Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie – Book Review

A standalone spy thriller set during Cold War and inspired by Dame Agatha’s journeys in the Middle East, Destination Unknown is a fairly decent quick read that doesn’t really stick in the memory for either good or bad reasons.

Hilary Craven is a broken woman who feels that she has nothing left to live for. Her husband deserted her for another woman, her only child has died, and leaving England for sunny Morocco has only revealed the futility of trying to escape herself. As Hilary sits in her hotel room with a glass of water and a handful of sleeping pills, her suicide attempt is interrupted with a most extraordinary proposal from a British secret agent named Jessop, who knocks on her door just in time.

The British intelligence are getting twitchy over the mysterious disappearances of notable young Western scientists, who are believed to have defected to the Soviet Union. One such scientist is Thomas Betterton, the genius inventor of ZE Fusion, who has vanished without a trace leaving behind a distraught wife, or so she claims to be. Suspecting that Olive Betterton is meant to join her wayward husband, a carefully orchestrated tail follows her to Morocco, but her plane to Casablanca crashes and Olive ends up in a hospital with horrible injuries.

The doctors don’t expect Olive to live much longer, and so Hilary, who conveniently bears a strong resemblance to Mrs Betterton with just the right shade of red hair, is presented with an intriguing opportunity to assume the dying woman’s identity and continue her journey towards the destination unknown, where she would presumably be reunited with Thomas Betterton. Jessop puts it bluntly that there’s only a small chance of Hilary surviving this suicide mission, and Hilary, who has nothing left to lose, accepts the challenge.

Christie’s dedication at the beginning of the book reads, to Anthony, who likes foreign travel as much as I do (Anthony, as I found out later, was Christie’s son-in-law who she was apparently very fond of). The first half of the novel certainly feels infused with love of exploration and exotic places, as Hilary travels around Morocco’s scenic spots waiting to be approached by the organisation responsible for Betterton’s disappearance, and slowly begins to want to live again. There’s a lightness of touch to these earlier chapters which I found enjoyable. I do hope I can visit Morocco some day and walk the old city of Fez.

Disappointingly, the book actually gets less exciting when Hilary reaches the journey’s end and finds herself trapped in a nightmarish gilded cage with seemingly no chance of escape. It’s not quite as improbable and silly as some of Christie’s other attempts at spy thriller, and it does proceed to smash one of my least favourite Christie tropes, but a lack of excitement in a thriller is a major drawback and I’ve read much better dystopian fiction than this. It also doesn’t help that the secondary characters in this half of the book are thoroughly unmemorable.

I’m in two minds about Hilary, who is a very different protagonist compared to some of Christie’s plucky heroines with a thirst for adventure, such as Victoria Jones in They Came to Baghdad or Anne Beddingfeld in The Man in the Brown Suit. Though she starts out in a very dark and despondent place, she displays a lot of spirit and presence of mind later on in the story and overall I liked her arc. Hilary does however remain an essentially passive character who mostly goes along with other people’s plans without showing much initiative herself. When you get down to it, her role in the story is simply to lead the authorities to the whereabouts of Thomas Betterton and sit pretty until the secret agents save the day.

Destination Unknown is far from Christie’s worst, but it’s fair to say it’s not surprising that it remains one of the very few Christie novels yet to be adapted into TV or film. I didn’t regret not getting a physical copy of the book like I have with most during my re-readathon.

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