Rating : 2.5 out of fiveDate of Publication: 1970
Motive for Crimes: World Power
Two different cars try to run over Sir Stafford Nye in twenty hours. Prior to the first incident his bedroom is searched.
Two days beforehand at Frankfurt airport his drink was spiked his travel cloak was taken. As a result he missed the flight to London and somebody used his passport to enter Britain. Somebody whom looked like him and had a similar built.
Furthermore, he does not come home after the dinner at the U.S. Embassy. He is seen for the last time having gone into a car. Who is in the car? What makes him go into the car? And where does it take him? Within days the U.S. ambassador is reported to have been assassinated at the steps of the Embassy by a person unknown.
In Bavaria, Lady Matilda Cleckheaton goes to see ‘Big Charlotte,’ an old school friend with vast wealth. Sir Stafford’s great aunt listens to the German Countess while she is deliberating her ideas about the New World Order. The Ring. The youth army. The Young Sigfried.
In the mean time the German Chancellor flies to Britain for an ‘unofficial visit’ to discuss a pressing matter with the Prime Minister. Herr Spiess is accompanied by Dr. Reichardt, an eminent psychiatrist, whom will share his discovery concerning a certain patient in the mental institution where he works. For the information may shed light behind the student protests occurred all over Europe and the US.
‘Most of the things that happen in it are happening, or giving promise of happening in the world today. It is not an impossible story – it is only a fantastic one’
Christie’s Foreword in Fontana Paper Back
One aspect Christie marvels at is her blend of romance and adventure in the plot. On the one hand, from Anne Beddingfield to Tuppence Beresford, Christie’s heroines are framed and captured, have a brush with death, but in the end they are vindicated. They learn to adapt amidst the dangerous situations they are in and face their respective sleeping enemies in a surprising ending. On the other, there is a particular conspiracy theme the authoress cares about more which revolves round the German Invasion to Britain.
In her books published after the War the theme seems to fade away – if only just for a while. When all her reflections on the impacts of the War in 1950s’ books, such as Mrs. Mc Ginty’s Dead, Dead Man’s Folly and 4.50 From Paddington are done and dusted, Christie resumes her interest. Passenger from Frankfurt, released to coincide with her eightieth birthday, is an exemplary example. After the Beresford’s last adventure in Postern of Fate, she makes the threat of Neo-Nazism clear.
What intrigues me is her association between Richard Wagner and Adolf Hitler. Christie’s take on the Cold War politics corroborates her favourite three-act opera Sigfried, which is part of Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen.
In the first act of the opera, Mime the dwarf raises the human Sigfried as the dwarf has wished for the Nibelungs’ treasures guarded by a dragon called Fafner. The plan is for Sigfried to kill it with a sword the dwarf has forged for the purpose. But Sigfried, who has no fear, breaks the sword and leaves in despair when he could not mend the metal.
The book opens with the accident at Frankfurt airport. Sir Stafford Nye, of whom according to his esteemed colleagues has not taken things seriously, is suspected to have a part in the stolen passport of his. As for Lady Matilda, it is to do with ‘Brunnhilde’; a woman ‘Sigfried’ comes to see in the mountains (see Clues part for more details).
In the second act of the opera, Sigfried attempts to imitate the singing of a bird in a reed pipe. Far from success, he instead produces a horn call. It awakens Fafner and the battle between them ensues. By the time they face each other Sigfried has been able to repair Nothung, a fragment of his late father’s sword, of which Mime has given. In Sigfried’s absence a Wotan approaches Mime with the riddles. He could answer all but one: who will repair Nothung?
In its dying words Fafner warns Sigfried the damaging power of the treasures. Mime then offers Sigfried the (poisonous) potion to drink up, but no sooner does Sigfried realise than Mime has intended to do Sigfried stabs the dwarf to death with Nothung.
Sigfried’s Horn Call is a Wagnerian motif which Christie uses in the book as a clue to the intelligence mission Sir Stafford has been involved with by accident. He has saved the life of ‘Mary Ann’ whom has brought with her the required evidence to end ‘The Ring’ in which ‘Big Charlotte’ is part of it.
