Destination Unknown (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: UK, Collins, November 1954; US, Dodd Mead, 1955, as So Many Steps to Death

A rather unusual Christie, difficult to pin down and say anything substantial about. On the surface, it is a rather standard thriller: Hilary Craven attempts suicide, but rediscovers life through nearly losing it in an attempt to discover the whereabouts of vanishing scientists, the answer to which problem she finds in a leper colony in Morocco. Although the reader is kept interested, he is never excited, for the menace doesn’t really exist, the setting is rather unreal and hard to visualise, and some of the plot details (notably the Betterton sub-plot) perfunctorily handled. The real interest lies in Christie’s growing concern with the dangers of idealism, a theme she developed in They Came to Baghdad, and which would colour her late works, of which this is very definitely the first.

Blurb (UK)

In this, her new and brilliant book, Agatha Christie has departed from the canons of classical detection, as she did in They Came to Baghdad.

The problem here is to trace the means by which a famous scientist, discoverer of ZE Fission, has been wafted away.  The direction in which he has disappeared may be guessed at but the tracks have been covered; suspect reports of the sighting of the missing man come in from all over Europe.  Then his wife asks permission to go away and rest – to take a holiday in Morocco.

Is it nothing but a holiday she is going to look for?  A plan is formed to keep watch on her journeyings, but some very surprising things then begin to happen.

The authentic Moroccan setting of this book and its exciting and surprising narrative will hold every reader enthralled.  It is full of those sudden, ingenious twists and that brilliant though seemingly casual power of characterisation, for which Agatha Christie is so justly renowned.

(US blurb is closely worded.)

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 31st October 1954): The thriller is not Agatha Christie’s forte; it makes her go all breathless and naïve.  This one is about a gallant would-be suicide, persuaded by one of our agents to impersonate a missing diplomat’s wife and find out where a whole hotel full of missing Dips and Vips has got to, in Morocco.  Needs to be read indulgently in a very comfortable railway carriage.  She probably had a delicious busman’s holiday with it.

Times Literary Supplement (Philip John Stead, 19th November 1954): ON THE TRAIL

Where do scientists go when they vanish from the ken of the Security Services?  A solution to this fascinating problem is propounded in Destination Unknown.  While it must be admitted that the secret, when disclosed, smacks rather of The Thousand and One Nights than of modern international rivalry for scientific talents, it may surely be excused on the ground that it provides Mrs. Christie with a story-teller’s holiday from the rigours of detective fiction.  Readers may regret the absence of the tonic logicalities of crime’s unravelling—though “crimes” are not altogether missing—for the secret-service story belongs largely to Adventure, but in their place is the author’s obvious pleasure in the wider horizons of the more romantic genre.

Here are airports, Heath Row and Orly, then the Gare des Invalides; aeroplanes with benign air hostesses and interesting travelling companions; hotels rich in people to be wondered about; the sights and sounds of Casablanca and Fez; the reservations for Marrakesh; the desert distances…all invigoratingly tourist, were it not for the ominous quest that keeps the tale moving.  Mrs. Christie is on vacation, and the weakness for the unlikely which has occasionally irritated her admirers for once has a special licence.  The characters, as always, are clearly outlined; the red-haired young woman who bears the brunt of the bother caused by the vanished scientist is convincing enough, as are the company of secret-service operatives, fanatics and tourist ladies she meets on her journey.  However much the purist yearns for Poirot or Miss Marple, he can hardly deplore Mrs. Christie’s bright, busy excursion into this topical and extravagant sphere.

Spectator (Penelope Houston, 19th November 1954, 70w): With Mrs. Christie, of course, nothing should be taken for granted; but her brilliant strategy of deception and misdirection is not really suited to this thriller world of secret-service agents and power-hungry scientists.

NY Herald Tribune Bk R (James Sandoe, 13th February 1955, 150w): Probability, of course, is the least of Mrs. Christie’s considerations but her juggling is bold and the performance a pretty good flyer into melodrama, always at least one jump ahead of you even when it appears to be settling for the obvious.

NY Times (Anthony Boucher, 20th February 1955, 50w): So Many Steps to Death has a plot too delightfully elaborate to synopsise; let’s just say it starts with the mass disappearance of scientists, goes on (mostly in North Africa) to developments suggesting a Michael Innes fantasia, and concludes unexpectedly with Mrs. Christie’s own solid common sense—and that every word of it is a joy.

New Yorker (26th February 1955, 110w): Miss Christie has written far more plausible and entertaining books, but her ingenuity remains highly commendable.

Sat R (Sergeant Cuff, 9th April 1955, 30w): Come back Poirot!