This was it. My final Agatha Christie novel to read. I did wonder whether I should have marked the occasion with a cake or fireworks, it being such a monumental unrepeatable moment. Never again would I get to read an Agatha Christie novel for the first time.
Destination Unknown (1954) opens with Jessop and Colonel Wharton puzzling over where Thomas Betterton, a leading scientist has vanished to, after disappearing at a conference in Paris. Even worse he is one of the many important scientists from Europe and America, who have gone missing and nobody knows where they have gone. Set in the 1950s the obvious suspicion is that they have defected to Soviet Russia. This was a topical issue at the time as a few years previously Bruno Pontecorvo was one such scientist who defected. Jessop decides to interview Betterton’s wife once more, but fails to gain any new information other than she plans to go on holiday to Morocco. Suspicious of her motives, Jessop decides to have her followed to see if she will lead them to her husband.
The story then shifts to a woman called Hilary Craven, whose husband has left her and whose child has died. Feeling rock bottom, having realised that she can’t escape her pain by running away to a different country (also Morocco) she decides to take her own life. However, Jessop also in Morocco offers her an alternative: resume the life of Mrs Betterton (who has died from injuries in a plane crash) and discover more about where these scientists are disappearing. A foolhardy mission he admits, but a far more interesting way to die. The rest of the novel charts her journey which takes her to the very heart of the mystery ideologically and geographically, bringing her into contact with many of the missing scientists. In usual Christie manner, many of the characters are not what they seem and she pulls out many twists at the denouement of the tale, which do fit with the characters we know, but are a little rushed.
In a way there are two main strands to this story. The typical thriller plot taking down a mastermind, with “superman” themes and political isms. And then there is a much more personal story, the revitalisation of Hilary Craven who has to come to terms with her losses and restart her life. It is this second story which is the more successfully portrayed. The first strand often feels quite woolly and vague, but the second is much more convincing and that is perhaps because it came out of experiences closer to home. Nearly 30 years earlier Christie could be regarded as having hit her own rock bottom. In 1926 Christie’s mother had died and her first husband Archie, fell in love with another woman, Nancy Neele and wanted to divorce Christie. It was after this that her famous disappearance occurred, being found in in a hotel in Harrogate, apparently having suffered from amnesia. It is easy to draw similarities between Christie and Hilary, women who have both experienced loss and marital breakdown. And it seems to me that Christie’s message in this story is that suicide or escape are not viable options for remedying emotional pain but having a purpose and occupation can be, which is borne out by Hilary who through taking on the mission, finds a new zest for living.
In a similar vein, there are also different levels to the title: Destination Unknown. Firstly it applies to the thriller thread of the story as nobody knows at the start of the novel where the scientists are, they are in an unknown destination. The title can also be applied to Hilary’s strand of the story as when she prepares to commit suicide she thinks about what there will be on the other side of life, what death will be like. This again can be considered as another destination unknown. Moreover, the mission Jessop sends her on also applies to the title. In addition, Jessop at the conclusion of the novel makes a jest of this saying:
‘’I sent Hilary Craven off on a journey to a destination unknown, but it seems to me that her journey’s end is the usual one after all.’
This is a reference to another archetypal plot line (which I won’t reveal). However, the title also in a way links to the reader, as like so many of the characters, the reader does not know the destination of the plot and where it will take them.
Despite advocating occupation for curing emotional ills, Christie’s portrayal of women can be difficult, I think for modern readers, to read in this story, not the least because it is somewhat inconsistent. Whilst the scientist’s wives, who frequently have little to do are not depicted particularly positively, female scientists are not either in the character of Helga Needheim who as a person is stripped of all femininity and is a rather unlikeable character. Hilary and another character Bianca seem to be the most successful at achieving the balance of retaining feminine qualities whilst also pursuing some occupation or goal. But still I found it a little problematic.
I think for me the novel was at its strongest when Christie focused on the Hilary strand of the novel and when dealing with much more down to earth human vices and issues such as greed and murder. The plot is less convincing when she is dealing with bigger themes such as communism, fascism and idealism (which are as deadly as each other in this tale). It is because of this alongside some plot underdevelopment issues, that my rating below is a little lower.
Personally out of Christie’s thrillers I prefer The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), They Came to Baghdad (1951) and The Secret Adversary (1922), as I felt that the geography and character motivations were more grounded.
Knowingchristie has also blogged about Destination Unknown (1954) and it even includes a map! (What golden age crime fiction fan can resist?)