The Agatha Christie Challenge – Passenger to Frankfurt (1970)

Passenger to FrankfurtIn which moderately successful, but not entirely serious diplomat Sir Stafford Nye is approached at Frankfurt Airport by a woman who asks him to lend her his passport, his cloak and his flight ticket, as her life is in danger. Feeling like he could do with some excitement in his life, he agrees. This would turn out to be the first in a bizarre course of events that would take Nye around the globe and into a world of espionage, political intrigue and very rich and powerful people who want to alter the course of world events.  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

80th birthday cakeThe book is dedicated to “Margaret Guillaume” – and, curiously, no one seems to know who this is. If you have any information or insight, please let me know! There’s also an epigraph, attributed to Jan Smuts, twice Prime Minister of South Africa: “Leadership, besides being a great creative force, can be diabolical…” Passenger to Frankfurt was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in September 1970, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later that year. Unlike most of Christie’s works, it wasn’t serialised in any magazines or journals prior to publication. There may be two reasons for this. Primarily, it was very much marketed as being Christie’s 80th book, published in her 80th year. She did, indeed, reach the age of 80 on 15th September 1970 to coincide with the publication (or should that be the other way round?) although in order to consider this her 80th book you also have to include the books that had only been published in the US to date, and also all her books written under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.

NonsenseThe other reason why it may not have been published elsewhere first is because it really isn’t very good at all. If you were around in 1970 and had never read a Christie before but thought you would try her new book and see for yourself why the Queen of Crime had such a brilliant reputation, then no one would forgive you for deciding never to try another of her books again. It starts with an Introduction – and a rather free-wheeling and pompously self-indulgent one at that – where Christie asks us to look at the state of both England and the wider world, and to consider all the crime, and envisage that it’s all due to a “fantastic cause” or “secret Campaign for Power”. She describes the book as “not an impossible story”, but wants us to think of it as “an extravaganza”. If you read this, and, like me, your eyes sent a warning alert to your brain saying Nonsense Ahead – Read No More, you’ve probably already got the gist of the book.

spyIt’s another of her spy stories, as opposed to a detective thriller, although there is an element of that in the final denouement. She had written some cracking spy stories – The Man in the Brown Suit, for example, or the truly delightful They Came to Baghdad. But Passenger to Frankfurt never has even one toe in the real world let alone a foot; it compounds the unlikely on top of the incredible on top of the preposterous. As if someone like Sir Stafford Nye, with his position and influence, would consent to giving away his passport and flight ticket? And then, having done that, someone who doesn’t look like him, and isn’t even the same sex as him, manages to get all the way to Heathrow without someone raising an eyelid.

Alpine sceneryEven once you get past that – yes intriguing, but totally impossible – start, Christie then takes us down a path of sheer conspiracy theory lunacy, involving the young people in country after country ganging together to support some unnameable anarchy, meeting up in remote Alpine regions for music festivals, causing crisis talks within the top reaches of governments of all nations; and then having mysterious rich and senior figures scattered around the world, and who all seem to be friends with Nye’s Aunt Matilda. Even though the final scenario shows this to be a façade, the fact that we’re asked to believe it is simply beyond the pail.

Frankfurt AirportOne of the more disappointing aspects to the book is that although Christie hasn’t lost her powers of imagination – far from it, regrettably – she has started to lose her ability to express some of her ideas succinctly and with impact. There are many long passages throughout the book that are extremely boring, with characters droning on repetitively about abstract philosophies, or internal monologues, such as this from Nye, thinking about Mary Ann/Renata/Daphne: “And he thought suddenly, in a kind of fog of question marks: Renata??? I took a risk with her at Frankfurt airport. But I was right. It came off. Nothing happened to me. But all the same, he though, who is she? What is she? I don’t know. I can’t be sure. One can’t in the world today be sure of anyone. Anyone at all. She was told perhaps to get me. To get me into the hollow of her hand, so that business at Frankfurt might have been cleverly thought out. It fitted in with my sense of risk, and it would make me sure of her. It would make me trust her.” I can’t help but think that could have been written  more pithily with half the number of words.

repetitionConsider the repetition in this extract: “”Here is a list of the armaments that were sent to West Africa. The interesting thing is that they were sent there, but they were sent out again. They were accepted, delivery was acknowledged, payment may or may not have been made, but they were sent out of the country again before five days had passed. They were sent out, re-routed elsewhere.” “But what’s the idea of that?” “The idea seems to be,” said Munro, “that they were never really intended for West Africa. Payments were made and they were sent on somewhere else.””

lethal weaponsOr this: “”It’s not a question of not having enough lethal weapons. We’ve got too much Everything we’ve got is too lethal. The difficulty would be in keeping anybody alive, even ourselves. Eh? All the people at the top, you know. Well – us, for instance.” He gave a wheezy, happy little chuckle. “But that isn’t what we want,” Mr Lazenby insisted. “It’s not a question of what you want. It’s a question of what we’ve got. Everything we’ve got is terrifically lethal. If you want everybody under thirty wiped off the map, I expect you could do it. Mind you, you’d have to take a lot of the older ones as well.””

