THE BOOK Fontana, 1972 pp 192
The hardback was a 1970 Christmas Present (my first ‘Christie for Christmas’). The book had been published that year and was already into its second edition.
The paperback did not come out until 1972, by which time the wonderful 60s Fontana cover template had been abandoned. The one shown here for the first paperback edition is a mess, with its pitiful pseudo-Gothic script and Tom Adams cover. For once, his bug-on-the-cover doesn’t work, possibly because of the swastika graffiti-ed on to it. He painted an alternative cover which is far more successful, with a wonderful portrayal of the hideous Charlotte and the Young Siegfried, but I have never seen an edition that sported it.
Sir Stafford Nye, a bored, unsatisfied diplomat, is approached at Geneva Airport by a young woman who appeals for his help. Intrigued, he agrees to hand over to her his passport, and allows his drink to be drugged by her. She escapes; when he awakes, he determines to find her.
Before long, he finds himself entwined in a spider’s web of world anarchy and a global conspiracy to re-assert the master race. Washington has been raised to the ground, and the powers that be are plotting to spray the legions of student demonstrators with ‘Benvo’, a miracle drug that spreads contentment.
I kid you not.
And Sir Stafford marries the young woman, with a toy panda as his best man.
CHARACTERS AND ATTITUDES
There are quite a variety of characters in this book, from leftovers from the Almanac de Gotha to an asylum full of Adolf Hitlers. The story is so ‘extravagant’ that the interaction between these characters is totally unconvincing, and the climactic, senseless discussions about the use of ‘Benvo’ expose their lack of credibility.
Amongst the cast:
– Sir Stafford Nye, a world weary diplomat: ce n’est pas un garçon serieux
– Countess Renata Zerkowski, a fearless heroine with great persuasive powers, reminiscent of Anna Scheele in They Came to Baghdad
– Grafin Charlotte von Waldhausen, a huge Shelob, wallowing in her fat and bent on world domination
– Lady Matilda Cleckheaton, the Marplesque aunt of Stafford Nye and an old school chum of Charlotte
– Mr Robinson, a ‘regular’ in late Christie books, large, yellow and world expert on money
– Colonel Pikeaway, another late Christie regular, covered in ash and shrouded in cigar smoke
– 25 Adolf Hitlers in a lunatic asylum, thereby shielding the real one, who had been hurriedly placed there in 1945 when the Russians entered Berlin
– The Young Siegfried, a charismatic youth leader who may or may not be Hitler’s son.
This is the daftest story I have ever read to the end.
Here are some comments on the times as seen through the authors eyes, beginning with an extract from her own introduction:
Hold up a mirror to 1970 in England …
Everyday there is a killing. A girl strangled. Elderly woman attacked and robbed of her meagre savings. Young men or boys – attacking or attacked. Buildings and telephone kiosks smashed and gutted. Drug smuggling. Robbery and assault. Children missing and children’s murdered bodies found not far from their homes.
That’s not quite my over-riding impression of life in the UK in 1970. Here are some more signs of the times from the mouths of her characters:
She said, “Safe is a four-letter word but not the kind of four-letter word that people are interested in nowadays.” (Renate)
A girl had been strangled in the park. Girls were always being strangled. One a day, he thought callously. No child had been kidnapped or raped this morning. That was a nice surprise. (Stafford Nye)
“Impossible to get anything down here now. Our own grocer … turned suddenly into a supermarket, six times the size, all rebuilt, baskets and wire trays to carry round and try to fill up with things you don’t want and mothers always losing their babies, and crying, and having hysterics. Most exhausting.” (Lady Matilda)
Many of Agatha Christie’s later novels suffer from a lack of editing; maybe the editors were baffled by what they were reading. This is an extract from a speech that starts off being made by Mr Robinson, the fat financier, and ends up in the mouth of James Kleek, secretary to Lord Altamount:
“It’s quite simple,” said Mr Robinson. “There are big movements afoot. There has to be money behind them. We’ve got to find out where that money is coming from … I know a lot about money … That’s what you mean, sir, isn’t it?” He half turned towards Lord Altamount. “That’s the way you more or less put it to me.”
“Yes, you’re expressing things very well, James.”
An editor might have pointed out that Peru is still part of South America:
“South America, as I say, is one of the strongholds. And Peru and South Africa also.”
” … there are four, five different divisions of power, in South America, Cuba, Peru, Guatemala and so on.”
The real Agatha Christie does still come through in patches. Here is Mr Robinson again:
“If you know a thing,” he said, “it is always a great temptation to show that you know it; to talk about it, in other words. It is not that you want to give information, it is not that you have been offered payment to give information. It is just that you want to show how important you are. Yes, it’s just as simple as that.”
So, so true.
SWIGATHA RATING 1/10
It is almost impossible to succinctly summarise this book. It is described as an extravaganza, which should indicate a spectacular production, but it is nothing of the kind: it is a rambling, repetitive saga that splutters to its end. The best writing is contained in the first two pages of the author’s introduction, which itself has deteriorated into nonsense by page four. From an unbelievable opening, the story goes steadily downhill until it arrives at an ending that defies analysis.
It gets one point because the physical book is great to hold, and Mr Robinson’s strategy for uncovering the leaders of the conspiracy (‘Follow the Money’) at least makes sense, and anticipates the strategy that untangled a real-world political cover-up (Watergate) two or three years later.
WHERE IT LED
Straight to the top of the best-seller lists. When you are such a huge ‘name’ your publisher can get away with anything.
Unsurprisingly, there have been none, although there is a ‘talking book’ version read by Hugh Fraser, brave man.