“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.

“While The Light Lasts” by Agatha Christie (1997)

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“The Ford car bumped from rut to rut, and the hot African sun poured down unmercifully.”

Were this a blog where I discussed all manner of pop culture issues, I’d open with a loud scream of joy that Doctor Who has finally taken a great step and cast a woman in the lead role. I, for one, cannot wait to see what Jodie Whittaker does with the part, and I fail to understand anyone who has considered themselves a fan of this show all the while a man has been central to it, yet has somehow failed to pick up on a single one of its messages about tolerance, peace and equality. As it is, this is a blog that deals mostly with books, so if you want more of my mad rantings about Doctor Who, follow me on Twitter. Here, we’re getting back to another superb woman – hello, Agatha.

While the Light Lasts collects together nine of her most disparate stories together for the first time. Published in 1997, it feels very much like an act of mopping up the few that were yet to have been captured, which isn’t a complaint. Most of these, if not all, were writing in the 1920s at the beginning of her career, and each of them sparkles with a promise of greater things to come. That’s not to say that these stories aren’t good on their own merit, they’re great, but ideas used here occur later in far more famous tales.

“The Actress”, for example, is about, what else, an actress who tries to take revenge against a blackmailer. Her method of doing so will reappear later in Evil Under the Sun. The titular story, “While the Light Lasts” takes on a new life in the romance novels she wrote under the name Mary Westmacott. Each story is accompanied by an afterword that explains further about the story and how it came to be. “The Edge” was written not long before Christie’s disappearance, and seems to lay bare many of the feelings she had at the time about her husband. “Christmas Adventure” has links to her childhood homes.

Perhaps the most interesting story is “Manx Gold”; not because it’s especially devious but because of how it came into being. The novel was written to contain clues for a very real treasure hunt on the Isle of Man. Conceived to boost tourism, the local council hid four “treasure chests” around the island and Christie then wrote a novel which showed characters trying to find them. The characters are successful in finding all four, and smart readers are able to hunt down all of them by following the clues within the text. In reality, only three of the prizes were found. While the story lacks some detail because at no point can the characters fully explain where they are or what they’re doing, it’s still compelling, and the truth behind the story is perhaps even more interesting.

Two of the stories here also contain supernatural elements that Christie occasionally employed, many of them gathered in The Hound of Death. Two more contain Poirot, but a couple contain no crime at all, especially “The Lonely God” which is about two lonely figures bonding over a statuette in the British Museum.

A charming collection and a quick read, enough to whet the appetite of any Christie fan.

“The Hollow” by Agatha Christie (1946)

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“At six thirteen am on a Friday morning Lucy Angkatell’s big blue eyes opened upon another day and, as always, she was at once wide awake and began immediately to deal with the problems conjured up by her incredibly active mind.”

Fresh from exploring a fictional version of Christie’s life, I return to her invented worlds. Let’s dive right in.

Poirot arrives at the country pile of Sir and Lady Angkatell, The Hollow, to find himself immediately thrust into a strange sight. A man lies on the edge of the swimming pool, a woman over him holding a gun, and a crowd of onlookers staring in confusion. He’s convinced that this is a set-up, supposedly meant to entertain the famous detective, but he quickly notes that something isn’t quite right. That’s definitely not red paint dripping off into the pool – that’s blood.

The victim, Dr John Christow, was something of a ladies man. He was married to the slow and dim-witted Gerda, who is now stood over him, revolver in hand, carrying on with the sculptor Henrietta Savernake, and formerly engaged to the Angkatell’s new neighbour, Hollywood actress Veronica Cray. Any of them could have snapped and killed him, but then it could just as easily have been Edward Angkatell, who longed to marry Henrietta, or Lucy Angkatell herself, who absent-mindedly put a gun in her basket that morning, but can’t now remember why. The scene looks cut and dried, with Gerda literally caught red-handed, but when it turns out that the bullet that killed John doesn’t match the gun in Gerda’s hand, it becomes apparent that all is not as it seems…

I wasn’t especially taken with the plot of this one. It’s definitely clever, and there’s a lot going on that wasn’t apparent until the end, as everyone’s motives aren’t quite what you think they might be. Sometimes the answers are right under your nose. However, it is the characters that really stand out in this one. Lucy Angkatell is hilariously ditzy, but also shows a shrewd understanding of people, being able to guess things about their private lives with astonishing accuracy. John Christow, aside from his philandering, also appears to be a decent bloke, a very capable and respected doctor, and against all obvious evidence, seems certainly in love with his wife. She, Gerda Christow, in turn is a great character, with everyone thinking she’s slow and stupid but actually showing surprising depth when she’s alone. Henrietta Savernake is also a blessing, with her passion for art and sculpture eventually betraying her secret.