Dr EvilAt times, the book reminded me of one Christie’s earlier books – and her first big disappointment – The Big Four, with its group of evil megalomaniacs seeking world domination. There are also undertones of Destination Unknown, and its secret Communist paradise and hidden desert laboratory. In fact you half expect to come across Dr No, or more likely Dr Evil, lurking in its pages. It’s a rambling, shambling affair. There are way too many characters who get in the way of each other, and you frequently need to refer back to remember just who they are. In particular, there are too many new characters brought in towards the end of the book, which just feels like a bit of a cheat when you discover how important they are to the final picture. Usually an artful craftsman where it comes to book structure, Christie sets this one all over the place. It’s not surprising that this is one of only four Christie books that haven’t been adapted to TV, film or theatre.

NurseThere are a couple of recognisable characters; we met both Colonel Pikeaway and Mr Robinson in Cat Among the Pigeons, and we will meet them both again in Postern of Fate; Mr Robinson also appears in At Bertram’s Hotel. Lady Matilda’s assistant is a certain Amy Leatheran; thirty-four years earlier she was a nurse, and indeed, the narrator, in Murder in Mesopotamia.

Birdcage WalkThe book contains a mix of real and fictional locations. Nye walks home across Green Park, and is almost run down by a car in Birdcage Walk. Big Charlotte’s Schloss is near Berchtesgaden, in Bavaria, near the border with Austria, and well known for its wartime associations with Hitler. The meeting with Shoreham takes place in an unspecified location in northern Scotland, 17 miles from the airfield. Summit meetings take place in London and Paris, Mary Ann visits Gottlieb in Austin, Texas, and Reichardt is based in Karlsruhe. However, there’s no such place as Lizzard Street, SW3, which appears in the personal ads, and the nearest station to Matilda’s house is at King’s Marston, an hour and a half from Paddington, also a figment of Christie’s imagination.

Walter A RaleighLet’s check out the references and quotations in this book. Christie gives us some Shakespeare in the Introduction, with “Tell me, where is fancy bred”, which is from The Merchant of Venice, and “a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing”, which is Macbeth’s reflection on life after Lady Macbeth has died. Whilst he’s hanging about the lounge at Frankfurt Airport, Nye remembers “I wish I loved the Human Race; I wish I loved its silly face” and thinks it could be Chesterton. He’s wrong, it’s Sir Walter A Raleigh. No, not that Raleigh, the other one (1861 – 1922).

Prisoner of ZendaLady Matilda quotes: “”Ce n’est pas un garçon serieux”, like that man in the fishing.” I’ve had a look around online and I can’t see what she’s referring to, can you? I’m much more confident when she talks about the Beatles – a popular group combo of the 60s, as they say – and The Prisoner of Zenda, an 1894 adventure novel by Anthony Hope, and an often remade romantic movie. Nye refers to the discovery of uranium from pitchblende; I’d never heard of that, but it’s the old name for uraninite, the ore that is the greatest source of uranium. Kleek refers to the Prophet Joel, who wrote “your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions”; this is Verse 28 from Chapter 2 of the Book of Joel in the Bible.

Rikki Tikki Tavi“You’ve got to go like Kipling’s mongoose: Go and find out” says Lord Altamount. That’s one of my favourite children’s stories, the brilliant Rikki Tikki Tavi from the original Jungle Book. “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest”, quote Messieurs Grosjean and Poissonier during the cabinet meeting in Paris. Grosjean thinks it’s Shakespeare, Poissonier thinks it’s Becket. Poissonier gets the prize – it’s a quote attributed to King Henry II preceding the death of Archbishop Becket. Shakespeare didn’t write a play about Henry II. When Matilda is visiting Charlotte, she reads in the Gideon Bible, “I have been young and now am old, yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken.” It’s Verse 25 from Psalm 37.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There’s only one sum mentioned in this book, five guineas, which is the suggested donation for a seat at “the Charity Variety performance which Royalty would attend” (in other words, the Royal Variety Performance.) By 1970 guineas were becoming a bit old hat, and the introduction of decimal currency the following year largely put paid to them. A guinea was a pound and a shilling, so five guineas was £5.25 – and that sum today would be £57. I think it’s highly unlikely that you’d get a plum seat in the Palladium for that price nowadays!

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Passenger to Frankfurt:

 

Publication Details: 1970. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, the first impression, proudly boasting the words first time in paperback, published in 1972, bearing the price on the back cover of 30p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams is a mix-up of a number of appropriate images; a Bavarian castle, an Aryan-looking young man, and an aeroplane flying overhead, all covered by a huge spider weaving his web, with a swastika tattooed on its back. Creepy.

How many pages until the first death: 118 – although it’s only mentioned in passing as happening somewhere else in the world and its significance isn’t realised until the denouement. The first “live” death as such doesn’t appear until six pages before the end, but there’s no mystery to it – we see exactly who kills whom as the death occurs. This is not a murder mystery!

Funny lines out of context:

“He bought a paperback book and fingered some small woolly animals.”

“He’s a most irritating man and he wants a new organ too.”

