Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer

HopeNeverOne of the things I have learned since starting this blog is that humor is entirely subjective. What may strike one reviewer as being restrained may seem like little more than juvenile slapstick comedy to others. Perhaps the only thing more personal than that is politics so no doubt I am on doubly sound ground here…

The premise of the novel is that Joe Biden is struggling to adjust to life after the Vice Presidency. His Secret Service protection ended shortly before the start of this novel and he enviously watches news reports about the celebrity friends Barack Obama is now hanging out with. He is surprised then when one evening the former President shows up in his garden smoking on a cigarette to tell him that his favorite Amtrack conductor is dead having apparently committed suicide on the train tracks.

The reason Obama is sharing this information with him is that a map to Joe’s house was found among his personal possessions leading law enforcement to be concerned that he may be in danger. Joe cannot see the man as a potential assassin but then he struggles to believe that anyone who worked on the trains would commit suicide by lying down in front of one knowing how it would affect the driver.

Hope Never Dies affectionately riffs on Biden’s public persona as an everyman and Obama’s as being somewhat aloof and professorial. Generally speaking it avoids being too political, reflecting on the nature of the men’s political legacies rather than savaging their successors. There’s a bit of stuff about Hillary’s run but it is mostly from the perspective of Joe feeling that had he been the candidate he would have wound up in the White House and beyond a throwaway gag about the Russia investigation the Republican side of things isn’t touched on at all.

For what it’s worth I found Hope Never Dies to be more chucklesome than hilarious. There is nothing new in the way either man is portrayed or anything subversive or out there. I suspect that Republican readers may roll their eyes at moments but they will not find much to object to while Democrats will likely be pleased that it has fun with both men without ridiculing them other than a few jokes about Biden and Obama aging in office.

The best way of judging whether this will work for you is just to start reading an excerpt. The opening two chapters are very short, set up the mystery and basically sum up the book’s approach to each man.

As important as the comedic elements are to this novel, I think it is easier to assess this book as a piece of mystery fiction.

Shaffer’s novel touches on several different sub-genres of mystery fiction resembling at times the modern cozy with its focus on interpersonal relationships, the adventure novel and even the gentle thriller. It blends these elements to tell an incident-driven story in which Joe is interviewing people and reacting to the things he is observing and the actions of others. There are even a couple of pretty solid action sequences.

It is not, however, a work of fair-play detective fiction. For one thing, there is not much of a focus on identifying suspects, working out alibis or assessing motives. For another, some important information is withheld from the reader until very late in the novel. Neither of these things affected my enjoyment of the novel as the action drives the story very effectively but those hoping for deduction may be a little disappointed.

The case does touch on some themes that do feel very much of the moment including rising levels of opiates use in America amongst groups that would not have traditionally been labelled as at-risk and the expense of medical care and the devastation unexpected bills can have on personal finances. These issues are not addressed from a party political standpoint (after all, the opiates epidemic was discussed by politicians of both parties in the 2016 campaign, particularly in the New Hampshire primary) but rather they serve as background in understanding the events that take place.

I felt that the solution to what had happened was fine and I did enjoy the action sequence that followed the reveal of the killer’s identity. The moment of revelation itself however felt anticlimactic and a little drab given how colorful the story had been up until that point.

What did work for me was the rendering of Joe as a sleuth, using his knowledge of his home state and contacts he had built up over decades working as a Senator to follow-up on leads. He approaches the case with heart, occasionally bordering on schmaltz, and also with a genuine interest in connecting with people. He does not possess many technical abilities beyond a few things he has noticed in episodes of Law and Order but the case does not require much of him other than that knowledge of people. This is a similar model to that found in Peter Lovesey’s Bertie Prince of Wales stories (although Joe is far more self-aware than Bertie) and I think it works well.

His angst about whether Barack still has time for him is perhaps stretched out a little too much throughout the novel but that relationship is interesting, as is the thematic discussion of when it is time to take a step back. That discussion reminded me a little of a book I recently read and reviewed, Murder for Lunch, as Reuben Frost also feels a little lost now that his professional career is over and he is looking for a sense of purpose. I do feel that this is one of the most successful aspects of the novel and it helps make it easy to relate to a former Vice President.

