Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

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.

The Man from London by Georges Simenon – #NovNov

I’ve been struggling to concentrate on longer novels for most of the year, despite having more time than ever before to read them! This month’s Novellas in November (hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck, ) seemed like a perfect opportunity for me to get through some of the shorter books on my TBR, beginning with this one – a Belgian classic from 1934 reissued today by Penguin Classics.

The Man from London is my first Georges Simenon book (I haven’t read any of the Maigret novels, though I feel that I should have done by now), so I didn’t really know what to expect from it. I was pleased to find that it was suspenseful, atmospheric and, in this translation by Howard Curtis, very readable.

The story begins on a cold, foggy night in Dieppe, where railway signalman Louis Maloin is sitting alone in his watchtower, looking down on the docks at the ferry just arriving from England. It’s a sight Maloin observes every day, but tonight something is different: he watches one of the newly arrived passengers fight with another man and knock him into the water, along with the suitcase he is holding. Aware that he appears to be the only person who has seen this happen, Maloin retrieves the case from the water when nobody is around and takes it home with him. When he discovers what the case contains, the decision he makes could have consequences that will change his life forever.

Although there is an element of mystery to the book, with questions over the identities of the two men and where the contents of the case came from, this is really more of a psychological thriller than a crime novel. The fight Maloin witnesses and his reaction to it provides a starting point for an exploration of the state of Maloin’s mind as the process he has set in motion spirals out of control. He experiences every conceivable emotion over the course of the story, ranging from guilt at not telling the police what he has seen and allowing a murderer to walk free, excitement at gaining possession of the case for himself, and terror, knowing that someone could discover what he has done at any minute.

The atmosphere Simenon creates is wonderful, with the tension building and building as Maloin tries to go about his normal life, while being confronted at every turn by the face of the man he has come to think of as ‘the man from London’. The wet, foggy December weather adds to the overall mood, as do the descriptions of the places and people Maloin encounters as he moves around Dieppe trying to avoid the murderer and the police.

The short length of the book meant it held my interest from beginning to end and although I think the potential was here for a longer and more complex novel, I still found it quite satisfying. I’m glad my first experience of Georges Simenon’s work was a good one and I’m definitely interested in reading more of his books now.

Thanks to Penguin Classics for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley

V2 by Robert Harris

Robert Harris is one of my favourite authors, but I was slightly disappointed by last year’s The Second Sleep. The setting was atmospheric and the concept was fascinating but, like a lot of people, I thought the ending was abrupt and confusing. I’m pleased to say that I found his latest book, V2, much more enjoyable and the perfect distraction from the depressing national and world news and from the pressures of returning to work earlier this month after a long period on furlough.

V2 is set during World War II and follows the stories of two people on different sides of the conflict. Dr Rudi Graf is a German engineer who has played an important part in the development of the V2 rocket. Although his intention was originally to build rockets that could fly to the moon, the technology is now being used by Nazi Germany to carry out attacks on Allied cities, something Graf isn’t entirely comfortable with.

In London, meanwhile, Kay Caton-Walsh, a young officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, narrowly avoids being killed in one of these attacks when a V2 hits the building in which she is staying with her married lover. With her affair in danger of being exposed, Kay jumps at the opportunity to go to Belgium with a group of other WAAF officers on a mission to locate the V2 launch site and prevent the weapons from being used in any more strikes.

The whole novel takes place during just five days in November 1944, with Graf’s narrative alternating with Kay’s until eventually their stories begin to come together. I found both of them equally interesting to read about, but I was particularly impressed with the way Harris makes Graf such a sympathetic character, despite the fact that he is at least partly responsible for the death and destruction caused by the V2. His gradual disillusionment with his work is plain to see and he ends up being confronted with some moral dilemmas as a result. Kay’s work is rather different – she is trying to save lives rather than destroy them – but she also finds herself facing some difficult decisions when she begins to question who can and cannot be trusted.