Lady Matilda’s playing the roles of ‘Fafner’ and ‘the bird’ is most interesting. Her wits would remind readers of Jane Marple and Tuppence (see The Most Fascinating Character). Her curiousity has been aroused by her great nephew’s story in Frankfurt and moreover when he turns up in ‘Big Charlotte’s castle in Bavaria with ‘Mary Ann.’
Suspicions thrown at ‘Mary Ann’ later. To begin with, she has been spotted to have been in troubled places. Next is her personal relationship to ‘Big Charlotte.’ Third, her background as the descendent of the English Hanoverian Monarch.
As the plot goes right and left, the European leaders and everybody who matters would have to join arms against a few powerful people in ‘The Ring’ whom like to establish the New World Order. Consequently the list of Cast of Characters grows longer and the new minor characters make the plot meander. In the first reading I skipped pages as some conversations had turned into speeches and a rambling, which is unlike Christie’s in her 1930’s and 1940’s books at all. Then small details jumped out in the second reading, which made me feel ill at ease.
Personally it is the less exciting book of Christie’s when the expectation is the thrills and pace in Anne’s Adventure (see Notes On The Man In The Brown Suit). Nevertheless my respect goes to her wide knowledge of world politics and her deep understanding of the tangled mess of it.
By the same token is her understanding about Wagner’s monumental operas. Much has been said about Christie’s fondness of plays and her having been inspired by Macbeth and Othello. Little has been touched on the subject of the influence of Wagner’s music and characters on Christie nevertheless. In the book there is a touch of Tannhauser in which ‘Juanita’ the super spy that is part of ‘The Ring’ is depicted as the overpowering Venus. Who she really is as good as everybody’s guessing.
What I have found slightly uncomforting is the association between Wagner and Hitler. He is a fan, yes, but Wagner’s works have been much appreciated by many others too. Take the example of the Prelude to Lohengrin, Act 1 in The Globe Scene In The Great Dictator (1940). And how about the prelude in Tristan and Isolde for a scene in Alfred Hitchock’s Murder (1930)?
What is more, it fascinates me that Christie might suggest in the book that the Bayreuth Festival could be soon a history. Hands up here who has been able to get a ticket to it?
But perhaps Christie, like her protagonist Sir Stafford Nye, has a message to bring up the theory of Hitler’s double in the bunker in Berlin as the city fell to the Soviets in Summer 1945. Did she intend to rest the case once for all? Funnily enough, forty-four years later the suggestion that Hitler might have died an old age in South America still exists.
By the same token, Bavaria as the setting serves as a reminder to the bygone the House of Saxo-Coburg-Gotha, of which Queen Victoria is a descendant. Moreover is Prince Albert’s ambition to the preservation of monarchy in Europe; that by having married his English cousin he would be able to ward off the advance of Republicans. The 1848 revolutions proves him wrong nevertheless.
Alas, it is not an easy book to read. For what her characters say might be the authoress’ reflections to the political happenings. It is her worries and fears as to the future of scientific projects, religions and art.
I wonder if Christie has endorsed Wagner’s ideas concerning on the significance of art to balance and make the world a kinder place to live in. In the book Professor Robert Shoreham destroys his revolutionary ‘Project Benvo’ in fear of misuse if it gets to the wrong hands. Art for Wagner is a solution to the overpowering science and serves as a mirror towards religion.
Nonetheless art is not a one solution for all to my mind. Likewise, science would not thrive without people’s faith in God. Despite religion being said as the source of conflicts and political upheavals, it is not dead yet. Besides, there is ample evidence that science and art have flourished under the ruling of religious leaders.
Overall, I recommend the book with some reservations given the expectations many readers may have on Christie’s crime stories.
What do you think?
