Notes On Destination Unknown

Rating: four out of five

Year of Publication: 1955

Motive for Murder: Wealth

Plot:
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?

 

The deserts Hilary Craven and her five other travellers passes for the unknown destination.

 

Highlights:

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 :).

 

The Twists:

-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)

 

C. Others:

-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.

 

Clues:

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!’

Notes On They Came To Baghdad

Rating: 3.5 out of five

Year of Publication: 1951

Motive for Murder: Evidence

Plot: Victoria Jones’s mimicking her boss’s wife goes a little bit too far and she is to resign with immediate effect. In need of money and a thirst of adventure, a chance meeting with a man in the park brings about her taking up a role as a company for an American woman heading for Baghdad.

What begins as the young woman’s infatuation to a man turns to be a mixing-up in the murder of a British agent at a hotel in the country. As a witness, she is a target. Yet, her life is still worth its while until the highly confidential information can be retraced from her.

In the meantime, Richard Baker is on his way to Kuwait. In Basrah, he bumped into an old school friend dressed as an Arab with a strange manner. Little did Baker realise afterwards that the piece of folded paper put into his pocket was the half-part of the information sought by the ‘Arab’’s enemies. Nor does he know that his life is in danger already.

With an impending international conference on peace is due in a few days’ time in the capital, the Intelligence would need the evidence concerning a multi-national organisation, of which with money and power has an agenda to retain conflicts between America and Rusia.

Who did the man Baker meet? Can Edward, the reason of Jones’s presence in Iraq, help?

 

Highlights:

The Cold War might have been a difficult time as the division between two opposing ideologies of the ‘Iron Curtain ‘East and the ‘Freedom’ West had grown rapidly. To Christie’s mind, however, the changing of the political map had not only been fascinating but opened up a new kind of ‘game’ in the world of crime of hers. After the Great War, the political upheavals mostly affected Europe; after the Second World War the impacts were much bigger like ripples of waves that gather its force and push many countries to decide their leaning either to the West or the East.

Max Mallowan’s discovery in Ur, Iraq as a young archaeologist begins his long-standing devotion and love to Agatha Christie, the then newly-divorced woman on a crossroads in her life. Christie visited Irak for the first time in 1928.

Furthermore, this is the book written prior to Korea War (1950-1953) and therefore there is a touch of hope on Christie’s part for the world peace. Nonetheless, like many of her generation, Victoria Jones is oblivious to current affairs and instead attracted to a Prince Charming and decides to follow him to Baghdad – despite the fact that she then just knows his first name. Of course in the fifties subtlety is still regarded as of vital; to reach the man she has to find her own ways there.  Her meeting with the unassuming old Mr. Dakin and a dead body in her hotel room alter her views about the world. Awakened by a proper lecture, Jones is made to understand that money goes side by side with politics and a human’s life costs less than the Intelligence obtained (see Clues). It is captured in a chapter, which is lengthy but not stuffy, in depth but using plain English. I suppose there had been a message Christie had aimed at that time to have done such; she might have believed the importance to educate her readers, particularly women for not detaching their minds from current affairs.  Personally I feel that she had wanted women to see politics as their territory, too.

It is intriguing how those issues give way to a different facet of a seemingly carefree shorthand typist. Jones’s character might resemble her predecessors Anne Beddingfield (see Notes The Man In The Brown Suit), Tuppence Beresford and Bundle (see Notes On The Secret of Chimneys and Notes On The Seven Dials Mystery).  Jones in ‘the thick of it’; being an accidental agent  recruited on the spot, her abduction, her getting away from her captors and more importantly her concluding the affair. With a sprinkle of romance and naivety   Jones grows up to be a woman and finds her soul mate in the end.

Sounds so Christie’s? Yes and No. No, because of the more open approach to men by women; that Jones going to an unknown territory entirely on account of a man is quite a progressive move for the era.  Compared to Bundle’s jealousy to the lady friends of Jimmy Eversleigh’s, Jones’s determination to find her man would have been unheard of in the late twenties.

The setting is another interesting thing. Iraq might have been chosen owing to the country’s association with Christie’s meeting her second husband Max Mallowan there when she went for the first time in 1928. Her fond memories are reflected in the plot; that Jones goes to Baghdad as a ‘nurse’ to an American woman who has broken her leg. Likewise, Christie had an accident in Athens on her way back to England and the young archaeologist who was much younger than her had agreed to accompany her to England. In the story Jones is rescued by Richard Baker, a young archaeologist as she has lost her way on the desert after her lucky escape from the captors.

The image of Agatha Christie when accompanying Max Mallowan digging in Chagar Bazar, Syria between 1935 and 1937

All the same it is not a straightforward romance between Baker and Jones.  Anne Scheele comes to scene first; a secretary to an oil magnate with a wealth of access to information and influential figures in finance and politics. The Intelligence keeps an eye on her, as well as another party. Her movement is followed closely until she disappears after visiting her ill sister in a nursing home. Is it purely a luck that her appearance is similar to Jones?  And who is she working for? Yet it is only the Mastermind who knows how Scheele looks life in flesh.

Like a puppet master the Mastermind remains in the shadow while his puppets act and play their part, masking their identities to others. Mr. Dakin, Sir Rupert Crofton Lee and Anne Scheele are not who people think they are and therefore there lie the twists. Coupled with Christie’s similes in the narrations, it is not easy to pin down the double-meaning words and sentences of the characters until the end.  Is it the words of a dying man to be believed? How about a note of recommendation dated back eighteen months before? Or what lays beneath a quote of a Shakespeare’s poem?

