August’s theme for the Read Christie 2022 challenge is ‘a story set in a hot climate’, so the recommended title, Destination Unknown, which is set in North Africa, was the perfect choice. I was a bit apprehensive about reading this one because it doesn’t seem to get very good reviews and it’s certainly not one of Christie’s better known novels (in fact it’s one of only four of her books never to have been adapted for TV or film), but I found it entertaining enough.
We first meet our heroine, Hilary Craven, in a Casablanca hotel room, preparing to commit suicide. Her daughter has died, her marriage has broken down and she feels she has nothing to live for. Before she can go through with her plans, however, she is interrupted by Jessop, a British secret agent. Jessop has noticed a resemblance between Hilary and another woman, Olive Betterton, who has been fatally injured in a plane crash, and he has an interesting suggestion to make…
It is believed that Olive was on her way to Morocco to join her husband, Thomas Betterton, a renowned nuclear physicist who recently went missing in Paris. Betterton is one of several scientists from around the world who have all disappeared without trace. Jessop wants Hilary Craven to impersonate the dying woman in the hope that she will be able to locate Betterton and the other missing scientists. With nothing to lose, Hilary agrees.
As you can probably tell from my synopsis of the plot, this is not a murder mystery like most of Christie’s other books and it does not feature any of her famous characters such as Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple or Tommy and Tuppence. It’s much more of a thriller, with elements of spy/espionage fiction. I really enjoyed the first half of the novel – although the plot is undoubtedly a bit far-fetched and unlikely, I do like a good impersonation story and was interested to see how Hilary would cope with her task and where following Betterton’s trail would lead her to. I also loved the descriptions of Morocco and wished we could have spent more time in Casablanca and Fez before Hilary’s adventures took her off into the High Atlas mountains:
All about her were the walls of old Fez. Narrow winding streets, high walls, and occasionally, through a doorway, a glimpse of an interior or a courtyard, and moving all around her were laden donkeys, men with their burdens, boys, women veiled and unveiled, the whole busy secret life of this Moorish city. Wandering through the narrow streets she forgot everything else, her mission, the past tragedy of herself, even her life.
As is typical of Christie, the plot takes lots of twists and turns, there are some surprises and we are never sure which of the many characters Hilary meets can and cannot be trusted. However, later in the book, when we discover what has happened to the missing scientists, it all becomes quite bizarre and I felt that the motive behind the disappearances was quite weak and implausible. Remembering that the book was published in 1954, though, the world war which ended less than ten years earlier must have been on Christie’s mind, as well as post-war politics and the Cold War; there are references to creating a ‘new world order’ and a mysterious figure whose charisma and power of oration makes Hilary think of Hitler.
Hilary herself is less engaging than the heroines of some of Christie’s other thrillers, such as Anne Beddingfield in The Man in the Brown Suit and Victoria Jones in They Came to Baghdad, and the book overall is not as much fun as those two. I find the thrillers a nice change from the mysteries, though, and I did enjoy this one despite finding the first half much stronger than the second. I’m not sure whether I’ll take part in Read Christie in September – the theme is ‘a story with a female adventurer’ and the group read is They Came to Baghdad which, as I’ve just mentioned, I’ve already read (and loved, but don’t want to read again just yet). I might see if there’s an alternative title I could read to fit that theme instead, or maybe I’ll wait and join in again in October.
This is book 13/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.