It’s really something of a tragedy, this one, with upsetting consequences for many of the characters, but still a couple of rays of sunshine push their way through. While not my favourite, it’s definitely a fascinating character study with some brilliant set pieces and very vivid scenes.

“A Talent For Murder” by Andrew Wilson (2017)

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“Wherever I turned my head I thought I saw her, a woman people described as striking, beautiful even.”

If you delve into the life of Agatha Christie, there’s something very interesting about her that will quickly come to the surface. On the 3rd December 1926, following a row with her husband Archie, she disappeared. Eleven days later, she was found at a spa hotel in Harrogate, checked in under the name of her husband’s lover and apparently suffering with amnesia. She never told anyone what had happened during this time, and the whole incident is missing from her autobiography. The mystery remains one of the most fascinating of the twentieth century.

Did she suffer from a breakdown? Did she do it to spite her husband and stir up trouble? Was she trying to drum up publicity for her next novel? Did she have an encounter with a giant wasp and a Time Lord? No one knows, and it’s unlikely now we’ll ever find out. Andrew Wilson, however, has had a bash at an explanation.

Agatha Christie is out Christmas shopping, and while waiting for a tube station platform, she feels herself being pushed in front of an oncoming train. However, she is pulled back at the last moment by a man who introduces himself as Dr Patrick Kurs. He insists on taking her for tea to restore her nerves, but she can’t help think – did this man push her before he pulled her to safety? He seems to know a startling amount about her life, her marriage problems and her family, and it soon becomes clear that Kurs most certainly does not have Christie’s best interests at heart.

Kurs wants his wife dead, but knowing that he would be the prime suspect, he employs Christie to do his evil work for him, convinced that because she knows so much about murder, she’ll be quite willing to perform one. Besides, if she doesn’t … well, the consequences don’t bear thinking about. Christie leaves her house in the dead of night and is taken by Kurs to a hotel in Harrogate where they can plan the murder. It all seems hopeless, but her disappearance is quickly noticed and soon the whole country is looking for her, in particular the stubborn Superintendent William Kenward in charge of the case, and Una Crowe, an intrepid would-be journalist who is determined to prove that Christie is still alive.

It took a bit of time to get into, and was unusual but spine-tingling to see my heroine as the central figure in a mystery book. Wilson portrays her with love as a gentle, damaged woman, who is struggling to come to terms with her husband’s infidelity, still in denial and hoping he’ll come back to her. You have to feel sorry for her as she is taken away from her life by the nefarious Dr Kurs, but you understand why she does it – she can’t risk any harm coming to her daughter, Rosalind. Wilson, to his credit, seems fairly run-of-the-mill in his style, before coming into his own with twists worthy of a novel by Christie herself.

His attention to detail is phenomenal. At first I thought it might be an opportunity to get in every fact we knew about Christie – the fact she could surf and roller skate, her favourite drink, the name of her publisher – but it soon becomes clear that it all goes far deeper than that. The events of her first night at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel are documented as really happening. She did receive a package while at the hotel, although what it contained remains a mystery in reality. Even Una Crowe, the amateur journalist, was a real person, but to the best of our knowledge, she didn’t know Christie and was never a reporter. Wilson has weaved magic here to answer more than just what happened to Christie, and it’s absolutely genius.

The book purports to answer several questions that have remained unanswered for nearly one hundred years. Why did she introduce her husband as her brother? Why is there no mention of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in her notebooks? Who killed Una Crowe? Why did Christie choose the name of her husband’s lover as her pseudonym?