The thriller element of the novel is very well done, with the tension rising chapter by chapter as each rocket is launched and Kay and her fellow WAAF officers race against the clock to stop them. The women are equipped with logarithm tables, slide rules and an ability to make quick and accurate calculations, but still feel under an immense amount of pressure, knowing that lives depend on their mathematical skills. The story does get quite technical at times, but don’t worry if you’re not a scientist or mathematician – the plot is easy enough to follow even if you don’t fully understand every aspect of Kay’s or Graf’s work.

The novel is equally successful as a portrayal of life in various parts of wartime Europe, from Mechelen in Belgium where Kay is stationed, newly liberated from the Germans but still feeling the effects, to the forests of the Occupied Netherlands where Graf and his team are launching the V2 rockets. Although the V2 is an imprecise and expensive weapon and ultimately seen as a waste of German resources, it is still capable of causing enormous destruction and loss of life. It is in the sections of the book set in London that we see the evidence of this, such as when 168 people are killed in one strike on a branch of Woolworths, which is packed with shoppers who have heard that a new consignment of saucepans has just been delivered.

V2 has not become an absolute favourite Harris novel – I don’t think it really compares with An Officer and a Spy or the Cicero trilogy – but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I have had Munich, an earlier book by Harris, on my TBR for a few years, so I’m hoping to find time to read that one soon too.

Thanks to Random House UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White

I was re-watching one of my favourite films, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, a few weeks ago and it occurred to me that I should probably try reading the book on which it was based – The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, published in 1936. Luckily, I was able to find a Project Gutenberg version available to download, so I could start it immediately while I was in the mood. Now that I’ve read it, I think it’s one of the few cases where, for me, the film is better than the book! I did enjoy reading it, but I was surprised by how different it was and by how many of the elements I love from The Lady Vanishes are not part of the novel.

The Wheel Spins begins with Iris Carr, a young Englishwoman, staying at a small hotel in an unspecified country somewhere in Europe. Her friends have already left but Iris has decided to stay on alone at the hotel for a few more days. On the day she is due to catch the train home, she briefly loses consciousness at the station and assumes she must be suffering from sunstroke. Managing to board the crowded train just in time, Iris finds herself sharing a carriage with several other people, including Miss Froy, an English governess who is also on her way home. Iris accompanies Miss Froy to tea in the dining carriage where she listens to her new friend talk about her recent teaching jobs. After returning to their seats, Iris falls asleep – and awakens to find Miss Froy gone. When the rest of the passengers all deny that Miss Froy ever existed, Iris begins to panic: has the sunstroke affected her more than she’d realised or is something more sinister taking place?

After a slow start in which the author takes her time introducing us to Iris and the other guests at the hotel, all of whom seem to end up on the same train home, things soon pick up with the disappearance of Miss Froy and the efforts Iris makes to try to find out what has happened to her. There are only really two possible scenarios: either Iris has imagined things or everybody on the train is lying – and if they are lying, why? This is where the significance of those early chapters becomes clear as Iris is not the most pleasant of people and makes herself so unpopular with her fellow travellers that it’s easy to see why they don’t feel like helping her. Some of them also have other motives for not wanting to get involved and although I thought this was handled better in the film, the book does still give us a sense of how unsettling all of this is for Iris and how she begins to doubt her own sanity.

As I’ve said, there are so many things I love in the film which don’t appear in the novel: the significance of music to the plot; Charters and Caldicott, the two cricket-obsessed Englishmen determined to get home in time to see the Test Match; the relationship between Iris and the musicologist Gilbert; and the performances of Margaret Lockwood (a much more likable Iris than the one in the book), Michael Redgrave and May Whitty in the leading roles. On the other hand, there are also some interesting aspects of the novel that Hitchcock didn’t include – for example, some occasional glimpses of Miss Froy’s elderly parents at home in England looking forward to their daughter’s return.

