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I love Agatha Christie and fancying a light and easy re-read, I selected Destination Unknown. This was not exactly unknown to me as I have read this particular Christie thriller on a number of occasions but, unlike her murder mysteries, this particular thriller is one that lends itself to reading and re-reading periodically. The story starts off with Hilary Craven on a foreign trip, taking steps to end her life. She is coincidentally spotted by an agent and asked to undertake a potentially fatal trip instead by masquerading as the wife of a missing scientist. The scientist is believed to have defected to an agency with communist style leanings - saying a lot about the politics around at the time of original publications. The wife has been killed in a plane crash but this fact is suppressed with Hilary taking her place as Olive Betterton in the hope that somebody will make contact with her and lead them to her husband. The basic plot sounds pretty implausible and there are certainly lots of holes and leaps that need to be taken within the storyline. If you are prepared to suspend disbelief and fancy something a little different from the usual writing style of murder mystery by Christie, this is certainly worthy of consideration. It is in fact one of my favourite Christie novels with a true sense of excitement and apprehension building throughout the story. I found some of the characters and the politics a little difficult to get my head around but enjoyed the basic plot nonetheless
This Agatha Christie book is a standalone thriller where a suicidal woman is offered a new and more exciting way out.
The heroine, Hilary, has lost her husband to another woman and her baby to sickness. She is settled in a luxurious hotel populated by stereotypes; the rich magnate with a younger, spoilt wife; the impoverished, sour English spinster; the ebullient American widow; the elderly yet charming tycoon. None of these stereotypical tourists are what they seem, and when she begins her suicide attempt she is offered a different route. Hilary is persuaded to take the place of a plane crash victim in order to investigate a suspected Communist cell in North Africa
Her journey through Africa and into the world of post war espionage renews her lust for life, just as she is catapulted into a life threatening situation.
It's an entertaining new direction for the mystery writer but unintelligent. It nods to the threats of Fascism and Communism while exploring the way the 1950s middle class would holiday to exotic locations like Marrakesh and Casablanca.
Almost from its commencement "Destination Unknown" pitches the reader into a shocking world of intrigue and horror far beyond the more comon ordered narratives of many of Christie's other novels. A piece of literature which needs to be assigned the term "thriller", rather than, say, a murder mystery, this is one of Christie's rare works to feature no detectives, at least not in the conventional sense. Dealing with extremist viewpoints at a time when the Second World War was still prevalent in many people's consciousness as well as the contemplation of suicide and bereavement, it is evident that the novel is intended to be a powerful one. Whether it manages to achieve that aim, however, is debatable.
The story begins with a conversation being held between two intelligence officers in which they are discussing the latest well known scientist to have gone missing. Convinced that the scientist's wife knows something of his disappearance, they question her once more and, despite her external bewildered appearance, at least one of them remains sceptical, particularly when the woman, named Olive Betterton, announces her wish to take a holiday in Morocco to deal with the strains of awaiting news of her husband. Decisions are made to follow and monitor Olive, in the hope that she will unintentionally lead them to her husband. However, within hours of her setting off on the trip disaster strikes in the form of an aircrash which results in Olive dying several days later. With no other possible assistance it appears as though Dr Bettertom is to remain untraceable. However, with the coincidences that Christie was frequently prepared to employ, the intelligence officers are to be granted hope in the form of another woman, this one unconnected with any of the missing scientists but who will turn out to display astonishing levels of ingenuity, resilience and determination in the face of overwhelming odds. As Hilary Craven sits in a hotel room, about to kill herself after the death of her daughter and the collapse of her marriage the door opens and one of the intelligence officers, who has been following her after he realised she was going to kill herself, offers her, in his words, "more thrilling way to die". She is to impersonate Olive Betterton and convince any who might be aware of her husband's whereabouts that she may accompany them to where Dr Betterton is. Assuring her the odds of her surviving are miniscule, he manages to raise her curiosity sufficiently for her to agree to helping him and it is thus that she finds herself pitched into a dangerous world of imprisonment, fantaticism and fantastical intentions. As the situation progresses and with precious few allies, the chances of Hilary being able to survive become ever slimmer, the question now arises whether she still wishes to die.
In order to enjoy "Destination Unknown" is is essential to suspend a fair proportion of disbelief whilst reading it. That Hilary Craven should be spotted by the intelligence officer because that man is looking for a particular brand of toothpaste as she buys several packets of sleeping pills in numerous chemists is a stretch in itself. That she should turn out to have a fantastic memory and excellent acting skills is another. But that not one person involved in the scenario that she is to swiftly find herself embroiled in has not the slightest clue what Dr Betterton's wife might look like is surely one leap of faith too far. It is difficult to touch upon more examples without revealing too much of the book, but when the truth of Dr bBetterton's disappearance becomes evident we must once more remind ourselves that this book is very much to be taken as a wok of fiction. The plan by the arch criminal to control the scientists, for instance, is highly incredulous. However, this is not a book to be read with realism in mind. It is, in my opinion, one borne of fantastical escapism, an adventure which keeps the reader entranced almost from the start and whose main purpose is to entertain, rather than to root the reader in believability.
A review of this novel can not be seriously undertaken without examining one of the prevalent subject matters within it, that of the widespread extremism of various ilks, including xenophobia and racism. Christie makes it clear that fanaticism of any sort is to be discouraged, that belief in people being inferior due to their race and/or country of origin is to be abhorred and the protaganists and heroes of the story are revealed to have opposite viewpoints to the extremists within the story. Yes despite these salient points, "Destination Unknown" can not be said to be particularly forward thinking (for the time). Any character who is not white is portrayed only as a servant or a driver, they are given no prominent roles or ones in which their character extends to more than a few lines. Sometimes inserted into the novel to highlight the differences in attitude and belief between, say, Hilary Craven and some of the other characters, or to briefly assist with various plans, they are given no equal status in the novel with the main characters. For Christie to truly decry racism and ignorance but then to have no white characters in more than a casual role within the novel hovers close to hypocrisy on her part.
As with many of Christie's works comparisons can be found between this story and several of her other novels. The concept of the heroine deliberately infiltrating into the perceived enemy's camp under false pretences can be noted in "Why didn't they ask Evans?" and the plot of a secret organisation which must be infiltrated is observed in "The Seven Dials Mystery" and "The Big Four", though all with differing reasons and consequences. For the most part, however, "Destination Unknown" is quite different from the majority of Christie's literature, more akin to, say, a James Bond thriller than a Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot mystery. It is, in my opinion, one of her more average works, a potentially strong narrative compromised by the frequent unbelievability of the plot. However, as an alternative to the more common detective stories she is better known for, this merits a look.
When a number of leading scientists disappear without trace, concern grows within the international intelligence community. Are they being kidnapped? Blackmailed? Brainwashed? One woman appears to have the key to the mystery. Unfortunately, Olive Betteron now lies in a hospital bed, dying from injuries sustained in a Moroccan plane crash. Meanwhile, in a Casablanca hotel room, Hilary Craven prepares to take her own life. But her suicide attempt is about to be interrupted by a man who will offer her an altogether more thrilling way to die.