- Sam Cortman the US Ambassador to Britain is not shot by an unknown anarchist
- Lord Edward Altamount is not killed by a bullet
- ‘Juanita’ turns up at Professor Shoreham’s home during Lord Altamount’s visit
- ‘Panda’ is to be Sir Stafford Nye’s best man
The Most Fascinating Character: Lady Matilda Cleckheaton
‘It’s so frightening, this same idea that always recurs. History repeating itself. The young hero, the golden superman that all must follow.’
Lord Edward Altamount, Admiral Philip Blunt and Professor Robert Shoreham are among her list of friends, so is Countess Charlotte von Waldsausen. Not only is Lady Matilda is a well-connected woman, but also one of the Victorian tours de forces Lord Altamount’s words.
Her past is shrouded in mystery, for she might have been a trained agent herself and was involved in the intelligence missions that her views are respected.
She persuades Lord Altamount to take her great nephew on board after the ‘accident’ at Frankfurt airport. With this she underlines the fact that as Sir Stafford’s guardian his role in the high-profile mission is not a reward, but merely a nod to his undermined skills and capabilities in the White Hall circle.
As Miss Marple minus a tweet skirt and knitting needles Lady Matilda is not generous on saying ‘my dear’ and subtle remarks. She bullies Sir Stafford to admit his being besotted to ‘Mary Ann’ (see Clues). But once she sets her mind she is quite determined. Like Miss Marple she asks her doctor to justify a treatment she is going to have in Bavaria, a pretext to visit the German Countess’s abode.
In dealing with different people Lady Matilda knows how to adjust herself. To ‘Big Charlotte’ she appears as a penniless aristocrat. Her approach results in a positive response from the other woman and to have accomplished her goal in seeking certain confirmation from the countess. When asked by her nurse Amy Leatheran how the reunion was, she replies: ‘if you could have heard all the nonsense I talked, you wouldn’t believe it.’
Furthermore, to Admiral Blunt she amuses herself by telling him to have been a muse to Professor Shoreham, the founder of Project Benvo. Their conversation speaks volumes of her wits and a Victorian man who must admit that he has been outsmarted by a woman (see Clues).
‘Once a spy always a spy’ fits her well. While her great nephew is on the mission she is doing her bit, too. She seems to know who ‘Juanita’ is before anyone else and shares this with him in passing. Still, Christie puts her at the back seat and plays down her significant role. But only when Lady Matilda has passed the information she has got from ‘Big Charlotte’ to the Intelligence do the climax of the story begin to take shape.
Cast of Characters:
The Circle of Lady Matilda Cleckheaton (nee Balden-White):
Amy Leatheran (Lady Matilda’s nurse)
Dr. Donaldson (Lady Matilda’s doctor)
Professor Robert Soreham (a brain surgeon, the founder of Project Benvo, an old friend)
Sir Stafford Nye (great nephew)
Sybil (great great niece)
Mrs. Worrit ( cleaning woman)
The British Intelligence Circle:
Squadron Leader Andrew
Cedric Lazenby (Prime Minister of Britain)
Lord Edward Altamount (Lady Matilda’s old acquaintance)
Eric Pugh (Sir Stafford’s acquaintance/school friend)
Sir George Packham (the ‘Minister’)
Gordon Chetwynd (Sir Stafford’s acquaintance)
Henry Hosam (of the ‘Security’)
Sir James Kleek (Lord Altamount’s right hand man)
Air Marshall Kenwood
Admiral Philip Blunt
Colonel Pikeaway ( retired, a former agent)
Mr. Robinson (the financier, appears in ‘Postern of Fate’ and ‘N or M’)
M.Coin (the Minister for Home Affairs)
M. Grosjean (the president)
The U.S. Embassy Dinner:
The Cortmans ( Mildred a.k.a. Milly Jean, the U.S. Ambassador’s wife and Sam her husband)
Countess Renata Zerkowski
Countess Charlotte von Waldsausen (Lady Matilda’s school friend)
Professor John Gottlieb (lives in Austin, US)
Herr Heinrich Spiess (the West German Chancellor)
Dr. Reichardt (the psychiatrist at a mental institution in Karlsruhe)
Professor Eckstein (a British scientist)
Lisa Neumann (Professor Shoreham’s secretary)
Dr. McCulloch (doctor at present after shots of gun at Professor Shoreham’s house)
Signor Vitelly (Italy Prime Minister)
Sir Stafford Nye’s guests:
Lady Matilda Cleckheaton (MC) and Sir Stafford Nye (SN):
MC: ‘….So you’re mixed up in a romance of some kind, are you?’