Although I think I might have felt more enthusiastic about the book if I had read it first, rather than the other way around, I still enjoyed it and am curious about Ethel Lina White’s other books now.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

After reading Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key last month, I knew I wanted to read more of her books but wasn’t sure which one to try next. Some of you recommended The Death of Mrs Westaway, which does sound good, but as my library had The Woman in Cabin 10 available first, that is the one I’ve ended up reading. I had seen some very mixed opinions of the book and it doesn’t seem to be a favourite of Ruth Ware fans, but I enjoyed it and thought it was a perfect choice for the R.I.P. XIV challenge.

Laura Blacklock, known as Lo, is a journalist working for a London-based magazine, Velocity. With her editor in hospital, Lo has been given the job of reporting on the maiden voyage of a new luxury cruise liner, the Aurora Borealis. She knows it’s a wonderful opportunity – a free cruise around the Norwegian fjords in search of the Northern Lights and the chance to make new and influential contacts – but when her home is broken into a few days before the trip and she almost comes face to face with the burglar, she is left feeling nervous, violated and unable to relax. She doesn’t really feel like going on the cruise at all but hopes she will at least be able to have a good night’s sleep on the ship…

Unfortunately, there is more trauma ahead for Lo. On the first evening of the cruise, she knocks on the door of the cabin next to her own – Cabin 10 – and borrows a mascara from the young woman who answers the door. Later that night, after going to bed, she hears a scream from Cabin 10 and then a loud splash. Convinced that someone has been thrown overboard, Lo calls security – but when the door is opened, the room is completely empty; there are no signs that anyone had ever been staying there at all. What has happened to the woman in Cabin 10? Has Lo been imagining things or is one of her fellow passengers trying to cover up a murder?

I loved the mystery element of this book. A cruise liner makes a perfect ‘locked room’ setting; as it’s not likely that anyone will arrive or leave once at sea, that means the suspects are limited to those on board at the beginning. These include the wealthy businessman who owns the ship, his invalid wife, a renowned photographer, a travel journalist, a food writer, an ‘extreme adventure’ expert, and even Lo’s own ex-boyfriend. The Aurora Borealis is not a huge ship, but a very small one with only ten cabins – described as a ‘boutique cruise liner’ – and this increases the feeling of danger and claustrophobia as Lo becomes aware that if one of the other guests is trying to do her harm she really has nowhere to hide.

When the truth was revealed I was annoyed with myself because I felt that it was something I should have guessed or been able to work out – but didn’t. Still, it meant that I was taken by surprise because I hadn’t been expecting it at all! After this revelation, though, I felt that the rest of the book was too drawn out; although there was still a lot of drama, there wasn’t much more suspense and it seemed to take a long time to get to the final chapter. Some of the developments towards the end were hard to believe and I finished the book feeling a bit less enthusiastic about it than I did at the beginning. I did find it entertaining though and am looking forward to my next Ruth Ware book.

This is book #2 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Never having read anything by John Buchan before, the logical place to start seemed to be with his most famous novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps. I wasn’t at all sure that it would be my sort of book, which is why I’ve put off reading it for so long, but I knew there must be a reason why it is so well-loved and has been adapted for film and television so many times.

Published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is set during the May and June of the previous year, just before the outbreak of war in Europe. The novel is narrated in the first person by Richard Hannay, who has recently arrived in London having spent most of his life living in Africa. As the story begins, Hannay has been in England for three months and is feeling bored, homesick and disillusioned:

The crowd surged past me on the pavements, busy and chattering, and I envied the people for having something to do. These shop-girls and clerks and dandies and policemen had some interest in life that kept them going. I gave half-a-crown to a beggar because I saw him yawn; he was a fellow-sufferer. At Oxford Circus I looked up into the spring sky and I made a vow. I would give the Old Country another day to fit me into something; if nothing happened, I would take the next boat for the Cape.

That evening, as luck would have it, something does happen. He is approached by a stranger who introduces himself as Franklin P. Scudder, an American secret agent, and who claims to have uncovered a plot to destabilise Europe by assassinating Constantine Karolides, an important Greek politician. Scudder believes his life is in danger and asks Hannay to shelter him for the night, but when the agent is murdered inside his home, Hannay fears that the killers will come for him next. Desperate to get away, he flees to Scotland with the intention of hiding there for a while until he can think of a way to continue Scudder’s work and prevent the assassination of Karolides. It seems he is about to have all the excitement he could have wished for – and more.