Of course, I’m still going to favour the Doctor Who episode “The Unicorn and the Wasp” as the truth regarding Christie’s disappearance, but this is still a fun, engaging and really enjoyable read, and it’s not over yet – there’s a sequel on the way, although I’d be curious to see how they fit any other changes into her life. Then again, the rest of her life did take her all over the world…

“Evil Under The Sun” by Agatha Christie (1941)

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“When Captain Roger Angmering built himself a house in the year 1782 on the island off Leathercombe Bay, it was thought the height of eccentricity on his part.”

Undaunted by a disappointing Agatha Christie last month, I press on with the final few novels. We’re much earlier in her career this time, 1941 to be exact, and back with Hercule Poirot, so there was a lot more hope that this was going to be one of the good ones. Indeed, it was.

We find our Belgian hero holidaying on a tiny island off of Devon at the Jolly Roger Hotel. His fellow guests are quite a jolly bunch, but one among them is causing quite a stir. Arlena Marshall is an uncommonly beautiful woman and all eyes turn to her as she makes her way down onto the beach every morning; the men look on with lust, the women with hatred and jealousy. She seems particularly intent on flirting with Patrick Redfern, a married man who follows her around like a loyal dog. With all this interest around her, it isn’t long before she’s found dead, strangled, on one of the island’s more remote beaches.

Ruling out the staff and noting it would be almost impossible for someone to cross from the mainland to the island unnoticed, it quickly becomes apparent that the murderer is among the hotel guests. Could it be that her husband, Kenneth Marshall, had finally had enough of her and the way she carried on and slipped off to murder her? Was it her step-daughter, Linda, who was seen that very morning with a bag of candles and no explanation? Is is Reverend Stephen Lane, convinced that Arlena was “evil through and through”? Perhaps Patrick’s wife Christie, jealous and angry? Not to mention Kenneth’s old friend Rosamund, athletic spinster Emily Brewster, or the garrulous Mrs Gardener? Everyone seems to have a perfect alibi, but Poirot is on the case, trying to work out what a bath, a bottle and a pair of nail scissors have to do with anything.

Fortunately, I adored this one. Poirot is on hand to help the local police, who are portrayed well and as a reasonably sensible group. The hotel guests are all interesting, and until the reveal, you could make quite a strong case against most of them. Liberally stuffed with red herrings, the story as usual has all the clues there, but it’s hard sometimes to even know what you’re looking for, or what offhand comment might reveal all. It’s a gorgeous setting too, and the novel includes a little map of the island, presumably added so Christie doesn’t have to provide a chapter of exposition on its shape and layout, and also to help amateur sleuths work out where everyone was when the crime occurred. There’s even a lovely little meta-joke: when one of the hotel guests asks Poirot to share with them his thoughts, he says, “I reserve the explanations for the last chapter.” And indeed, as usual, he does.

I’m going to be sorry when I’ve run out of Christie novels to discover for the first time. Undoubtedly a re-read of them all will have to take place. Still, until then, six to go.

“Passenger To Frankfurt” by Agatha Christie (1970)

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“Fasten your seat-belts, please.”

Some things get better with age; a fine wine, a smelly cheese, unwashed jeans. Other things are better then they’re younger, and I hate to be the one to say this given my overwhelming love of her, but Agatha Christie is definitely part of the latter group. It’s suggested now that by the end of her life she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, but it was never diagnosed at the time. It’s without question though that even for a fan, her later books simply do not stack up to the earlier ones. I’ve noted this before with Postern of Fate and Nemesis, but I think it’s especially evident here.

The story begins with diplomat Sir Stafford Nye flying home from Malaya. His plane is rerouted, and while waiting for the next connection, he is approached by a woman who wishes to borrow his passport and cloak so that she can get home safely and avoid the people who are trying to kill her. Nye decides that his life needs a touch of excitement, and agrees.

However, without knowing, he has endangered his own life, and a while later he meets the woman again, although this time she has an entirely different name and it’s quite clear he’s not meant to acknowledge their having met before. Soon, Nye is caught up in an international mystery that will take him and his new companion around the world on the hunt of an invisible and dangerous enemy. There is much danger afoot, with stories that the student protests going on around the world have a much more sinister motive. And could it be that the rumours are true – did Adolf Hitler really survive the war?

