Rating: four out of five
Year of Publication: 1955
Motive for Murder: Wealth
A celebrated scientist with a breakthrough discovery is missing. The American was last seen in Paris two months ago. Rumour has it that he has been kidnapped. Other option suggests that he comes to his captors voluntarily.
Hilary Craven is on the verge of taking a large dose of sleeping pills when she hears knocks on her door. Alone in a hotel room in Morocco, she thought her plan was perfect. ‘I shouldn’t do it if I were you,’ says a male voice after he breaks into the room. ‘Does it have to be sleeping pills?’ After all, he adds, there is a more sporting way to die.
Lying in her hospital bed, Olive Betterton’s days are numbered. A plane crash before landing in Marrakesh has made her life hang in a thread. She says her last words to Craven: ‘tell him-tell him-to be careful. Boris – Boris – dangerous…’ And snow.
Who’s he? Who’s Boris? Despite being in the dark, Craven accepts the stranger’s proposal to take up the role as Olive Betterton. For she was the wife of the missing scientist and was believed to have known more about her missing husband. In fact, it is highly likely that she was going to be brought to him.
Craven’s mission begins as she embarks on a trip with five other fellow travellers. Little does she realise that they are meant to be ‘killed’ in a plane accident.
What will happen when she finally meets “her husband,” Tom? And who is the stranger who interferes with her suicide?
A missing scientist. A breakthrough invention on nuclear energy. A mad philanthropist.
Christie’s interest in politics seems to take a new focus as the Cold War started in earnest in the mid-fifties. The battle of ideologies between the East and the West provides the opportunity for a new ‘world order’; an alternative to the ‘American freedom’ and the ‘Iron Curtain’ that serves humanity all the same.
Meanwhile, six travellers – all strangers to one another- are on a journey to the unknown destination passing through Moroccan deserts and seeing a glimpse of the lives of the Bedouins. For five of them, it is a dream trip to “freedom.”For our heroine, Hilary Craven, it is another way to die. At the back of her mind a question hovers in her head: when will the death occur?
Here is a protagonist that is none like others. Still an indomitable character, yet not craving for an adventure. She signs for her death calmly, having understood that it is just a matter of time. I wonder if it had been what Christie had felt when she was in the lowest point of her life.
Furthermore, there lies the question about Jessop’s interference to Craven’s suicide plan: is it an act of kindness or does he merely do it save his face? For Olive Betterton’s death was unprecedented and she had been the only “clue” in the case of a number of missing scientists, of which Tom Betterton is one of them.
To my mind what is most intriguing about is what Christie wanted her readers to ponder: is one able to decide when and how to die? Or is one’s age in the hands of God?
Craven is then exposed to an uncharted water as she penetrates into an underground organisation, which is powerful but on paper is all legal and above the board. Personally it is rather a tall order for a woman who is still grieving for the death of both her child and her marriage; that she is considered as emotionally imbalanced for the task. Perhaps in Christie’s world it matters less.
What is fascinating is the brutal honesty between Craven and Jessop. He sounds to be very honest about the mission and Craven duly trusts him. Sounds naive? Remember Anne Beddingfield (The Man In The Brown Suit) and Tuppence Beresford in her early days? As for Craven, it appears Christie has been more careful as regard to her mind and attitude. In other words Craven’s character is more believable than the others mentioned and closer to the reality, for such is the case with Victoria Jones in her earlier book They Came To Baghdad(1951). Nonetheless, I am not convinced that Craven-Jessop relationship occurs in the real spook world. As Papa Georges (Hugo, 2011) said, ”happy ending happens only in the movies.”
Readers would appreciate that the plot is not simply a game of catching murderers and preventing more victims. With neither Poirot nor Marple in sight, Craven must find her way to get out of the “cage” and reveals the truth to the world. It goes without saying that she no longer wants to die.
I fancy there is a touch of James Bond somehow. Yet, having skimmed a number of pages, I have come to realise that Craven is never near to 007. First and foremost, she is not equipped with the state-of-the-art technology like Bond and her mistakes save her life somehow.
Perhaps this is what distinguishes Christie from Fleming; that an agent is not to restore the world order per se but there is also a soul-searching experience happening. And perhaps these discriminating factor in Christie’s books that retain their appeal to readers.
After Craven meets “her husband” things turn differently. A blossoming romance for Craven and Jessop to the rescue. Although towards the end there is no blood spilled yet–or rather, no poisoning nor stabbing. When will a dead body appear? I leave it to you to find out. All in a good time :).
