Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Passenger To Frankfurt (1970)

Plot: Hitler's Lost Son and some Hippies take over the world!

“Where do you get your ideas from?” Agatha Christie ponders in the introduction. This bold, mad romp is isn't so much inspired as improvised, changing tack, plot and characters from page to page.

This would matter more if it wasn't so bloody entertaining from moment to moment. It's only as you approach the end that you think “No, now, hang on a minute, this isn't fair...”

We start with Sir Stafford Nye – a diplomat who, we are assured, would go far except for his addiction to jokes. This is surprising as he tells Not One Joke throughout the entire book. He's a game old bird and enters into an intrigue with the mysterious Passenger To Frankfurt, becoming involved in an international conspiracy which is thrillingly described and then.... peters out oddly.

We switch several times to the rooms of some high-powered diplomats, some of them vividly described in clouds of cigar smoke, some of them utterly faceless (one of them's a villain, by the way, but when they're unmasked you'll have a great moment of “uh, who is that again?”).

We then switch away to Stafford's marvellous octogenarian Aunt Matilda. She's a wily old bird and has realised that there's a conspiracy afoot To Destroy Civilisation. So she promptly goes on holiday to Bavaria, where she encounters the conspirators, among them a very fat lady, Hitler's Son, and what appears to be the SS who are taking over the young of the world by organising some nice concerts with decent catering. Crikey.

Poor Sir Stafford wanders back in and then potters out like he's forgotten his keys. At one moment he laments that “Fiction was infinitely superior to real life”, which all depends on your point of view. He's frequently either clutching an enigmatic stuffed panda or a glamorous young woman/princess. Who he may or may not be in love with, who may or may not be related to him, who may or may not be about to destroy the world. Occasionally he plays Wagner on the recorder and who can blame him?

That this all makes sense as you're reading it (but not immediately afterwards) is quite a tribute to Christie. She's an utter poppet for wonderful diversions, such as Aunt Matilda remembering that as a child she wasn't allowed to read novels in the morning, and who hints thickly (and entirely erroneously) that the mystery hinges on The Prisoner Of Zenda.

Occasionally we'll hear that Washington has been destroyed by rioting children, or that planes are being hijacked and taken to Africa. A figure somewhat like General de Gaul will take to the streets of Paris in an attempt to quell the uprising, but it's all too complicated and sometimes has a bit to do with biological warfare and sometimes to do with the destruction of all the airports across Europe. There's even a diagram of the conspiracy, which really doesn't help at all, but looks a bit like a flower. Which is pretty.

There's a remarkable scene recalled in an insane asylum featuring Hitler talking to some Hitler impersonators, which may go some way towards explaining the diabolical schemes of a large woman called Charlotte. Then again, it may not, as contradictory explanations are given – frequently and bafflingly.

It ends in a remote house in Scotland where the solution is... well, only possible to wor out if you've been paying very close attention. And even then, it's quite remarkably odd, like late Margery Allingham doing battle with GK Chesterton sieved through a worn sock. But there's a wedding, although quite why that happens isn't explained.

It's a lovely, maddening pudding of a book. That you'll love a bit despite yourself. Notice the interesting cover of the current edition – the book itself is like the 1920s trying to engage with a world of punk and flower power. But the book cover tuts and goes for some nice frocks. And bless it for that.

We also never find out the significance of the stuffed panda.

NEXT: Why didn't they ask Evans?


  1. This book is on one level an utter disaster and failure... And yet, Christie correctly identifies the type of conspiratorial manipulation of events which has seen the rise in 2008 of the worst kind of populist demagogue, and before him of Blair and other empty suits. And their appeal was indeed to the irrational and therefore innately left wing children of the west.

    Where Christie went wrong consistently was in trying to tie her correct instinct for the type of soft warfare being waged on traditional values to a Siegried- a character type she is warning against as early as the 1920s, and then forcefully from the 1940s right through to her death.

    Whether through her real life acquaintance with men on whom characters such as Colonel Race was based, or through her own genius-level observational skills, she definitely and accurately predicted the rise of Alinsky style demagoguery- and its real aim. She also points out that Passenger to Frankfurt is a book that has a possible plot, one that is fantastic but possible. She gets virtually every detail wrong, but the fundamental idea about the will to power, the children's crusade, the empty suit leading it, the anarchist urge to destroy... Well, we're living it in fact.

    Another thing to notice with Christie is that when she gets her facts right, even if it seems insignificant or crazy, she really is 100% right. In Passenger she gets loads of theories she is trying out totally wrong- but as for De Gaulle- his little cameo is thoroughly accurate. As is the dislike of him by those "closest" to him.

    It's easy to forget how many things we now overlook or dismiss actually did happen. It's only when she tries to guess at the mechanism )Siegfried( that she really comes a cropper. The real puppet is almost the anti-Siegfried, which if she'd lived a little longer she would certainly have guessed.

  2. This book in it's oddness reminds me of the video game No One Lives Forever.