Memorable characters: The huge number of characters in this book makes it difficult for any one to stand out, but I suppose Big Charlotte, aka The Gräfin Charlotte von Waldsausen, is the most monstrous creation. “An enormous woman. A whale of a woman, Stafford Nye thought, there really was no other word to describe her. A great, big, cheesy-looking woman, wallowing in fat. Double, treble, almost quadruple chins. She wore a dress of stiff orange satin. On her head was an elaborate crown-like tiara of precious stones […] She was horrible, he thought. She wallowed in her fat. A great, white, creased, slobbering mass of fat was her face. And set in it, rather like currants in a vast currant bun, were two small black eyes.” It should be pointed out she’s memorable for her appearance more than for her character.

Christie the Poison expert: Christie’s old favourite, strychnine, is involved towards the end of the book, although it is never actually administered.

Class/social issues of the time:

The whole book is very much a lament on oh dear me, the world today, it’s not what it was, which is very much one of Christie’s regular themes. Matilda dislikes the progressiveness in the world of shopping: “our own grocer – such a nice man, so thoughtful and such good taste in what we all liked – turned suddenly into a supermarket, six times the size, all rebuilt, baskets and wire trays to carry round and try to fill up things you don’t want and mothers always losing their babies, and crying and having hysterics. Most exhausting.”

Mary Ann tells Stafford in Frankfurt that she needs his help to be safe. “”Safe?” He smiled a little. She said, “safe is a four-letter word but not the kind of four-letter word that people are interested in nowadays.” It reminds one of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes – “Good authors too who once knew better words now only use four letter words”.

Matilda laments to Charlotte about life in England today, with financial constraints that stop one from living out the largesse that the older people thought was their birthright. “What a wonderful life you must live. Not that I could support such a life. I have to live very quietly. Rheumatoid arthritis. And also the financial difficulties. Difficulty in keeping up the family house. Ah well, you know what it is for us in England – our taxation troubles.”

But the world today is not just a question of modern shops and swearing. In 1970, the Vietnam war was still very much active. Matilda struggles to understand her Viet Cong from her elbow, “all wanting to fight each other and nobody wanting to stop. They won’t go to Paris or wherever it is and sit round tables and talk sensibly”. And if there’s one theme that this book has by the bucketful, it’s the suggestion that a resurgence of Nazism is just around the corner. I’m not sure that was actually true in 1970 – but it’s certainly true today. However, to be fair, the whole symbolism of The Young Siegfried, and that charisma and “show” are more powerful than words is something one can easily recognise in modern politics.

Latent racism and/or xenophobia is often present in Christie’s books, and I quote this without comment: “”It is not too good,” the Air Marshal was saying, “One has to admit it. Four of our planes hi-jacked within the last week. Flew ‘em to Milan. Turned the passengers out, and flew them on somewhere else. Actually Africa. Had pilots waiting there. Black men.”” And when the identity of the chief traitor is revealed, they are described as “the [N word] in the woodpile”; fortunately a phrase that has now died out.

Classic denouement:  Not classic, but the denouement succeeds in being probably the best couple of pages in the book, although I had to read it twice or three times to fully understand the motive for the killing. Having said that, you’re not actually expecting the book to have a denouement, because there’s nothing much to denoue.

Happy ending? There’s an epilogue that reveals a marriage, so I guess that’s happy. If Project Benvo gets off the ground, then it’s a supremely happy ending for all mankind. But that’s a very big If.

Did the story ring true? Not one iota. It’s pure conspiracy theory fantasy that infuriates the reader with its ridiculousness. I laughed out loud when one of the characters suddenly gets well after having been ill for years due to “shock treatment”. Honestly! And what happens to the young Siegfried at the end of the book is unintentionally hilarious.

Overall satisfaction rating: 2/10. Worst Christie in her canon so far.

NemesisThanks for reading my blog of Passenger to Frankfurt, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Nemesis, the final appearance of Miss Marple in Christie’s lifetime. I can remember no details, but I have a feeling it’s going to be pretty good! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

2 thoughts on “The Agatha Christie Challenge – Passenger to Frankfurt (1970)

  1. Hello, I’m here again! This is– as all reviews were– an excellent review of a disappointing book, where Agatha Christie realises that the world she knew is definitively over, but doesn’t seem to understand what is following it. It is very much a product of half-understood books– unsurprising that she refers to Levi-Strauss, Marcuse and Fanon– books which her biographers suggest she was trying to read at the time!

    The ‘ce n’est pas un garçon sérieux’ quote could have come from an internal reference, perhaps. Pikeaway talks about how he went up the Loire with his nieces as a young man in the first quarter of the book, and is told that he isn’t a serious fisherman, because he has women with him– “vous n’êtes pas un pecher serieux, vous avez des femmes avec vous”. Maybe that’s why the fishing reference, though one might well wonder how Aunt Matilda knows a reference to Colonel Pikeaway’s youth despite not knowing him, to all intents and purposes!

    • Hi Manav, good to see you again! Thanks for your comments. Excellent insight into the French quote. I’m sure you’re right, and that’s what prompted Aunt Matilda’s comment. There’s no reason she should know Pikeaway, but, there again, Aunt Matilda seems to know everyone!

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