“Destination Unknown” by Agatha Christie (1954)

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“The man behind the desk moved a heavy glass paperweight four inches to the right.”

Agatha Christie is, of course, most known for her murder mysteries, but she never limited herself to just one genre. She wrote romance stories under a pseudonym, dabbled in supernatural fiction and ghost stories, and now and again wrote thrillers, as the Sunday Times said, “just to show that she can.” Her best one, as I’ve gone on about on the blog before, is The Seven Dials Mystery, but Destination Unknown is to be ignored at your peril.

The world is in crisis. Leading scientists from across the world are disappearing, and those working in international intelligence are completely stumped. Bodies are never recovered, so there’s no consensus on whether these people are dead or alive, and a whole host of countries are losing their greatest biologists, chemists and researchers. Mr Jessop, a shady figure in the British government, is at his wits end. That is, until he encounters Hilary Craven.

Hilary sits in a Casablanca hotel room, preparing to commit suicide. Her attempts are interrupted however by Jessop who lets himself in and declares he has a more exciting way for her to die. She is to pretend to be Mrs Betterton, the wife of one of the missing scientists who is believed to be on her way to find her husband. However, in her travels, she has died in a plane crash, leaving the space open. Hilary is asked to take over the role and find out where Mr Betterton, and presumably the other missing scientists, are being held. With nothing left to lose, Hilary agrees and soon finds herself embroiled in something much larger than anyone could have imagined. With no idea who she can trust or who is working to what ends, Hilary is soon brought before Tom Betterton – and his reaction is perhaps the most surprising thing of all…

OK, so it’s not the most famous or well-regarded of her novels (indeed, it’s one of only four to never receive an adaptation for screen, stage or radio), but it’s still an interesting adventure story. Penned less than ten years after the end of World War Two, its events are shadows over what happens here. A character is introduced with ideas that may not be particularly welcome to many people, but Hilary finds herself almost hypnotised by the rhetoric, even going so far as to mention the similarities to Hitler – the words were ordinary, but the way he spoke was apparently very engaging. In a week where we’ve seen Nazis and white supremacists marching openly in America, it really struck home how dangerous words can be in the wrong hands. I try not to bring up topical events while discussing books, but the reason we read is to better understand the world, I think, and sometimes the parallels are too real or shocking to ignore.

The final scenes feel a bit rushed, and some of the explanations as to how the solution came about bypassed me really, but it doesn’t matter. How we got there is fascinating enough, and it’s a great look at how the real rulers of the world are those with the money, rather than those in obvious positions of power. As the book says, “one is never surprised to find out that behind the importance and magnificence there is somewhere some scrubby little man who is the real motive power”. Judge not on appearances, trust no one, and know that things mayn’t always be as they seem.

A quick read, a fun jaunt with inspiration obviously taken from Christie’s own travels, and a story that, while titled Destination Unknown, shows that journeys in novels so often end in the same place.

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“The Gunslinger” by Stephen King (1982)

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Get a move on!

Get a move on!

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

I’ve only read Stephen King once before and I rather enjoyed it. His huge tome Under The Dome has been sat on my shelf for years, but I’ve yet to work up the courage or upper body strength to read it. Instead, I thought I’d turn to his supposed magnum opus, the Dark Tower series, picking up the first installment, The Gunslinger, that had just been updated with new text and information to make it work better with the later books in the series. Not really knowing what to expect, I took the plunge.

In this novel – actually five shorter stories taped together – we meet Roland, the gunslinger, who is travelling across a vast, seemingly endless, featureless desert. With only a worn out mule and his guns for company, the gunslinger is on the trail of the man in black, although why we are not immediately told.

The gunslinger meets a few people in the desert, living nomadic lives, and tells stories of how he got to be where he is. He talks of the last town he left, Tull, where he killed every person in the town after they went mad and believed him to be a demon. He then meets Jake, a small boy who is all alone, and the gunslinger takes him along on his journey, although his motives may not be as kind as they first seem. Time passes strangely in the desert and while they’ve no idea how long they’ve been travelling for, the gap between the gunslinger and the man in black grows ever smaller, and it starts to look like maybe he even wants to be caught…

Frankly, I didn’t get it. I’m not saying I didn’t like it, but I didn’t get it. Long-winded to a fault, with characters that never particularly shone for me, I found the book uninteresting and somewhat dull. For a book that is meant to be the best thing one has written, it’s a disappointment. Perhaps part of that is because I expected it to be scary – that’s what Stephen King is meant to be about, after all, but aside from it being a little creepy in places, it really doesn’t frighten. I also never understood particularly where or when it’s meant to be set. Jake seems to remember modern day New York, but the gunslinger has very little concept of machines. There’s a suggestion that it’s all taking place thousands of years after our time, or perhaps in an alternate timeline. They know the song “Hey Jude”, and there’s a scene that proves it’s Earth that we’re residing on, but it all seems disjointed. I’m sure that’s how it’s meant to be, but I was too busy trying to get all that straight in my head to focus on the plot some of the time.

The man in black, when we finally meet him, is something of a let down. Supposedly the embodiment of evil, I wasn’t too fussed by him, although perhaps that’s just because by the end I was simply reading it to finish it. The gunslinger in turn is somewhat distant and none too exciting as a main character. He has a single-minded determination and while he’s shown to be able to show emotions, it feels a little forced and heavy-handed in its demonstration.

I think all in all my feeling is one of frustration. I had built it up in my head and King failed to deliver. I should really have known that I wasn’t going to be fully into this. After all, this is his attempt at doing what Tolkien did by building a huge, sprawling epic with its own history and culture, and I could never get into The Lord of the Rings either. I’m not saying King is a bad writer – the man is a huge success and I’ve liked other things he’s done – but this time I really have to just hold my hands up and say that I don’t understand what all the fuss is about.

The gunslinger may one day reach the Dark Tower, but I doubt I will be alongside him when he does.