This book was released for Christie’s eightieth birthday and it makes me wonder if people were now too afraid to edit her, given her reputation as such a great author. Robert Barnard, crime writer and critic, noted; “Prizes should be offered to readers who can explain the ending.” Unfortunately, I have to agree with him. The novel bounces around a whole host of characters, many of whom seem to have more than one alias (although that might just be me being confused) and covers all manner of topics. The beginning is engaging enough, but I found my attention wandering quite a lot until you reach a point over halfway through when you’re wondering why they’re talking about Hitler’s possible son who was raised in Argentina with a swastika branded on his foot and why no one’s been killed in an old country house.

One particularly notable inclusion is Mr Robinson, a secretive financier who seems to have fingers in a lot of pies and knows a lot about the world’s money. He is notable in that he ties together much of Agatha Christie’s fictional universe, having had dealings with Poirot, Marple and Tommy & Tuppence over the years. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book isn’t actually part of the story. It features an introduction in which Christie herself explains to the reader how she would ideally answer anyone who asks her, “Where do you get your ideas from?” As a writer myself, I found it honest and hilarious.

There’s a touch of fantasy about this one, and it’s all a little strange and unwieldy. A completist would, of course, find it necessary to read this, but in general, Christie’s novels of the 1970s are not ones you’d ever really recommend. They can’t all be winners, I suppose.

 

“A Is For Arsenic” by Kathryn Harkup (2015)

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“The name ‘arsenic’ has become almost synonymous with poison – it could be argued that it represents the gold-standard of criminal poisoning.”

Do you ever find yourself reading a book or watching a film and there’s a character in it with an unusual job and you go, “I could do that”? It happens to me with alarming regularity, but it really kicked into effect with this book. I found myself wishing I could redo everything and have studied science for longer at school and gone on to be a toxicologist. Of course, I’m sure this desire will last only as long as it takes for this book to fade a little from my memory, but suffice to say at this moment, there’s a part of me that wants to dive back into education and switch from artistic pursuits to scientific ones.

My Agatha Christie obsession remained forefront as I delved into A is for Arsenic, which takes a look at a bunch of poisons and both describes how they work and how Christie used them in her stories. Not everyone knows that Christie worked as a pharmacy dispenser during both wars, and it was here that she picked up all of her detailed knowledge on the world of poisons. The most common cause of death among her characters was poison, and she always did her best to ensure the science was correct. As Kathryn Harkup recounts here, it seems that most of the time she was spot on.

The fourteen poisons covered in the book are arsenic, belladonna, cyanide, digitalis, eserine, hemlock, monkshood, nicotine, opium, phosphorus, ricin, strychnine, thallium and Veronal. They form a blend of very well known killers, and some that are downright obscure. For example, ricin and thallium were both unheard of as methods of murder before Christie wrote about them. However, it seems that sometimes her stories gave rise to ideas in the real world, and there’s been more than one killer caught because he had one of her books stashed away in his study. Conversely, on a few occasions people have been saved by recognising the symptoms of poisoning from reading a Christie novel. While there are some people who consider her detailed use of science to be damaging, her books are generally highly praised for their accuracy.

Each chapter studies a particular poison, giving details of where it can be obtained, how it was discovered, how exactly it kills, and whether there is an antidote. Among these, we also learn about real life cases involving the poison, and it all gets related back to one of Christie’s plots and how accurate she was. There are some surprising facts here, not only about the poisons, but about Christie herself, and we learn a little more about her scientific mind. The poisons are the real stars though, and it’s fascinating to learn about the very close relationship between morphine and heroin, quite how poisonous pure nicotine is, how best to mask the bitter taste of cyanide, and which poisons are still used today. Hemlock, for example, while being quite famous for its toxic qualities, hasn’t been recorded as being used to intentionally kill someone since the days of Socrates. Christie made use of it in Five Little Pigs, one of my favourites.

Although for the most part Harkup avoids sharing spoilers, there are a few present, but always headed with a warning to skip ahead if you don’t want to see “whodunnit”. Generally we aren’t told, but sometimes the solutions need to be explained to give an extra detail on how the poison is used within the story. For anyone with an interest in Christie’s work or toxicology (or ideally, like myself, both), this is a startlingly good read. If not inspiring me quite fully to become a toxicologist, I am at least inspired to return to the murder mystery I started writing. I believe there is some cyanide in a cocktail I need to sort out…

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