Monday, 19 October 2009

Destination Unknown 1955

PLOT: Missing scientists, plucky suicide, and The Prisoner in Casablanca.

Almost pure plot, Destination Unknown rattles along triumphantly, trumpeting its difference - No drawing rooms! No detectives! No death! I'm betting this sheer unChristie-ness contributes to its rather low reputation, which is thoroughly undeserved.

The first half is the standard world of the Christie thriller - there are mysterious government agents behind closed doors, luxurious hotels and enigmatic passengers on planes. There are the vividly convincing touches of local detail ("You come with me. We have very fine toilet! Oh very fine! Just like the Ritz Hotel.").

But there is a crucial difference - that of a mysterious women in a hotel who assumes a false name, a wife abandoned by her cheating husband and contemplating suicide in luxurious surroundings. Is this an Agatha Christie figure? *shrugs* What's more important is what Hilary Craven offers the plot - she's able to go on a remarkable mission because she's very willing to die.

This mission takes up the second half of the book, and it is The Prisoner. Hilary finds herself in a mysterious society which could be in Africa or behind the Iron Curtain. There are enigmatic leaders, assumed identities, brainwashers, peculiar rules, surveillance, and all the luxurious comforts of home including shops and cinemas... but it is still a prison, a prison designed to extract knowledge from people the world thinks dead. Frankly, blimey. To take against this book because there aren't corpses in the library is short-sighted - all Christie is missing is a giant killer balloon and some repressed homosexuality and we're there.

There's some intriguing political musings going on here. Christie appears to be saying that communist and fascist and anarchist are all easily swayed. Her Number One isn't a Nightmare Soul, but a cunning capitalist spider sucking knowledge from everyone.

In amongst a shower of riches we're presented with a character called Andy Peters, the veiled awkwardness of two people pretending to be married while under observation, and an uneasy disguise which includes "full Negroid lips".

One of the big shames is that the book peters out. In some ways it's been driving towards this ending, and it ticks a lot of boxes - showdown, secrets, arrests etc, but there's also the queasy sense that diplomatic pragmatism has prevailed over justice and that Christie is hurrying back to familiar ground without having fully explored her amazing alternative society.

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