“The travelers got out of the car. There was a big bell pull at the gate, but before they could touch it the gates swung slowly open. A white-robed figure with a black, smiling face bowed to them and bade them enter. They passed through the gate; at one side screened by a high fence of wire, there was a big courtyard where men were walking up and down. As these men turned to look at the arrivals, Hilary uttered a gasp of horror.
“’But they’re lepers!’ she exclaimed. ‘Lepers!’”
And there you have it, friends, Agatha Christie’s 1954 thriller Destination Unknown (American title: So Many Steps to Death.) I’m covering this one for Rich Westwood’s salute to the year 1954 over at Past Offenses. Rich himself had mentioned trying to cover this title if he had the time, but we’re nearing the end of the month, and clearly he found a hundred better books to read. So I’m going to take one for the team and talk about this relative low point for the Mistress of Mystery.
Anybody with a passing understanding of my life and habits knows how much I love Agatha Christie. Still, my relationship with her thrillers is problematic. I understand and accept how much Christie enjoyed writing them. Clearly, they were easier for her to plot than her whodunits – not that this is necessarily a good thing, mind you. You take one scrappy heroine, send her off on an adventurous trip and have her cross paths with Bolsheviks, or white slavers, or Nazis and their ilk. Toss in some romance if you can, expose the ringleader of the bad guys in a moment of great surprise, and make the world safe again for King and country. I can tell you this about the thrillers: they get worse as Christie’s career progresses. The first one, The Secret Adversary, (which is also the debut of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, Christie’s sleuthing couple), is blithe and breezy, and it is firmly set in the post WWI reconstruction of England, with some passing reference to events either true or realistic enough to pass for true. The next thriller, The Man in the Brown Suit, may be her best. At least its major villain is presented in a charming and creative way, and we can see Christie practicing some tricks that she will use later to even better effect in future novels.
From there on in, however, the quality of the thrillers becomes more piecemeal. I confess that The Secret of Chimneys is the only Christie novel I have never finished, yet I like the big twist found in its sequel, The Seven Dials Mystery. N or M is mildly enjoyable as Tommy and Tuppence adventures go; at least Christie is willing to acknowledge the real-life existence of Nazis. They Came to Baghdad, has a ridiculous conspiracy plot but a nice ending, yet I find the heroine, Victoria Jones, exceedingly tiresome, as is much of her journey to discover what the heck is going on. Skipping to the end of Christie’s career, Passenger to Frankfurt is simply a big embarrassment. It plays, as does Baghdad, with the idea of a modern-day Siegfried trying to take over the world, something that works much better in Ira Levin’s clone-of-Hitler adventure, The Boys From Brazil, or almost anything by Robert Ludlum.
That brings us back to Destination Unknown. I enjoyed it when I first read it, but I was fifteen. That pretty much sums up my experience with all these books: each subsequent re-read becomes more and more of a chore because I return to the books as a grown-up. The adolescent me was all too willing to accept Christie’s world-building of a vast international conspiracy at face value. In this instance, we have a vague allusion to the Cold War and the possibility that the Soviet Union is causing some of the great scientific minds of the Western world to disappear. Is this true? If so, are the scientists defecting, or are they leaving without volition? Are they even alive? And what has happened to Thomas Betterton, the inventor of that crucial element, Ze Fission, without which England may not survive (although Christie forgets to tell us exactly what Ze Fission does.)
Balancing this world issue is the personal story of one woman named Hilary Craven. The success or failure of a Christie thriller can hinge on the characterization of its heroine. On the face of it, Hilary Craven is a more compelling personality than Baghdad’s Victoria Jones. Where Victoria is a simple-minded, forward-thinking Cockney whose sole motivation for every stupid thing she does is to find a boyfriend, Hilary is a grown-up with a tragic backstory. Her daughter has died, and her husband (whose surname aptly describes his personality) has fled into the arms of another woman. Hilary leaves London for Morocco, intent on ending her misery with a quiet suicide in a strange land. But she has not reckoned on meeting Jessop of British Security, who asks this woman hell bent on self-destruction if she would at least end her own life performing a perilous task for her country, one which he can assure her will most likely end in her death.
As premises go, this one is as good as one can hope for. But then even the most mediocre Christie tends to begin well. On the one hand, the seriousness of Hilary’s situation foreshadows an equally solid, mature force of evil to do battle with. Unfortunately, that turns out not to be the case. This mysterious force stealing the minds of Europe for its own ends turns out to be all rather silly. Perhaps if the heroine had been as daffy as Victoria Jones, she would have balanced out the ludicrousness of the thriller plot better.
As it is, once Hilary agrees to take on the identity of a dead woman (Tom Betterton’s wife Olive) – not because they resembled each other, mind you, but because they both have red hair – she heads out deeper and deeper into the mysterious Middle East where she meets nobody of particular interest, certainly not any well-developed Middle Eastern characters. There’s the British spinster tourist, the loudmouth American tourist, and the cultured and refined (but incredibly old and ugly) Greek millionaire, all a bunch of stereotypes that exist to either be or not be exposed as enemy agents. The job of finding Tom leads Hilary from one laughable crisis to another. I think there are something like three plane crashes in this novel. That’s not coincidence – it’s lazy writing! Finding Tom leads Hilary into a world that even the most accepting reader will probably have to down many grains of salt to get behind. There she meets more stereotypical characters, most of them scientists stripped of any humanity in their quest to conquer and control every natural creation on this earth. You just know that every one of them sounds like a character on Hogan’s Heroes.
Really, folks, this is a plot that is fun on the surface yet cannot hope to bare up to any close scrutiny. However, it does have one redeeming factor, something that Christie pulls out of her sleeve in the end. It’s not coincidental that this trick hails most definitely from the murder mystery side of Christie’s oeuvre. That’s a good thing because it gives heft and a nice sting to the climax of the story. Otherwise, the resolution would be about as exciting as the fireworks my dad used to buy for Fourth of July in Daly City. (He would go out into the street in front of our house and set them off. However, the fog was so thick that all we could see were slight shifts of color in the thick mist, combined with a feeble “wheeee” as the firecracker went off.)
In conclusion, I’d just like to say how happy I am that Rich is now crossing 1954 off his list. Whenever he picks a month, I like to check out what Christie, Carr, and Queen, my three favorite authors have written. Queen’s output for ‘54 was The Glass Village, a fascinatingly weird murder tale set against the backdrop of the Communist witch hunts. It’s really hard to 1) get through and 2) take seriously. Carr wrote no novels that year. He put together a collection of stories that my buddy JJ has covered for Rich, but none of these were actually written in 1954! Needless to say, it’s good to get Destination Unknown – and the year that wasn’t so hot for my top three writers – out of the way. I can only hope next month’s choice will reap a personally more promising harvest.