Friday, September 18, 2015

Deserted: Destination Unknown (1954), by Agatha Christie (Christie in the Fifties)

pearls aren't a nuisance in this one
Agatha Christie's time spent on the arid plains of the Middle East inspired some of her finest detective tales and well as a terrific mainstream novel, Absent in the Spring, reviewed by me here.  In the latter novel as well as her 1954 political thriller, Destination Unknown, she gives us a sense of the sort of self-annihilating mystical impact the desert could have on one.

An air of unreality pervades Destination Unknown, especially in the second half of the novel, when the protagonist's unknown destination is reached. Initially Destination Unknown (in the United States originally published as So Many Steps to Death) has the appearance of a Cold War thriller, with a plot concerning vanished western scientists, believed to have defected to the Soviet Union.

One such scientist is Tom Betterton, whose wife, Olive, is currently in hospital in Casablanca, dying of injuries received in a Moroccan plane crash. English intelligence authorities believe Olive Betterton, a loyal wife, was en route to join her wayward husband.

Determined to discover the whereabouts of Tom Betterton and the other missing scientists, the intelligence service employs Hilary Craven, an ordinary Englishwoman who had come to Casablanca to commit suicide but was providentially interrupted in her attempt, to masquerade as the dying Olive.  Hilary knows not where her steps will take her, but she is determined to take this new journey into the danger-filled unknown....

The first half of Destination Unknown I found pretty engrossing.  As others have pointed out Hilary Craven starts off as a more unusual Christie character, an initially distraught woman determined to commit suicide after the desertion of her husband and the death of her young daughter. (Autobiographical implications come to mind: was Christie thinking of what she herself might have done after Archie left her, had she lost her daughter as well?).

However, Hilary quickly transforms into what seemed to me the typical plucky Christie thriller heroine, after receiving a stern talking-to from a British intelligence officer:

"To you I suppose I was just..."

He finished the sentence for her.  "A woman with a noticeable head of red hair who hadn't the pluck to go on living."

She flushed.

"That a rather harsh judgement."

"It's a true one, isn't it?  I don't go in for being sorry for people.  For one thing it's insulting.  One is only sorry for people who are sorry for themselves.  Self pity is one of the biggest stumbling-blocks in the world today."

Hilary said thoughtfully:


"I think perhaps you're right...."

"Pluck" got Christie pretty far in life, it must be admitted (not to mention a damn great deal of talent). Yet this still felt a bit pat.

the American first edition
In her Golden Age Twenties thrillers Christie was not, let us say, overly concerned with realism, but neither was the thriller genre in that decade, for the most part.  By 1954, however, the English spy thriller had grown up considerably (though, to be sure, the James Bond franchise had recently commenced).

At first it appears that Destination Unknown might be more "grown up" too, more realistically dealing with espionage during the Cold War.  However, we soon find we are still very much in land of make-believe. This is fine, except that I found the second half of Destination Unknown notably unexciting for a thriller. (Compare it to Live and Let Die, published the same year.)

I must admit I had more sheer fun with Christie's earlier Fifties thriller, They Came to Baghdad (1951).  Yet I'm glad I finally read Destination Unknown, one of only two Christie crime novels I had never yet read.

Anyone care to guess what my last unread Christie mystery is?

13 comments:

  1. I love They Came to Baghdad, especially the "moment of truth". Christie doesn't often get credit for dreaming up worldwide conspiracies, but they feature more than once. I found her take-off of a "perfect society" quite chilling. I learn from Darren Anderson's Imaginary Cities (just read) that too many were pushing micro-managed utopias from the late 19th century. I think Christie did "brain-washed functionary of the ant-heap" better than Le Carré.

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    1. I suppose I should give Christie credit for trying to be more thoughtful in the second half of the novel rather than merely attempting to provide the reader with thrills. I was just disappointed that she fell back on the old device of the

      SPOILER

      Billionaire Megalomaniac Businessman--though of course I say this as Donald Trump is leading the GOP field in the United States.

      END SPOILER

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    2. By the way, I quite liked Baghdad, when I read it some fifteen years ago!

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  2. This is also one of my many unread Christies. I'll take a guess at your last unread one... Ordeal by Innocence perhaps?

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  3. Thanks for the caveat, altho if the Trumpish character gets a comeuppance in Destination Unknown it just might be the antidote I need for the horror in our daily news of late.

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    1. LOL, Mathew, there indeed is that. Maybe Christie was more plausible in this book that I thought!

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    1. Nope. I've always thought that is one good question, however. ;)

      That was one of the last ones I read, but it's not the last one left unread.

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  5. This is one of my favorite Christie books and for me it's enjoyable precisely because of the fantasy (or fantastic) elements in the plot. I reread this one, along with THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD which is the better book, I admit, and THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT, as a kind of trio, though this last one was written in the twenties. It's hard for me to imagine anyone reading Christie now for the first time - I've been reading her books since I was a kid. :)

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    1. I've got one left! I finished everything by Christie back in the 1990s but these two.

      I enjoyed The Man in the Brown Suit back when I read it in the 1990s, thought that was one of her better thrillers.

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  6. Funny. I hadn't given Destination Unknown a thought in years, nor had read it again since the first time, a LOT of years ago. But last week I was packing for a 4-day canoe trip and needed some light (in both senses) reading to take along. I've found old Agatha Christie paperbacks are perfect for that; entertaining and undemanding, weighing next to nothing and not irreplaceable if they fall in the water or the fire.

    So I grabbed Destination Unknown from my box of Christies (hesitated for a moment over They Came to Baghdad) and enjoyed it muchly out in the wilds. I was thinking, here's one Christie that no one ever mentions or perhaps even thinks about in relation to her works.

    And lo, here is your review.

    Spoiler....

    Sorry, Matthew, but the Trumpish character dodges justice.

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    1. Susanna, I think it's great to have an unread Christie, or perhaps an already-read Christie that we don't remember so well. I haven't reviewed Christie much here (until this week), because I had already read about everything by her. But I am enjoying looking at some of her books again now. I think I may launch a new Christie review series on the blog.

      Destination Unknown sounds like a good title for a canoe trip!

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