The oddities of Christie

As readers of Bookhound will know, I'm an Agatha Christie fan. I love her crime novels, I also love her spin-off thrillers that are slightly out of the norm - Death comes as the end, Endless Night, or And then there were none  are just three of my favourites.

I've got mixed feelings though about her adventure / spy novels. Some of them I've loved - I have a soft spot for They came to Baghdad, for instance, partly, I guess, because Christie writes so well about the Near East, an area she was very familiar with, and partly because it was one of the first Christie's I ever read, so I have fond memories of it. Many of the thrillers though are just dreadful - the awful Secret of Chimneys being part of the Christie canon that is best avoided.

While browsing my bookshelves for a new read post-Magpie Murders, I spotted Passenger to Frankfurt lurking on the shelves. Despite owning it for a very long time, I'd never got round to reading it, perhaps now was the time to make a start?

I knew straight away that it wasn't going to be the best of Christie - it's an adventure story (never her most comfortable writing style), it was published in 1970 - her output towards the end of her life was somewhat patchy and, especially where adventure stories were concerned, occasionally slightly hysterical, and it features a villain named Fat Charlotte (you know this isn't going to end well). This was a real curate's egg of a book, some of it I loved, other sections were just plain peculiar.

So, what is there to love about it? The basic premise is decent enough, if a bit old-fashioned. Stafford-Nye, a member of the diplomatic service, is on his way home, and is temporarily stranded at an airport hub. He meets a beautiful woman who offers to steal his passport in return for him saving her life. Ever the gentleman Nye agrees. He of course falls in love with the lady, and is soon involved in Secret Service plots to stop a neo-Fascist takeover of the world.

The Nye-Mary Ann storyline works really nicely. It's rather old-fashioned, somewhat in the style of Buchan with a heavy dollop of Ethel Lina White and The Wheel Spins, possibly because of that it's a charming read. The hero and heroine are likeable and engaging, it's an interesting plot, with some nice lines in humour including an elderly aunt, who's a bit of a hoot, and a Sydney Greenstreet wannabe. All jolly good fun for a wet weekend, and then suddenly.....

We have classical music festivals that rival Bayreuth, and turn innocent youths into drug-crazed emissaries of a new world order, Fat Charlotte and her minions including a rather natty youth, who may be the son of Hitler, holed up in a sinister schloss somewhere in Bavaria, and Hitler's escape to Argentina via a lunatic asylum and a blonde opera singer. It's completely crazy, and I must admit that I read this section half laughing and half gasping at the sheer daftness of the plot. Could Christie have been a fan of The Boys from Brazil?

And yet....the irony is that Passenger to Frankfurt pre-dates Boys from Brazil. Christie is not a good adventure / spy story writer. It's really not her milieu, and that's very clear when you read her books in this genre. But where Christie was always excellent was in her clever plotting. She might not always write consistently, but she always has great ideas. And even in her weaker novels you've got to applaud her imagination.

Passenger to Frankfurt is not the best of Christie, sometimes it's very bad Christie, but for a wet weekend it's an enjoyable, if sometimes unintentionally funny, read. It's also an interesting reflection on the fears and insecurities of a rapidly changing world.


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