-Thomas Betterton disappears on his own accord
-Mrs. Calvin Baker is not an ordinary American traveller
-Andrew Peters is Boris Glydr, the cousin of Tom Betterton’s first wife Elsa
-Elsa Betterton is the true founder of ZE Fission
Cast of Characters:
A. The travellers to the ‘Destination Unknown’:
– Andrew Peters (an American scientist)
-Dr. Barron (a French bacteriologist)
-Mrs. Calvin Baker (an American tourist whom Craven meets in Casablanca)
-Helga Needheim (a German endocrinologist, who travels as a “nun”)
-Hilary Craven (as “Olive Betterton”, the wife of the missing American scientist Tom Betterton)
-Torquil Ericsson (a Norwegian scientist)
B. At the Lepers Hospital:
-Bianca Murchinson (Italian, Simon’s wife)
-Miss Jennson (the administrative assistant
-Dr. Nielson (the Deputy Director)
-Paul Van Hedeim (the administrator)
-Dr. Rubec (the psychologist)
-Simon Murchison (Bianca’s husband)
-Thomas Betterton (an American scientist who has gone missing, Olive‘s husband)
-Aristides (the Master)
– Major Boris Glydr (Jew Polish, the cousin of Thomas Betterton’s first wife)
-Miss Hetherington (a British tourist who Craven meets in Casablanca)
-Monsieur Henri Laurier (a French tourist, Mrs. Betterton’s link to the ‘unknown destination’)
-Jessop (British Agent)
-Monsieur Leblanc (of French police)
– Olive Betterton (the missing scientist’s wife, Tom’s second wife)
-Colonel Wharton (a Senior British Intelligence Officer)
The Most Fascinating Character: Olive Betterton
The second wife of Thomas Betterton makes her short appearance in two chapters of the book. At the beginning she is updated by Jessop about her husband’s disappearance. In the later chapter she is visited by Hillary Craven on her deathbed.
There is no background information about Mrs. Betterton; either her maiden name or her life before marriage. How she meets Tom is a mystery, too. What readers know of is that her husband vanishes eighteen months after their tying the knot and Tom’s meteoric rising as an inventor.
What might arouse curiousity is the nature of their marriage. Firstly, it occurs soon after the death of Tom’s first wife Elsa. Secondly, Olive’s lack of knowledge about her husband – or probably a deliberate attempt to obscure his identity. Thirdly, his strange behaviour when meeting with the late Elsa’s colleague prior to his “kidnapping.”
It is not clear how much Olive knows about Tom’s being missing. And therefore her being interviewed by Jessop at the beginning provides important clues as to who she actually is. Jessop’s impression about her is as follows:
‘In his experience, women suffering from violent grief and anxiety did not neglect their make-up. Aware of the ravages grief made in their appearance, they did their best to repair those ravages. He wondered if Mrs. Betterton calculatingly abstained from make-up, the better to sustain the part of the distracted wife.’
If Jessop was right, what did she try to conceal? And why?
Olive Betterton’s character ends as she happens to be critically injured in a plane crash. I wonder what the ending might be if Olive Betterton was allowed to live.
Hilary Craven’s thought (as she is looking at Andrew Peters) :
‘Why do you decry the world we live in? There are good people in it. Isn’t muddle a better breeding ground for kindliness and individuality than a world order that’s imposed, a world order that may be right today and wrong tomorrow? I would rather have a world of kindly, faulty, human beings than a world of superior robots who’ve said goodbye to pity and understanding and sympathy.’
Conversations between the Bettertons:
‘You want to get out of here then?’ (asks Hilary Craven)
‘My God, can you ask?’ (says Tom Betterton)
‘How did you get here from Paris?’
‘I wasn’t kidnapped or anything like that, if that’s what you mean. I came of my own free will, under my own steam. I came keenly and enthusiastically.’
‘You knew that you were coming here?’
‘I’d no idea I come to Africa, if that’s what you mean. I was caught by the usual lure. Peace on Earth, free sharing of scientific secrets among the scientists of the world; suppression of capitalists and warmongers – all the usual jargon! That fellow Peters who came with you is the same, he’s swallowed the same bait.’
‘And when you get it here, it wasn’t like that?’
‘You’ll see for yourself. Oh, perhaps, it is that, more or less! But it’s not the way you thought it would be. It’s not – freedom!’