Destination Unknown, written in 1954, is a significant departure from the rest of Agatha Christie’s oeuvre. It features a young woman named Hilary Craven, who, through a series of unlikely events, is drawn into the role of spy as an alternative to committing suicide. It’s set against the backdrop of the Cold War, and plays with a lot of themes that were more common in science fiction writing of the time than in puzzle mysteries. I admire Christie hugely for continuing to experiment with her writing, long after she hit on a formula that guaranteed financial stability and an adoring public. I loved Endless Night and And Then There Were None, and I liked Death Comes as the End, so I’m glad she kept trying these different standalone concepts. Unfortunately, inevitably, that means that there will be misses among the hits. This is one of them.
At the start of the novel, Hilary Craven is mourning the death of her daughter Brenda and the unfaithfulness of her ex-husband, and can’t see anything left to live for. She is interrupted a couple of minutes before she kills herself by a man with a very unusual proposition. Since she is ready to die anyway, he points out, he can propose a much more interesting method – by which she can perhaps do some good, possibly save some lives, and which will likely still kill her since it is highly dangerous. By this means he draws her into a complex conspiracy thriller with a lot of moving parts. I loved this premise, which is fairly unique among Christie novels, and I think it has the makings of a very good Cold War thriller. The start of the novel even reads like one. And because of the unusual premise, one of the pleasures of the novel is watching Hilary gradually – without really realising it – start to feel like she has something to live for again because of the excitement of her new life.
Even though this book is a miss, it’s a Christie miss, so it’s still got some things to recommend it. One of the topics it deals with is the high-profile defection of scientists to other regimes, notably but not exclusively the USSR. At the start of the novel, several scientists have disappeared in a conspicuous way, which (as Hilary’s handler points out) is their right as free citizens of the UK. The government just wants to make sure that they are exercising this right in a suitably monitored fashion. This is what Hilary is recruited to investigate: she is to join up with a group of fellow-travellers and find out what’s going on. I was interested to learn (from All About Agatha) that, at the time of writing, there had been several high-profile defections that apparently followed the pattern of the scientists in this novel – scientists were disappearing under suspicious circumstances, but not the kind of suspicious circumstances that make you think of murder. Because of this, the novel also hints at a much darker subplot, where scientists think of themselves as a kind of Chosen Elite and start making ethically dubious decisions on the basis of this. I wish Christie had actually followed that plot through, as again there is the making of a very good book there (a different book to the Cold War thriller, but a good one nevertheless).
Alas, it was not to be. The novel doesn’t really take advantage of the Unknown Destination of the title, either. Although the narrative starts in England, it journeys through a variety of exciting locales – Casablanca, Marrakesh, and Fez. Unfortunately, and unusually for a Christie travel novel, these locations don’t really come alive. Hilary is too wrapped up in her new role to really enjoy her travels. Although she does do a little bit of sightseeing, it is self-conscious and performed, and so she isn’t really drinking in her surrounds. Except for a single description of a cup of mint tea, the early part of the novel could easily take place in suburban southern England. As the novel progresses, the isolation of some of the locations does come into play – but again, more as a plot device than as anything described in its own right. It’s a real shame, as novels like Death on the Nile have wonderful scene-setting, and I would have been interested to read Christie’s depiction of the landscape.
This is a very twisty-turny novel, and it’s difficult to review it without getting too much into the plot. I think it’s worth saying, though, that after a point Hilary becomes rather inactive and a lot of the ultimate puzzle-unravelling is taken out of her hands. I think that’s a big part of the reason why this didn’t work for me. It’s unusual for a Christie heroine to be so passive. Hilary starts out very well-drawn, and the depiction her zest for life gradually returning is enjoyable, but the interesting bits of her plot get handed over to another character, and even the peculiarities of the situation she finds herself in are not particularly exploited for plot. For example, at points in the novel, Hilary has to impersonate a man’s wife, to the point of sharing a possibly bugged bedroom with him – but the subterfuge and secrets are not built upon to expand the story.
And then the ending. Look, I can’t explain the ending. Even if I didn’t mind about spoilers, I am not sure I followed it clearly enough to summarise. Suffice to say, it was bananas, and did significant damage to my idea of Christie as someone who was always thinking ten steps ahead when writing. It felt a bit like she had just thrown all sorts of plot elements at the wall to see what stuck, and then had to reconcile them at the very end. It relies on deus ex machina and previously unrevealed information in a way that Christie is normally much too clever for. Also, there is a totally surreal and deeply unnecessary blackface scene. Why? I honestly couldn’t say. The first third of the novel has great potential, the middle lags significantly, but the final third feels like it belongs to a different book.
In short – if you want a literary exploration of why people defected to the USSR, read Red Joan. If you want a Cold War-era thriller, read The Spy who Came in from the Cold. If you want a 50s dystopia about the perils of prioritising science undiluted by humanity, read almost any science fiction from the period. Whatever you pick, I suspect you will enjoy it more than Destination Unknown, which tries to be all things to all men and ends up being none of them. That said, if you are someone who is interested in this book specifically because it’s Christie, it is kind of fascinating to see how different it is from the rest of her work. A lukewarm recommendation, perhaps, but it’s better than nothing.