What I am fascinated about is the dynamics between Mr. Dakin and Jones. He is frank and almost totally honesty about the situation. And they grow trust rapidly. I believe that Jones’s naivety and her somehow seeking a father figure to the other are plausible. Yet, I am not convinced that the reality would be the same.  More importantly, wouldn’t it be a risk, having laid bare most facts to a ‘raw agent’ such as Jones. Anyhow, perhaps Mr. Dakin is an exception.

At any rate ‘the war’ Christie ‘proposed’ in the plot did occur. I wonder how she might have felt reading about what had occurred between North and South Korea. Surely it was not her fault but a warning – or better: her advice- had been given, particularly after the 1947 war between Israelis and Palestinians. I am just glad she did not see the tiresome Iraq-Iran War (1980 – 1988) because it would have very much broken her heart .

 

The Twists:             

-Henry Carmichael passes half of the information to Richard Baker and the other to Victoria Jones

-Sir Rupert Crofton Lee kills Henry Carmichael

-Victoria Jones remembers that Sir Rupert has a small ‘boil’, ie. a distinguished mark on the back of his neck

-Anne Scheele disappears after she visits her sister in a nursing home in London

-Victoria Jones is kidnapped after a picnic with Edward at the ruins of Babylon

-Victoria Jones’s appearance resembles Anne Scheele

 

Cast of Characters:

Anne Scheele (the secretary to Mr. Morghantal, a magnate in oil business)

Mrs. Cardew Trench (of whom Victoria meets in Tio Hotel)

Catherine (a Syrian who works at the Olive Branch)

The Clipps (who hires Victoria as a companion for Mrs. Clipps to Baghdad)

Captain Crosbie (of British Council)

Dakin (works in an international oil company in Baghdad)

Edward (the secretary to Dr. Rathbone)

Gerard Clayton (British Consul in Basra)

Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton Clipp (the US citizens, of whom the wife is the one Victoria accompanies)

Henry Carmichael (a British agent on the run for crucial information he holds)

Lionel Shrivenham (of British Embassy in Iraq)

Marcus Tio (the proprietor of Tio Hotel in Baghdad)

Dr Rathbone (Edward’s boss, Director of the Olive Branch)

Richard Baker (British archaeologist who digs outside Basra, Henry’s school friend)

Sir Rupert Crofton Lee (the great traveller, of whom Victoria is on the same plane to Baghdad)

Victoria Jones (the protagonist)

 

The Most Fascinating Character: Marcus Tio

The proprietor of the Tio Hotel is involved in the case because of the dead body of Henry Carmichael, the British Agent who died from stabbing in Victoria Jones’s room. Without asking and doing as he was told, Carmichael’s body is then disposed. He carries on about his business as usual afterwards.

As an entrepreneur, Tio seems to know well how to run the business. Superficially he is a jolly personality; to his guests his jokes are rather silly and his mannerism is gay and bubbly.  At heart he is a terribly serious man. It is not by chance that the premises has become a meeting point for influential figures in British politics in Baghdad and the venue for an international peace conference. For his discreetness appears to be the key and moreover he is willing to play part for the sake of protecting his clients’ interests.

There is not much about his background and what makes him decide to run such a hotel. Was he one of Mr. Dakin’s recruit? Nor is his relationship with Mr. Dakin. I wonder to what extent is his knowledge about Dr. Rathbone and the Olive Branch.

Readers, what nationality is he, do you think?

 Clues:

Richard Baker:

He remembered how the Arab had clutched him when he stumbled. A man with deft fingers might have slipped this into his pocket without his being aware of it.

He unfolded the paper. It was dirty and seemed to have been folded and refolded many times.

In six line of rather crabbed handwriting, Major John Wilberforce recommended one Ahmed Mohammed as an industrious and willing worker, able to drive a lorry and minor repairs and strictly honest – it was, in fact, the usual type of chit or recommendation given in the East. It was dated eighteen months back, which again is not unusual as these chits are hoarded carefully by their possessors.

Victoria Jones:

The young man lay just as she had left him. But now his face was a queer greyish colour and his eyes were closed. Then, with a sharp catch in her breath, Victoria noticed something else  – a bright red stain seeping through on to the blanket.

‘Oh, no,’ said Victoria, almost as though pleading with someone. ‘Oh, no- no!’

And as though in recognition of that plea the wounded man opened his eyes. He stared at her, stared as though from very far away at some object he was not quite certain of seeing.

His lips parted  – the sound was so faint that Victoria scarcely heard. She bent down. ‘What?’

She heard this time. With difficulty – great difficulty, the young man said two words. Whether she heard them correctly or not Victoria did not know. They seemed to her quite nonsensical and without meaning. What he said was, ‘Lucifer….Basrah…’

Dr. Rathbone to Victoria Jones:

‘Why did you come and work here, Victoria? Because of Edward?’

Victoria flushed angrily.

‘of course not,’ she said indignantly. She was much annoyed.

Dr. Rathbone nodded his head.

‘Edward has his way to make. It will be many many years before he is in a position to be any of use to you. I should give up thinking of Edward if I were you. And, as I say, there are good positions to be obtained at present, with a good salary and prospects – and which will bring you amongst your own kind.’

‘But I really am keen on the Olive Branch, Dr. Rathbone.’

He shrugged his shoulders then and she left him, but she could feel his eyes in the centre of her spine as she left the room.