SN: ‘What on earth makes you say that?’
MC: ‘Well, there aren’t so many patterns in life, you know. One recognises patterns as they come up. It’s like a book on knitting. About sixty-five different fancy stitches. Well, you know a particular stitch when you see it. Your stitch, at the moment, I should say, is the romantic adventure. But you won’t tell me about it, I suppose.’
SN: ‘There’s nothing to tell.’
MC: ‘You always were quite an accomplished liar. Well, never mind. You bring her to see me some time. That’s all I’d like, before the doctors succeeded in killing me with yet another type of antibiotic that they’ve just discovered.The different coloured pills I’ve had to take by this time! You wouldn’t believe it.’
SN: ‘I don’t know why you say “she” ad “her” –‘
MC: ‘Don’t you? Oh, well, I know a she when I come across a she. There’s a she somewhere dodging about in your life. What beats me is how you found her… Ships coming home? No, you don’t use ships nowadays. Plane perhaps.’
SN: ‘You are getting slightly nearer.’
MC: ‘Ah! Air hostess?’
SN shook his head.
Countess Renata Zerkowski to Sir Stanfford Nye:
‘I had a friend once in the Diplomatic Service who told me how she had said to a German woman how moved she herself had been at the performance of the Passion Play at Oberammergau. But the German woman said scornfully: “You do not understand. We Germans have no need of a Jesus Christ! We have our Adolf Hitler here with us. He is greater than any Jesus that ever lived.” She was quite a nice ordinary woman. But that is how she felt. Masses of people felt it. Hitler was a spell-binder. He spoke and they listened – and accepted the sadism, the gas chambers, the tortures of the Gestapo.’
Admiral Philip Blunt (PB) and Lady Matilda Cleckheaton (MC):
PB: ‘Well, I want to her a little more what Robbie (Professor Shoreham) said about Project B.’
MC: ‘He said – well, it’s very difficult to remember now. He mentioned it after talking about some operation that they used to do on people’s brains. You know, the people who were terribly melancholic and who were thinking of suicide and who were so worried and neurasthenic that they had awful anxiety complexes. Stuff like that, the sort of thing people used to talk of in connection with Freud. And he said that the side effects were impossible. I mean, the people were quite happy and meek and docile and didn’t worry any more, or want to kill themselves, but they – well I mean they didn’t worry enough and therefore they used to get run over and all sorts of things like that because they weren’t thinking of any danger and didn’t notice it. I’m putting it badly but you do understand what I mean. And anyway, he said, that was going to be the trouble, he thought, with Project B.’
PB: ‘ Did he describe it at all more closely than that?’
MC: ‘He said I’d put it into his head.’
PB: ‘What? Do you mean to say a scientist – a top-flight scientist like Robbie actually said to you that you had put something into his scientific brain? You don’t know the first thing about science.’
MC: ‘Of course not. But I used to try and put a little common sense into people’s brains. The cleverer they are, the less common sense they have. I mean, really, the people who matter are the people who thought of simple things like perforations on postage stamps, or like somebody Adam….
Scientists can only think of things for destroying you. Well, that’s the sort of thing I said to Robbie. Quite nicely, of course, as a kind of joke. He’d been just telling me that some splendid things had been done in the scientific world about germ warfare and experiments with biology and what you can do to unborn babies if you get at them early enough…..
And so I said it’d be much more to the point if Robbie, or someone like Robbie, could think of something really sensible. And he looked at me with that, you know, little twinkle he has in his eyes sometimes and said,”Well, what do you consider sensible?” And I said, ”Well, instead of inventing all these germ warfares and these nasty gases, and all the rest of it, why don’t you just invent something that makes people happy?…’