While I may not have laughed quite as much as I hoped, I did find Hope Never Dies to be a fun and entertaining read. It works as a pastiche of the buddy cop relationship and while it does feel a little odd to read fictionalized renderings of living figures, I think Shaffer captures their public personas fairly well. I am not entirely sure that it could work as a long-term series unless further elements were added to the mix but should a sequel appear I would probably check it out.

The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons

ColourofMurderJulian Symons is a writer whose name was known to me more in connection with his literary criticism than in terms of his own creative writing. This is in spite of this novel’s reputation with it not only winning the highest award from the Crime Writers’ Association in 1957 but also being included on their Top 100 list in 1990. Happily the book’s imminent rerelease gave me an opportunity to acquaint myself with his work.

The Colour of Murder opens with a story being related by John Wilkins to a psychiatrist. The circumstances of this are not immediately apparent but as the reader progresses in the narrative it will become clearer where the story appears to be headed.

John Wilkins works in the Complaints department of a Department Store where he has proved himself competent but has yet to achieve the recognition he wishes for. His relationship with his wife is cold and stale with neither of them really getting what they want from it. His life is turned upside down however when he meets a young woman who works in the library and flirts with her, impulsively deciding to tell her that he is single.

As he recounts what happened and his reasons for ending up in a seaside hotel the reader will have a strong sense that this is not a simple psychiatric consultation but an evaluation. By the end of the first part of the novel Wilkins will find himself accused of murder in circumstances that make him look guilty although this first section stops short of telling us exactly what occurred.

There are a few reasons for this abrupt cut in the story but one of them is that the second part of the story shifts style to become more of a legal drama. Wilkins’ mother and uncle consult a solicitor and hire a detective agency to investigate what happened to attempt to find evidence of his innocence. We as readers cannot be entirely sure whether he is innocent or not and so we are forced to make our own judgments based on our interpretations of what he has told his psychiatrist and the evidence given during the trial.

The transition between the two styles of narrative works very effectively and prompts the reader to make their own psychological evaluation. While this book certainly belongs to the psychological crime tradition rather than the puzzle mystery approach, the reader is capable of making several inferences that should help them get to the truth of what happened. The answer is confirmed to the reader in a short third section at the end of the novel which, while hardly shocking, is very competently delivered.

The chief strength of the novel lies in its very effective characterization. Kate in her excellent review suggests that this novel is a descendent of Malice Aforethought and I think this is most clearly seen in the characterization of John Wilkins. Both he and Dr. Bickleigh are moderately successful but appear to be stagnating professionally, sexually frustrated (though Wilkins is much less forward with women) and see their spouse as an obstacle to a new relationship. In each case they are dominated and arguably emasculated by their wives and indulge in an element of fantasy in their idle moments.

There are however some important differences and distinctions between the two characters that make it clear that this is something new. Where Bickleigh is cold and plans a murder in advance (and in a very cruel way), Wilkins is notable for his questionable mental stability. We may well wonder, much as his barrister does, whether he may have a cause to plea insanity and certainly the crime that is committed does not seem to have been premeditated.

As I read I couldn’t help but think that Wilkins is a man who grew up at precisely the wrong time for someone of his temperament. He belongs to the younger generation and yet his values are distinctly those of the pre-war generation. He is discontent with fifties domesticity and yet even if he were cut free of those obligations it is hard to imagine him successfully engaging with the type of woman he desires. He is too awkward and insular to ever be comfortable socially.

Wilkins’ wife is an intriguing character in that while she is shown to be domineering and unaffectionate, Symons takes the time to give us the information we need to understand her better, leaving the reader to connect the dots. She is certainly a materialistic figure, valuing a quality of life that she feels envious that others were able to enjoy, and yet there are moments where she does appear to actually want her marriage to be warmer and more affectionate. She quarrels with John’s mother and yet it is clear that she wants to be accepted. She is an interesting, complicated creation and while her psychology is not the focus of the novel, I appreciate that she is treated with more complexity than you might assume from her introduction.

Sheila, the young librarian who becomes the object of John’s affections, makes a similarly straightforward first impression but as she features less directly in the novel I think she does not quite possess the same depth of characterization. I did enjoy the process of figuring out how she felt about him and the glimpses of her life and circle of friends.

