a marriage proposal. Go-between Séliman, not quite a pimp, is sent to the field where Varichkine’s mistress, “the Marquise de Sade of Red Russia” and another powerful, complicated character, lies in wait. The sexual politics will seem as odd today as the erotic overtones are tame, but this nutty mix of sex farce, spy novel, political tract, and bantering comedy is still a uniquely flavored treat. --Keir Graff
“A rollicking, elegant novel … it gives the 21st-century reader a sense of the kind of book that used to be called a ‘racy French novel.’ What a treat to have it back in print.” —Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post
"Exquisite ... the kind of book that gets described as 'a delightful romp' in press materials, and that’s not an inaccurate description of a book that functions beautifully as both send-up of high society and globe-spanning adventure story, but the novel has a deathly serious core. The featherweight prose proves a brilliant set-up for the darkness that Séliman encounters when he’s eventually sent into the Soviet Union ..."
—Emily St. John Mandel, The Millions
“A tale M. Dekobra told so artfully that it tore through five editions like a sickle-bar mower.”
—S.J. Perelman, The New Yorker (1949)