Destination Unknown (by Agatha Christie)

Interspersed with reading new books and re-reading some of my favourites, I’m trying to read my way through the large number of Agatha Christie novels we have on our shelves. One of my sons was quite keen on her crime fiction in his teens, and I picked up quite a few at charity shops. One of the books I had never previously read is ‘Destination Unknown’, which I finished yesterday.

Unlike the majority of this author’s books, this is more a thriller than a mystery to be solved. There’s no Poirot or Miss Marple; no false clues or unexpected perpetrator. Indeed, there’s no real way for the reader to work out what’s going on; I had an inkling about one of the people who was revealed later in the story, but little idea of where the plot was going.

Set in the 1950s, which was when the book was written, the story begins with a missing scientist. Tom Betterton has been involved in splitting atoms - the author is unsurprisingly rather vague about the details. Two UK officials have been trying to trace him, concerned about his ‘left wing’ beliefs and the possibility of Tom’s having given or sold secrets to Communists.

They interview, among other people, Tom’s wife Olive. They’ve only been married for six months, and she seems tearful and very worried, but the two officials believe that she knows more than she is saying. And when she announces that her doctor has recommended she take a holiday abroad, they think this probably means that she’s going somewhere to find him. So they arrange to have her followed…

It’s hard to say more without giving spoilers. But as the blurb on the back states, Helen, a different woman entirely, someone bereaved and depressed, agrees to impersonate Olive. It’s thought that she must have received some kind of information about where to go to find Tom. Most of the story then follows Helen as she learns to play her role faultlessly, meets and talks to various people, receives signs and indications of where she should go… and worries about what will happen when she finally reaches her supposed husband at the 'unknown destination'.

There’s a fair amount of politics in the story, although all rather confusing; people seemed to see communism and fascism in far more stereotyped viewpoints, without understanding either, than we tend to today. The ‘Iron Curtain’ was firmly in place, and there was some deep-set racism apparent in some of the words used in the book (‘natives’, for instance) although Agatha Christie was a product of her era; I doubt if she actively believed that Europeans were inherently superior to other cultures.

But overall, the writing is very good, paced exactly right for my tastes, and with just enough tension to keep me turning the pages. Thrillers aren’t my preferred genre, and I wondered if I would like it, once I realised that it wasn’t a standard crime mystery. But I found myself more involved in the characters than I usually do with Agatha Christie’s books.

Although I had the right idea about who might be responsible, overall, for what turned out to be an elaborate and complex project, I had not guessed many of the other twists and turns that were revealed in the last chapters. All in all, I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to, and would recommend it to anyone who likes mid-20th century mild thrillers.

Regularly re-printed despite the age of this book.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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