Monday, January 14, 2013

That Christie You Haven't Read and a Crazy Little Thing Called Love Interest

Are there any Agatha Christie novels you have never gotten around to reading?  Or perhaps deliberately avoided reading?

I recall reading a poem in some book on Christie, where the author lamented how she had only one Christie left to read and this one she just couldn't read because if she read it then she wouldn't have one left to read!  Her precious jewel, her Agatha Crystal she called it.

Now, how's that for a pressing conundrum?

final destination
Oddly enough, for some time there has been one lonely Christie that I have never even started, let alone completed (I have to confess I was never able to finish Passenger to Frankfurt, 1970).

I have been reading Christie since I was eight, actually (rather a long time ago!).  Yet still I have never read her mystery Destination Unknown (1954), or So Many Steps to Death, as it used to be called in the States.

It is one of Christie's thrillers and it has just never interested me from the description; but I suppose I should read it just so I can say that I have read all the Christies. 

It is not supposed to be bad, I gather, just middling, not up to the level of, say, They Came to Baghdad (1951).

Sometimes you stay away from a book by a favored author, just because it's supposed to be so darn bad. 

John Dickson Carr's last detective novel, The Hungry Goblin, is a case in point.  Even Carr's biographer, Doug Greene, hates it!  But I have read even Christie's Postern of Fate (in a tree house in 1978), which probably is even worse than Passenger to Frankfurt, so should be able to make my way through Destination Unknown, surely.

Harriet Vane

Now I present an excerpt from a fascinating review essay by Donald Dodge, published in The Bookman in 1927.  It is called "Nothing But The Sleuth" and it doth protest (too much?) against the presence of "love interest" in detective novels:

Of late years a sinister influence has come to corrupt the fine tradition of the great Sherlock Holmes who was a knight without fear and without a love interest.  Now you can't get through a fine tale about battle and murder and sudden thugs without having to spend half your time with a blue-eyed heroine intent on getting into trouble so that the detective-hero can fish her out from the nets of crime....Even so delightful a thief-taker as [Edgar Wallace's] Mr. J. G. Reeder has got to go and fall in love and shave off disfiguring side-whiskers to make himself a boy again for the sake of a sweet wench.

Horrors! Even Mr. Reeder
gets caught in love's meshes
Here is a writer complaining of "love interest" infecting the mystery all the way back in 1927!  And of course things would only get worse for Mr. Douglas.

Why, Harriet Vane was lurking just around the corner, in Dorothy L. Sayers' Strong Poison (1930)!  And there was actual sex in the offing too, in The Thin Man (1934).  Nick and Nora Charles were getting out the glasses and popping corks.

And today of course people actually expect the detective to have some sort of credible inner emotional life (even if it is mostly misery).

Mr. Douglas would not approve!

There is more than a whiff of sexism to the piece, not just in the language ("a sweet wench"), but in the idea that a woman could play no functional role in a mystery save that of a helpless heroine who exists to be rescued by the "detective-hero."  There is no thought of course that the woman might actually be the sleuth!

Yet even by 1927, Tuppence Beresford frequently got the better of her partner Tommy when it came to cracking cases in Agatha Christie tales and Miss Marple, Miss Silver and Mrs. Bradley were on the horizon.  And today, of course, things are vastly different.

This is one of the ways crime novels have changed for the better, laudably widening the scope of what can be done in them, but I must admit sometimes it does make a nice change to go read a book where the detective can just go about the business of crime-solving without the baggage of emotional burdens.  Sometimes you just want to solve the crime problem!

on the lookout for femmes fatales
By the way, was anyone else struck by Donald Douglas' reference to Sherlock Holmes as "a knight without fear and without a love interest"?

A knight without fear has a certain resonance of Raymond Chandler, I thought (and you could write volumes about the question of Marlowe and love interest).

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid....He is the hero, he is everything....


  1. Thought you were going to discuss Destination Unknown. Get on and read it!

  2. It's on my to-read list I promise! What about you, Richmonde, have you read it?

    Also on the Christie front, I'm nearly ready to review the last group of Poirot films based on the short stories. Then I'm going to look over all the articles and pick my ten favorites.

  3. I love Destination Unknown (and They Came to Baghdad) so you are in for a treat, Curt. But then you'll have that dilemma about having no more Christies to read. As long as the estate keeps withholding Personal Call from us, and Butter in a Lordly Dish, and Fiddlers Three and that early version of Dead Man's Folly, there will always be at least one more Christie you haven't read. I'm still waiting for her screenplay version of Bleak House to appear for example.

    Destination gives us the wonderful narrative arc of a woman in the grip of absolute despair who through the course of the story, manipulated by outside events and inner battles, learns to live again. It's the story of Agatha Christie of course, as we know her her amnesia episode, and as we saw it dramatized in Unfinished Portrait, but I think it comes full circle here, her finest treatment of the subject, perhaps and paradoxically because it is but one narrative strand amid a host of other international thriller tropes--the brain drain chief among them. I never really understood how the desert system is supposed to really work (you'll see, bro) but I loved the idea, it's definitely something a child would dream up, it has the miniature perfection of longing at its core.

  4. Wow, Kevin, that's quite an endorsement. Seems like Christie had a mystical sort of attitude to the desert. I did like her "straight novel" set in the desert, Absent in the Spring, a lot, as you know from the review last year.

    I'd love to read those Christie plays you mention.

  5. I must disagree with Kevin here. DESTINATION UNKNOWN is one of Christie's worst books. She starts with a suicidal heroine, and then you flip a page and she's ready to go off on a grand adventure. The villains are transparent, the thrills aren't there, the central character is annoying and not believable. It's one I'd honestly recommend skipping. It's not as bad as FRANKFURT or POSTERN, but it's on that level.

    1. Uh-oh, guess I'll have to be the tie-breaker!

    2. Not a good book. I had to go to Wikipedia to refresh myself on the plot, as things seem to get confused over time.

      I don't like Christie's thrillers in general (certainly not as much as the mysteries), because they all seem to be built around some very implausible international criminal mastermind (it seems she kept writing The Secret Adversary over and over).

      It's better than Passenger to Frankfurt, but that's like saying Deadly Hall is better than Hungry Goblin.

    3. I've never read The Hungry Goblin, Doug was so discouraging about it. Or the last few Merrivales. The Cavalier's Cup was so silly, I didn't finish it. Deadly Hall was deadly dull, I thought.

  6. Destination Unknown is pretty interesting till the last great revelation which I didn't like at all. However, I found it better than Baghdad which I hated. Among Christie's not read are POSTERN, FRANKFURT, and BY THE PRICKING OF MY THUMBS.

    1. Of those three I think Thumbs has its points, so to speak. The plotting is a bit wobbly at the end, but there's interesting stuff to it.

  7. Destination Unknown is not that bad, and has some interesting aspects. I liked the last chapters. (Avoiding spoilers.) A mastermind with a desert hideout who wants to run the world - that would never happen in real life, would it?