Destination Unknown (novel)
Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
|Publisher||Collins Crime Club|
|1 November 1954|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||192 pp (first edition, hardback)|
|Preceded by||A Pocket Full of Rye|
|Followed by||Hickory Dickory Dock|
Destination Unknown is a work of spy fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on 1 November 1954 and in US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1955 under the title of So Many Steps to Death. The UK edition retailed at ten shillings and sixpence (10/6) and the US edition at $2.75.
Hilary Craven, a deserted wife and bereaved mother, is planning suicide in a Moroccan hotel, when she is asked by British secret agent Jessop to undertake a dangerous mission as an alternative to taking an overdose of sleeping pills. The task, which she accepts, is to impersonate the wife of Thomas Betterton, a nuclear scientist who has disappeared and may have defected to the Soviet Union. Soon she finds herself in a group of oddly-assorted travellers being transported to the unknown destination of the title.
The destination turns out to be a secret scientific research facility disguised as a modern leper colony and medical research center at a remote location in the Atlas Mountains. The scientists are well-treated, but they are not allowed to leave the facility, and they are locked in secret areas deep inside the mountain whenever government officials and other outsiders visit. Hilary Craven successfully passes herself as Betterton's wife Olive, because he is miserable and wants desperately to escape.
Hilary discovers that the facility was built by the fabulously wealthy and somewhat villainous Mr Aristides, for financial rather than political ends. He has lured the world's best young scientists to it with various deceptions so that he can later sell their services back to the world's governments and corporations for a huge profit. She falls in love with Andrew Peters, a handsome young American who was in the group with her on their journey to the facility.
With the help of clues she has left along the way, Jessop eventually locates and rescues her and the others held there. Peters turns out also to be on a mission, intent on bringing Betterton to justice for the murder of his first wife. Betterton, revealed to also be a scientific fraud who plagiarized his work, is arrested. Hilary no longer wants to die, and she and Peters are free to begin their life together.
- Mr Jessop, a British security agent
- Thomas Betterton, a young scientist who has recently disappeared
- Olive Betterton, his wife who wishes to join him
- Boris Glydr, the Polish cousin of Thomas Betterton's deceased first wife, Elsa
- Hilary Craven, a woman with nothing to lose
- Mrs Calvin Baker, a seemingly typical American tourist, who is actually a major player in the events that unfold, and harbors great resentment and hatred for her native country
- Janet Hetherington, a dour English traveller, really a British agent
- Henri Laurier, a gallant Frenchman
- Mr Aristides, one of the world's wealthiest men with his hands in many different pots worldwide
- Andrew Peters, a young research chemist
- Torquil Ericsson, a Norwegian idealist
- Dr Louis Barron, a Frenchman dedicated to bacteriological research
- Helga Needheim, an arrogant German scientist
- Paul Van Heidem, a social manager at the facility
- Dr Nielson, the Deputy Director, in charge of administration
- The Director, a charismatic speaker employed by Aristides
- M. LeBlanc, a French investigator
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This book explores the 1950s subject of defection to the Soviets, but it also demonstrates how the break-up of Christie's first marriage in the 1920s remained with her. Like her 1934 Mary Westmacott novel Unfinished Portrait, it starts with a youngish woman who has married, had a daughter and whose husband has replaced her with someone else.
In both books, a young man displays remarkable perceptiveness in spotting her intention to end her life and defies convention to save her, not only in tackling a stranger on intimate matters but in spending time in the woman's hotel bedroom to talk her out of suicide. In this story he talks her into espionage instead.
Literary significance and reception
The Times Literary Supplement in its review, written by Philip John Stead, of 19 November 1954, was enthusiastic when it asked, "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-tellers holiday from the rigours of detective fiction. Readers may regret the absence of the tonic logicalities of crime's unravelling – though "clues" 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." The review concluded, "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."
Maurice Richardson of The Observer of 31 October 1954, said, "The thriller is not Agatha Christie's forte; it makes her go all breathless and naïve." He concluded, "Needs to be read indulgently in a very comfortable railway carriage. She probably had a delicious busman's holiday writing it."
Robert Barnard wrote, "Slightly above-average thriller, with excellent beginning (heroine, whose husband has left her for another woman, and whose small daughter had died, contemplates suicide in strange hotel). Thereafter topples over into hokum, with a notably unexciting climax. Mainly concerns disappearing scientists – it is written in the wake of the Fuchs/Pontecorvo affairs. Mentions the un-American Activities Committee, without obvious disapproval."
- 1954, Collins Crime Club (London), 1 November 1954, Hardback, 192 pp
- 1955, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1955, Hardback, 212 pp
- 1956, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, 183 pp
- 1958, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 191 pp
- 1969, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 203 pp
- 1977, Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, 196 pp ISBN 0-00-231089-9
- 1978, Greenway edition of collected works (Dodd Mead), Hardcover, 196 pp
- May 1983, Pocket Books, paperback, 237 pp, ISBN 0671473085
In the UK the novel was first serialised in the weekly magazine John Bull in five abridged instalments from 25 September (Volume 96, Number 2517) to 23 October 1954 (Volume 96, Number 2521) with illustrations by William Little.
The novel was first serialised in the US in the Chicago Tribune in fifty-one parts from Tuesday, 12 April to Thursday 9 June 1955 under the title of Destination X.
- Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (Page 15)
- John Cooper and B.A. Pyke. Detective Fiction – the collector's guide: Second Edition (pp. 82, 87) Scholar Press. 1994; ISBN 0-85967-991-8
- American Tribute to Agatha Christie
- The Times Literary Supplement (pg. 733), 19 November 1954.
- The Observer (page 7), 31 October 1954.
- Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie – Revised edition (pg. 192), Fontana Books, 1990; ISBN 0-00-637474-3
- Holdings at the British Library (Newspapers – Colindale). Shelfmark: NPL LON LD116.
- Destination Unknown at the official Agatha Christie website