THE BOOK Fontana 1967 pp191
Tom Adams cover from the 1960s was clearly influenced by the pop art of the time, and has the look of a psychedelic album cover. The images of the faked plane crash, a leper and broken necklace are all relevant to the story.
The later cover from the 1970s is far more interesting, and much more menacing than the story actually justifies. The metamorphosis of the rock is a reference to the character of Mr Aristides, who is described as a ‘small yellow toad’.
I prefer the earlier book because of its lettering! It is dedicated to ‘Anthony, who likes foreign travel as much as I do’. Anthony Hicks was Agatha Christie’s son-in-law.
A glut of brilliant young research scientists has been disappearing without a trace, and British Intelligence suspects a conspiracy of the ‘take-over-the-world’ variety. They are on the trail of one scientist in particular, Thomas Betterton, and suspect that his wife Olive had been on her way to join him when her plane crashed en route to Casablanca.
Hilary Craven is intending to commit suicide – her own ‘destination unknown’. She had been scheduled to be on the same flight as Olive Betterton and is somewhat rueful when she finds out what has happened. She determines to overdose on sleeping pills, but is prevented from doing so by the British agent Jessop, who persuades her that there are more interesting ways of killing oneself: one is to travel to Casablanca, posing as Olive Betterton, in an attempt to be taken to the enclave of scientists that is at the heart of the conspiracy. Jessop provides her with the means to advertise the route she has travelled, but by the time she has met her ‘husband’, she will be on her own …
Many of the characters in this story are re-hashes of characters from They Came to Baghdad. Indeed, one could say that the story itself is:
– a young woman with nothing to lose (Hilary Craven / Victoria Jones) is persuaded to impersonate someone else with whom they share a startling similarity (Olive Betterton / Anna Scheele);
– she travels to the Middle East;
– during her passage she is accompanied by a middle-aged American woman (Mrs Calvin Baker / Mrs Hamilton Clipp) who is not what she seems;
– her activities are monitored by an officer from British Intelligence (Jessop / Dakin), who is on the trail of a mysterious cabal aimed at world domination that involves the disappearance of a group of brilliant young scientists;
… and so on.
The character of Hilary Craven carries the whole book – if she were to be taken out of it there would be little point in reading it. The character of Hilary Craven also shares a lot with that of her creator.
ATTITUDES AND QUOTES
The supposed sanctity of human life is not much to the fore in this book. Maybe for an author who had experienced the horrors of two world wars and a horrific pandemic in between them this is not surprising.
Hilary Craven’s reasons for desiring oblivion are convincingly portrayed, possibly in part informed by the author’s own experience:1
One could bear things, Hilary thought, as long as there was a reason for bearing them. She had borne her own long illness, she had borne Nigel’s defection and the cruel and brutal circumstances in which it had operated. She had borne these things because there was Brenda. Then had come the long, slow losing fight for Brenda’s life – the final defeat… Now there was nothing to live for any longer.
Hilary Craven prepares to commit suicide:
She was once again a traveller as she had been at Heath Row, a traveller waiting to depart for an unknown destination, unencumbered by baggage, unaffected by farewells. For the first time in her life she was free, entirely free, to act as she wished to act … Yes, light, free, unencumbered! Ready to start on her journey.
Jessop sweet-talks Hilary away from suicide and into a suicide mission:
She was thoughtful. “To you, I suppose I was just …”
He finished the sentence for her. “A woman with a noticeable head of red hair and who hadn’t the pluck to go on living.”
She flushed. “That’s a harsh judgement.”
“It’s a true one, isn’t it? I don’t go in for being sorry for people. For one thing, it’s insulting. One is only sorry for people when they’re sorry for themselves. Self-pity is one of the biggest stumbling-blocks in the world today.”
Hilary / Agatha is enchanted by Fez. The quote at the start is taken from the Song of Solomon:
‘As a garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse….’ This was what a garden was meant to be – a place of green and gold, shut away from the real world.
Hilary is almost persuaded by Dr Barron’s dream of loosing a chemical plague across the globe just to see what happens: 2
“It would be amazingly interesting to see the exact course, the exact progress.” And he added with a deep half-sigh: “You see, there’s so much more to know, so much more to find out.”
For a moment Hilary understood. For a moment she stood where he stood, impregnated with that single-hearted desire for knowledge which swept aside life and death for millions of human beings as essentially unimportant.
SWIGATHA RATING 5/10
As with a few of Agatha Christie’s later books this one has a cracking premise at the start – a suicidal woman being offered a suicide mission – but it starts to drag once she has embarked on it. The writing flows, but there are a few tedious passages of travel and not many characters of interest, apart from the heroine. There are also too many echoes of They Came to Baghdad, published only 3 years before; this book could easily have been titled They Came to Somewhere Else.
As ever with Agatha Christie, the North African countryside and the Arabs inhabiting it are drawn with knowledge and affection, but the mystery element of this book (the murder of a scientist in the US) is introduced at the end almost as an afterthought.
WHERE IT LED
There was a merciful hiatus in Swigatha’s series of world-domination conspiracy novels until 1970 when the infinitely worse Passenger to Frankfurt emerged.
There have been none so far. Oddly enough, I think this book would work quite well on TV, with good character actors to flesh out the main and minor parts, as long as they keep the locations and time the same. It could be part of a World Domination trilogy, preceded by They Came to Baghdad and followed by Passenger to Frankfurt. Some of the best Christie adaptations have been of her less exalted works.
1 The ‘brutal circumstances’ of her own first husband’s defection included the aftermath of the death of Agatha Christie’s mother.
2 Should Hilary still be alive today, in 2020, she would be able to track a plague of truly global proportions, thereby satisfying her ‘single-hearted desire for knowledge’.