All of this happens in the first two chapters. The remainder of the novel follows Hannay’s adventures while on the run, most of which involve being chased around the Scottish countryside and having encounters with various eccentric characters, who could be friends but are equally likely to be enemies. Each chapter feels almost like a separate short story, which is maybe explained by the fact that the novel was originally published as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine so needed to be written in an easily digestible format. I found it very entertaining at first, but somewhere in the middle I thought it became a bit tedious and repetitive. There were far too many coincidences and too many last-minute escapes; fun in small doses, but a whole book like that was too much for me. It also lacks depth, both in terms of characters and plot, but if you accept it for what it is – an early example of the adventure/spy novel, it’s quite enjoyable.

I can’t say that I loved The Thirty-Nine Steps, but I would be happy to try more of John Buchan’s books. Can anyone recommend one that I might like?

The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim

I don’t usually pay much attention to the recommendations that pop up on sites like Goodreads and Amazon (“as you liked that book, you might like this one”) but there have been one or two occasions where a particular recommendation has caught my attention, I’ve tried the book and enjoyed it – and that was what happened with The Great Impersonation! This novel by E. Phillips Oppenheim was apparently hugely successful on its publication in 1920, has been adapted for film three times and was included on The Guardian’s list of 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read, yet until now I had never come across the book and didn’t know anything about the author. It seems Oppenheim wrote a very impressive number of books – over 100, mostly thrillers, between 1887 and 1943. I’m not sure whether I’ll look for more of them, but I’m glad I read this one.

The Great Impersonation opens in East Africa in 1913, just before the start of the First World War, and begins with an unexpected encounter between two men who once attended school and university together. One of them is thirty-six-year-old Everard Dominey, who fled England several years earlier following a scandal which arose when he was believed to have killed a man in a fight over his (Everard’s) wife, Rosamund. Since then, Everard has become a dissolute, disreputable drunk, wandering aimlessly from country to country with no direction or purpose in life. The other is Leopold von Ragastein, a German nobleman who has also been banished for duelling with and killing the husband of his lover, the Princess Eiderstrom.

Everard and Leopold have always looked remarkably alike and still do, although the resemblance is not as strong as it used to be because of the very different lifestyles they have been leading. After a night spent drinking and confiding in each other the secrets of their pasts, we see Leopold hatching a plot to dispose of Everard in the desert so that he can steal his identity and undertake a spying mission for the German government.

A few months later, Everard Dominey returns to England, much to the surprise of his friends and family. Rosamund, who has still not recovered from the tragic circumstances of his departure, is shocked by the change in her husband, insisting that he is not the Everard she remembers. Obviously, thinks the reader, that’s because he’s really Leopold von Ragastein! But is he? We didn’t actually witness Everard’s death, after all…

The Great Impersonation is very cleverly written so that, however much we may think we know the truth, we can never be quite certain. Everard/Leopold is always referred to as Everard, even in scenes where he is discussing his spying activities with his German contacts, who have no doubt that he is Leopold. The two men’s lovers, Rosamund and Princess Eiderstrom, cause even more confusion with Rosamund accusing Everard of not being Everard and the Princess claiming that he is Leopold, before changing her mind again! If they cannot identify the man they love, what chance does the reader have? Of course, I am not going to tell you what is revealed in the end, except that I guessed correctly (I had a 50% chance of that, I suppose).

Bearing in mind that the book was published in 1920, I should mention that there is some racist language in the opening chapters set in Africa, but there is much less of this once the action moves back to Europe. I can also tell you that although this is described as a spy novel, there’s not a huge amount of spying in it, so if you’re not very interested in that sort of thing, there’s still some romance, the mistaken/stolen identity storyline, and also some gothic elements (mainly involving a possible ghost or demon that haunts the Black Wood near the Dominey estate).

If anyone else has read this book, please let me know what you thought of it – and whether you can recommend any more of Oppenheim’s many novels.