The court case itself is one of the highlights of the novel and features some very exciting moments. Symons is able to avoid repeating ideas or phrases and to keep the action moving quickly. We are left to wonder what the outcome of the case will be, particularly following several very dramatic revelations, and I think the ending of the second section and the third have a certain power.

Overall my first taste of Julian Symons’ work was very positive. He is able to make a potentially rather unpleasant lead character compelling and convincing while injecting his story with a surprising amount of wit. I would certainly suggest this to fans of the more psychological approach to crime fiction advanced in novels by Iles and Rendell.

No doubt I will get around to reading The Belting Inheritance, the other Symons novel being republished by the British Library, soon and I can imagine dipping into some of his other works. If you have read any of Symons’ work, do you have any favorites you would recommend?

Review copy provided by the publisher. The British Library Crime Classics edition will be published in Britain and America on February 5, 2019.

The Face on the Cutting Room Floor by Cameron McCabe

CuttingRoomIt is hard to know quite how to categorize The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor because it is a book that actively seeks to subvert not only the reader’s expectations but their understanding of what they have read. It can be read as a somewhat hardboiled detective novel, a legal thriller, a cat and mouse game between detective and criminal or psychological crime novel yet there are ambiguities in the telling and particularly the ending that are designed to make the reader question what they have read.

Commentaries on the novel describe it as a work of ‘postmodern fakery’. Certainly I think it is a startlingly modern work, styled as a found document rather than a novel, and at times I found myself checking to make sure that the publication year was not a typo. There is a frankness about sexual relationships and power relationships that seems quite striking for the period. I came to this book with little idea about it, or its reputation as my copy is not the striking Picador Classic shown above and came without any fanfare. I didn’t even have the good sense to check Kate’s review.

If I had I would likely have struggled to recognize her description of the novel as being very, very boring – at least at first. The opening of the book is certainly written in a somewhat disjointed style with short, staccato sentences that give it a punchy, hard-boiled feel but I thought the initial setup of the story was quite promising.

The book is narrated by Cameron McCabe, also credited as the author of the book though in actuality it was a German refuge, Ernest Borneman. We learn that he is a film editor who is surprised when the producer of the film he is working on comes to him and tells him to completely cut the lesser known of the two leading actresses out of the movie. Given it is a love triangle movie and McCabe judges her performances to have been excellent he cannot understand what is motivating that decision.

The next morning the actress in question is found dead in an office with cuts to her wrists. Answers to whether it was suicide or murder ought to be found in the uniquely rigged camera security system the special effects coordinator had installed in that room as a film camera starts when the door is opened but the film is missing. Soon multiple people have confessed to murdering her and the film, when it does turn up, will raise more questions than answers for Inspector Smith.

I like a lot of the ideas and story beats found in these early chapters and while I found the prose a little hard to follow at times, I appreciated the clever way the book is able to present the reader with multiple, convincing explanations of what happened each based on some logical point and in a few cases on some knowledge of the workings of the film industry. I particularly appreciated the way McCabe breaks down why the producer’s request makes no sense in a passage which struck me as very cleverly reasoned.

The problem is that the book then begins to repeat itself, a pattern that will follow all the way to the book’s conclusion. In the course of the novel we will get ten different accounts of the crime in varying degrees of detail but these are not Rashomon-style alternative perspectives but rather reiterations of the facts of the case followed by explanations designed to suggest a particular character’s guilt. Some of these are helpful but by the time we reach the first of the two most lengthy accounts, the courtroom sequence, I felt it had become tedious with little new information being imparted at all.

Why repeat the same basic facts over and over again? The author’s intentions become clear in the very lengthy epilogue that makes up the final quarter of the novel which is written in the form of a critical analysis of the manuscript from a character within the story. This makes it clear that the author wishes to subvert the reader’s expectations of what a detective story, deconstructing it to demonstrate how facts can have multiple interpretations and a story might have multiple solutions.

While quite original for the time, this approach presents several problems. The first is that because the author is seeking to withhold information about characters’ roles within the story, the reader never really gets a clear sense of who they are. Even McCabe, who narrates the novel, remains something of a mystery to the reader right up to the end.

