I felt that it was time to strategically sprinkle in another of Christie’s big-time stinkers into my re-readathon. Like The Big Four, Passenger to Frankfurt is another of Dame Agatha’s failed attempts at a spy novel about a world-wide conspiracy out to destroy the existing social order. While the former is just plain terrible, the latter also has the dubious distinction of being probably the weirdest book Christie ever penned, and not in a good way. It was first published in 1970 to mark her 80th birthday, and, at the most charitable, it can be seen as a window into Christie’s view of the world she found herself in the twilight of her years.
The beginning is fairly promising: the story kicks off with Sir Stafford Nye, a middle-aged British diplomat on his way home from Asia. While waiting in an airport lounge in Frankfurt, he is approached by a dark-haired woman whose features bear a resemblance to his own. She claims that her life is in grave danger and asks to borrow Nye’s passport and plane ticket as well as his rather eccentric cloak. Nye has been passed over for important positions over his irreverent and rebellious streak, and the woman somehow deduces that he wouldn’t be the one to turn down an adventurous proposition – he even agrees to drink a drugged beverage to make his future explanation to the officials sound more credible.
From then on, Sir Stafford gets slowly drawn into the increasingly convoluted conspiracy involving a secret organisation with Neo-Nazi leanings, who are brainwashing the youth of the world in order to unleash violence and anarchy. While the story sticks with Nye and his attempts to find out more about the mysterious woman, it manages to stay at least somewhat coherent, but roughly at mid-point, the novel disintegrates into an utter disjointed mess. There are a lot of tedious government meetings featuring a myriad of characters who all blend into each other and disappear as quickly as they’re introduced. There are long rambling monologues about the ills of the modern world that veer off on most random of tangents and seem to be the result of poor editing more than anything else (the worst culprit is Nye’s garrulous great-aunt Lady Matilda who simply will not shut up). There are detours into bizarre Hitler conspiracies and behaviour-altering drugs.
It’s kinda hard not to read Christie’s own reservations about the world of the 60s into this novel – the dangers of youth, the culpability of the old, growing permissiveness, cynicism about the politicians. One senses that Christie felt like she had a lot she wanted to say, but unfortunately she’s completely out of her depth here and her insights are wrapped inside an incoherent, poorly written story. This wretched novel was clearly published on the name and reputation of its author alone.
P.S. Unsurprisingly, Passenger to Frankfurt is one of only four Agatha Christie novels not to be adapted for anything by anyone. But that everything else she’s written did get adapted is pretty mind-blowing, considering her prolific output.
P.P.S. Amy Leatheran, the narrator of Murder in Mesopotamia, makes a cameo appearance in the novel as the nurse to Lady Matilda. I’m not entirely sure why Christie dragged the character out nearly thirty-five years later, only to have her employer describe her condescendingly as a mild sheep.