Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Agatha Christie: Destination Unknown (1954)

Published: HarperCollins, 2003

When Agatha Christie is mentioned, or when you pick up one of her books, it is crime that you expect to be the subject. But Destination Unknown is no murder mystery: it is a straightforward thriller. There are innumerable thrillers much like it: the defecting scientist was made the peg on which hundreds of similar novels were hung during the Cold War. When Dr Betterton goes missing, it looks to the British Secret Service as though his wife might follow him, when she books a trip to Morocco, ostensibly to recuperate from the stress. She is killed when her plane crashes, and so they recruit a woman of similar appearance to take her place - with the obvious problem that they might well be unable to protect her when she is finally brought face to face with a husband who will obviously not recognise her.

The plot is complicated by several other deceptions and impersonations, and a second air crash: although plotting seems to be generally considered Christie's strong point, this is not one of the best. It becomes overloaded, unbelievable and there are loose ends left dangling. The ending is peculiarly unsatisfying, as the young woman who has been the central character for most of the story plays a distinctly passive part in it, which is not only unconventional in the genre, but just doesn't work. I realise that I am now criticising Destination Unknown for pandering to the clich├ęs of the genre and for failing to follow the conventions simultaneously, but both feel like problems when reading the novel. This is because it seems over-familiar, by re-using thriller conventions which are tired (and which were surely tired even in 1954), while ignoring conventions which are useful structurally for adding to the tension and suspense which is a major reason for reading the genre.

Problems that are systemic in Christie's writing also occur here. The plot is convoluted and bizarre even by her standards, with far too many impersonations for it to be credible. Characters are one dimensional, even the central agent at the centre of the story and dialogue can be awkward. There are some especially poor specimens of reported thought. And yet Destination Unknown is a pleasure to read, in an undemanding kind of way; again, a trait common to much of the author's writing. In the end, Destination Unknown can be seen as an interesting but not entirely successful experiment in writing in a genre that was not natural for Christie.

1 comment:

jackpayne said...

The cross-mixing of styles does not quite work here. A mystery is a far different breed of cat than a thriller.

With a mystery you start with the ending--a murder, violent culmination of something. Then the quest, through the balance of the book to find who-done-it.

A thriller starts out building a plot line, and through twists and turns, spurts for the finish line with (usually) a slam bang ending, bringing resolution in the very last pararaph of the book. The ending is truly the ending.

As a thriller writer, all I can say is that Christie is a good mystery writer.

--Jack Payne