On another, simpler level I found the epilogue grating because it feels a little smug and self-satisfied. The author creates fictional responses from real critics to the account that makes up the first three-quarters of the book and analyses and responds to these. While some of the ideas discussed are certainly intriguing, it feels indulgent and far too drawn out. There is an interesting development in the final few pages but, by then, the reader may well have abandoned the work.

For all of these complaints however, I do think that the book is frequently innovative and interesting. I particularly enjoyed the intense rivalry that emerges between McCabe and Detective Smith which I think is very cleverly developed throughout the novel and I think has a striking resolution. Similarly, I think the psychological elements of the novel are well handled, even though the characters are fairly uniformly unlikable.

The problem is that for all its inventiveness and clever ideas and observations on the detective genre, the book is just not much fun to read. It is dry, particularly in its final quarter, and while the twist in its final pages is excellent it takes far too long to get there.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by Poison (How)

The Case of the Sulky Girl by Erle Stanley Gardner

SulkyGirlI enjoyed my first taste of Perry Mason with The Case of the Velvet Claws and I was intrigued that the end of that book leads directly into this second volume. At the end of that novel we are told that a ‘sulky girl’ is waiting to meet with Perry and this picks up moments later.

The girl is Frances Celene, a wealthy heiress who has come to consult Perry about the terms of her father’s will. The terms of the will are quite unusual and feature a number of provisions. The most important one as far as we are concerned is that her father specifies that if she marries before she turns twenty-five she will receive a small lump sum and the remainder of her trust fund will be turned over to charitable causes. She is hoping that Perry might be able to challenge the terms of that will to enable her to marry early and still keep the money.

Her father had placed Frances’ Uncle Edward, a stubborn but rigorously honest man, in charge of administering the trust fund he had created for his daughter and had afforded him an unusual degree of discretion. When he looks at the will, Mason notes that in the event of Uncle Edward’s death the entire sum of money goes directly to Frances. Quicker than you can say motive for murder, Edward is found dead in his study and Mason has a client who on the face of it looks pretty guilty.

In the early chapters of the story Gardner’s careful construction of circumstances is quite evident. For instance, the terms of the will are designed specifically to seem to implicate several characters and to create the sense that all of the evidence will be pointing towards Frances’ guilt. This can make those opening chapters feel a little awkward and artificial, yet I appreciated the clever way this evidence is constructed because it helps build the reader’s anticipation as they try to figure out how Mason will puncture the DA’s story.

There is a point in the lead up to the trial where Perry Mason explains that he is staking his case all on one big knockout punch of evidence. The idea is that it is better to allow some of the prosecution’s case against his client to go unchallenged because when he demonstrates that one key aspect of that case is wrong, the drama of that moment will make that revelation seem all the more devastating. Gardner has a very similar experience in mind for the reader and I think it largely works.

The solution is not mind-bendingly clever or audacious, nor is it necessarily one that the reader can prove in advance but they ought to be able to conceive what Perry intends to do before he pulls it off. The reader should also be able though to identify the actual guilty party and provide a reason based on the evidence they are given earlier in the novel.

I felt it was a satisfying, interesting case and while I appreciated that the previous novel never had Perry Mason set foot in a courtroom, I did enjoy the court scenes here which play out with much more pace and energy than I am used to in legal thrillers. His thinking is clear and pretty easy for the reader to follow and I appreciated the rivalry that is built up here between him and the Assistant DA.

The characters are fine and I can say that I found Frances Celene far less tiresome than I did the exasperating “Eva Griffin” in the previous novel. The personalities are not as strong as some of those that featured in Velvet Claws but they suited the story well. Having enjoyed her in the first novel, I was a little disappointed that Della Street makes only a very fleeting appearance and has little to contribute beyond placing calls. I did like the moment where she reveals just how much faith she has in his abilities though. Similarly Paul Drake does not get much to do here.

While I think Perry Mason’s second case is a little less flashy than his first, I did find this to be a more entertaining and well-balanced read. The courtroom scenes are strong and though the resolution may not shock, the process getting there is interesting and clever. The ending of this novel sets up The Case of the Lucky Legs and as I seem to be getting the rhythm of these, I am sure I will be revisiting the courtroom with Perry Mason at some point soon.

Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville

ThrackleyI always look forward to getting my hands on titles from the British Library Crime Classics range but this one was particularly exciting for me. You see, Death of Anton from the same author was one of the books I most enjoyed reading last year and remains one of my go-to suggestions when someone asks for a recommendation from the range.

Weekend at Thrackley was the author’s first work and represents a different style of storytelling more reminiscent of some of the early Agatha Christie thrillers. It is unmistakably from the same author however being told in a very witty style that often draws comparisons with Wodehouse. Not all the jokes land quite as well as they probably did in 1934 but even when a joke falls flat, the humorous approach gives the book a light and breezy quality that makes it a pleasure to read.

The hero of our story is Jim, an unemployed young man who unexpectedly receives an invitation to a country house party from a man he doesn’t know. That man, Carson, claims to have known his father and while he is perplexed by this supposed connection, he is not one to pass up a weekend of fine dining so agrees to go. It turns out that one of his friends has also been invited down and the pair motor down together, making an agreement to have a coded message arrive should they wish to make an early escape.

When they arrive they encounter a fairly strange mix of guests, none of whom know Carson personally either and they have little in common with each other. We will soon learn the reasons why they have been invited however and, knowing those intentions, we then watch to see how those plans will play out.

The characters comprising the house party are rendered in varying degrees of detail with some remaining only loosely sketched. Freddie Usher, Jim’s friend, was a favorite as while he is quite affable he is not a great thinker. Kate in her excellent review suggests that he ends up acting as a sort of ‘not hugely bright sounding board for Jim’ which I think is pretty accurate.

There are three other characters who stand out: a shapely dancer named Raoul who is in a popular West End show, a socialite who enjoys supporting a diverse mix of causes and Carson’s daughter. Much like those early Christie thrillers, there is a light romantic subplot here that adds some appeal to the story. Happily though this character is more than just someone for Jim to hold at the end as she will play an important role in some key points of the resolution making her feel much deeper than the romantic interests often do in these stories.

Given we already know the villain’s identity and plans, there are really only two questions that the reader will be invited to solve: why was Jim invited to this party and how will Carson be stopped? While I found the twists and turns of Melville’s story to offer little in the way of shock or surprise, I did think it was very neatly executed and easy to follow.

While I think Weekend at Thrackley does what it sets out to do quite well, unless you are specifically a fan of lightly comical thrillers I would not suggest it as your first encounter with this author. The book certainly charms and entertains but it reveals so much so soon that it is not particularly mysterious while, if you are looking for a comic read, those elements become less prominent in the story in its action-dominated final third.

Melville’s Death of Anton feels like a more substantial and complete work, reflecting his development as a writer and a growing comfort in subverting some of the traditional beats of a mystery story. Alternatively, while I think Quick Curtain disappoints as a mystery it does at least maintain its humorous approach throughout the whole novel, building it into its resolution.

If you have read and enjoyed those other titles however, I do think there is plenty here to appeal. While it may have been his first novel, Melville had clearly already developed his voice as an author by this point and he writes an entertaining, charming piece of fiction. I really hope that the British Library will release his other remaining crime fiction works as I gather he played around with some of the other crime fiction subgenres and his work, even when not perfect, is always sparklingly witty and charming.

Review copy provided by the publisher. This book is already available in the UK but will be published in the United States on August 7 by Poisoned Pen Press.

The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner

VelvetClawsPrior to picking up The Case of the Velvet Claws I had never read a Perry Mason but it has been on the reading bucket list for me, especially knowing that JJ rates Gardner as one of his four Kings of Crime. While I could, no doubt, have started somewhere in the middle of his run it seemed to me to make sense to take a look at the character as he first appeared.

The novel opens with a woman walking into Perry Mason’s office to hire him to represent her in negotiations with a gossip rag, Spicy Bits, after she was spotted at an inn with an aspiring politician following a holdup. It turns out that she is a married woman and her concern is that if the reporters were to pursue the story that her own indiscretion would be revealed.

