Journey's end

I can count on one hand the number of Agatha Christie's that I still haven't read, so it was a bit of a treat to be leaving the supermarket the other day and find on their second-hand charity bookstall Destination Unknown, one of my handful of unread Christie's. Even better it was a 1970's Fontana edition, with a striking and unmistakeable Tom Adams' cover.

When I had a closer look I was slightly disappointed to discover that it was one of her adventure thrillers, rather than a crime story. Some of these work fairly well (They came to Baghdad for instance), but most of them are nowhere in the class of her crime novels (see the review of the dreadful Secret of Chimneys). I'm delighted to say though that Destination Unknown proved me wrong, it's as enjoyable a piece of holiday reading as you can possibly lay your hands on. Yes, the basic story is daft, and you'll need to suspend your disbelief, but it's great fun.

Published in 1954, a full 8 years before Len Deighton's The Ipcress File, the two novels have a common starting point, a brain drain of prominent scientists. In Destination Unknown young scientists are disappearing across Europe, England and America. There is the possibility that they have been enticed behind the Iron Curtain (in common with the preoccupations of many novelists and filmmakers of the period), but all efforts to check the flow have failed. When Jessop, tasked with tracking down the latest missing scientist, meets suicidal Hilary Craven, a plan is hatched, which will take Hilary to Morocco and a secret laboratory in the Atlas Mountains. Hilary's journey will fundamentally change her own life as she finally discovers the Destination Unknown.

Christie's characterisation was often not that brilliant, but where she always shone was in the depiction of place, especially places she loved, and Morocco was clearly a favourite. And actually some of the characterisation here is very fine; in fact I think it's among her best. In the character of Hilary Craven, deserted by her husband, and still grieving for the death of her child, there is a truly admirable, and very realistic character. I felt quite strongly that part of Hilary was based on Christie herself and her own unhappy marriage to arch-cad Archibald Christie. Hilary is first seen as a broken character, the standard weak little woman of early twentieth century fiction. By the end her resilience stands out, a touching testament to the power of humanity to face the worst and come through.

This was such a fun read. If realism is your thing, well you're not going to enjoy Destination Unknown, but if you're looking for a novel that's going to make you want to book the next plane to North Africa, and that has a cunning plot twist this is going to be for you. Hugely enjoyable.


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