As you might expect, events will soon take a bloody turn and Mason’s client will be accused of a murder. However that is all you’re going to get from me in terms of a summary as if you haven’t read this already I would hate to spoil your fun. The book is something of a rollercoaster, packing several satisfying revelations and plot reversals into a compact and punchy story.

Much of this success stems from the characterization of Eva, the young woman who hires Mason as her lawyer. She is a slippery customer who refuses from the start to be straight with him, offering up a false name and giving the detective that is sent after her the slip when he tries to discover her identity for himself. In other circumstances she might be something of a femme fatale and certainly Della, Mason’s secretary, seems to worry that she has some sort of hold over him, rendering him incapable of exercising good judgment with her case. Frequently she works against her lawyer, lying to him and throwing obstacles in his way, and often making herself look more guilty in the process.

In spite of his client’s behavior, Mason remains absolutely committed to pursuing her interests and securing her freedom. He explains it rather eloquently in a speech he gives to Della, telling her ‘when you do take them, you’ve got to give them all you’ve got’. He does give a few variants of this speech at points in the novel, arguably weakening its impact, but Gardner establishes this as the key theme of the work and the circumstances Mason will find himself in should test that to the extreme.

Mason is established as being calm, perceptive and aggressive in pursuing his clients’ interests and one of the most gratifying aspects of this novel was seeing how he responds to the situations Eva puts him in. He certainly proves himself to be resourceful and it is impressive to see how he can predict and stay ahead of events for so much of the narrative. Because he is so confident however and never seems shaken in his beliefs, I do think the cost to him of his actions risks being underplayed.

Gardner gets around this problem by taking the time to flesh out the character of his secretary, Della Street, who seems to care for her boss quite a lot and is worried about how the case will affect him. Her reactions to those seemingly reckless choices help establish and reinforce the danger of his actions, putting them in perspective and providing some conflict while I think her affection for him also helps to humanize him.

While Della is quite clearly intended to play the role of a secondary character in this adventure I did appreciate that Gardner does give her a back story that makes her feel more dimensional than the usual secretary who is in love with her boss. This is brought out in discussion of her feelings about Eva which seem to border on jealousy, both with regards Mason’s reaction to her but also about their comparative social and economic situations. She resents how easy Eva’s life has seemed to be and in doing so begins to explicitly draw a comparison between the two women, helping to better define each of them.

Both Eva and Della are certainly colorful and complex female characters but I do not wish to give the impression that this is a more progressive piece than it actually is. The novel, published in 1933, certainly reflects some social attitudes of the time and Mason can be somewhat dismissive of his assistant’s thoughts and feelings as well as fairly scathing towards his own client. This is not the character’s most attractive side but it does feel pretty realistic to the era.

When it comes to the conclusion, I think Gardner does manage to come up with something that struck me as unexpected and I enjoyed learning how the various aspects of the story pieced together. In particular there is one aspect of the solution that struck me as quite ingenious to the point where I wondered if a key piece of information could possibly be accurate, leading me to do a little research. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that it was and I think it does make for a rather elegant solution to what happened to a piece of evidence.

For those who expect a story like this to have a courtroom resolution, it was rather refreshing to find a legal thriller that features no court scenes at all.  Instead it focuses on the lawyer’s life outside the court and the work that can be done to try to prevent a case from ever appearing before a judge at all. I certainly think it works well here and while I gather that subsequent stories in the series would not follow this plan, it does help to mark the story apart.

Will I be making a follow-up appointment to see this particular lawyer? I feel pretty confident you will. For one thing the novel ends on an exchange that sets up the following title, The Case of the Sulky Girl and while I am not sold on that as a title I am sufficiently intrigued by that exchange to read on.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Book made into film/tv/play (Why)

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

DestinationUnknownDestination Unknown feels surprisingly like a Bond novel, albeit one stripped of its sex and brutal acts of violence. Okay, so it’s mostly a book set in an exotic locale with an amoral villain who possesses a secret lair but the story does have a surprisingly epic scope and contains some great spy story-style moments.

The story concerns the disappearance of a scientist during a conference in Paris. The British secret services are concerned that he may have defected behind the Iron Curtain and so have been keeping tabs on his wife, hoping that she will lead them to him. When she requests the right to travel abroad to get away from it all, they approve the request but hope that this may be when she makes her move.

Unfortunately before they can do anything her plane crashes and she is badly injured. This would be a dead-end in their investigation so they decide to recruit Hilary Craven, a woman who is on the verge of suicide after her child died and her husband left her. The handler argues that this may be a more interesting way to die and she may rediscover her wish to live in the process. She will adopt the persona of the wife and emerge from the hospital in her place, waiting to be contacted by her husband or his representatives.

This is really just the beginning of a much bigger journey, both physically as she finds herself transported to that secret lair but also metaphorically as she begins to feel alive and invests in relationships with people around her.

The physical journey is quite intriguing, in part because of the scale of the journey the character undertakes going from England to Paris to Morocco and then deep into the desert. It is somewhat reminiscent of The Man in the Brown Suit and it is interesting to consider the parallels – particularly when it comes to the development of a villain.

In both stories Christie develops an unlikely sort of villain, at least for these types of adventure and espionage stories. The villains are not scenery-chewing madmen but entirely rational figures – in this case someone who sees the world in a somewhat clinical way. Neither figure is planning acts of unspeakable evil but they do represent a threat to stability. The villain here may not be as likeable as the one in Brown Suit but there are similar ideas in their characters and the themes developed around them.

One of the themes that is central to this novel is the role of science within extreme ideologies. Here we see Christie posit an organization that does not belong to either side of an ideology where scientists whose outlooks on the world are utterly different are working alongside each other with uncertain ends. There are hints of the fears of nuclear annihilation, reflected in our knowledge that the missing scientist was a nuclear physicist, and a discussion of the genius scientist as a personality type. It is not a flattering portrayal and it seems clear that Christie was thinking about some of the wartime scientific breakthroughs as she wrote.

There are some wonderful moments within the journey itself as our heroine explores Morocco. While Christie sets many of her stories against exotic locales, I don’t think she ever really brings those settings as vividly to life as Fleming might but this work is full of lots of details that reflect her own travels both in terms of the practicalities of travelling but also in her observations about the British (and French and Americans) abroad. In that sense Morocco feels more dimensional than South Africa ever does in Brown Suit.

While I enjoyed the physical journey, Hilary’s emotional journey is the more convincingly developed. Kate at CrossExaminingCrime wrote a wonderful, thoughtful review of this story that suggests that Christie felt some sympathy for her heroine based on her own experiences and I think she makes an excellent case. Certainly I think the chapter in which we first encounter her in Paris feels convincing in the way it depicts her mental state.

Christie does a superb job of making it believable that Hilary could undertake the physical journey, sometimes experiencing some luck but also showing some moments of perception. We get to share in her doubts, worries and fears and this helps build some really effective, tense scenes. One of my favorites comes when she finally makes it to her destination and she realizes that she doesn’t really know what to do next. The scene unfolds in an unexpected way, turning what we think we know on its head. Be prepared for a few more intriguing reversals after that.

The problem is that Hilary, while undoubtedly brave and quite capable, is not responsible for resolving the situation herself. Certainly she plays a significant role in moving characters into the final positions but too much of the action at the end is placed out of her hands. This is a shame because I would have liked to see her play an active role in at least one other character’s fate, especially when she is a witness who could prove something important if she were more heavily involved in that conclusion.

After showing resourcefulness and coolheadedness throughout the novel, in its final chapters Hilary is suddenly rendered quite passive and is, essentially, rescued by third parties. I wish that she might have played a more active role in her own fate, particularly as it is implied that the thing that gets her over her suicidal feelings about the loss of her husband is meeting another man rather than building a sense of self-worth, but if it had unfolded that way it probably wouldn’t feel like Christie.

In spite of some frustrations in plotting and, in particular, with its resolution, I did find Destination Unknown to be quite an enjoyable read. It’s not really much of a mystery but I think there are some excellent story beats and I think it does present some interesting ideas.

Next month’s non-series Christie selection will be The Sittaford Mystery. I have seen the Marple! adaptation of that one but have little memory of anything other than Timothy Dalton wearing a suit and grumping in a generally aristocratic sort of way around a stormy country house so we’ll see what I make of it.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Has been read/reviewed by a fellow challenger at any time (Why) – Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime