Saturday 30 October 2021

Is Agatha Christie's Passenger to Frankfurt the worst novel ever written?

Passenger to Frankfurt
is one of the last books Agatha Christie wrote, and her last thriller. I am about two-thirds through rereading it. It was published in 1970, which means that she wrote it in 1968 or 1969. The world had just passed through a period of "student unrest". 

The book starts with a flavour of Len Deighton or Modesty Blaise. Sir Stafford Nye is a diplomat who has failed to rise, thanks to his wry sense of humour and skeptical attitude. He is approached in Frankfurt airport by a slim young woman who asks to borrow his concealing Corsican cloak and his passport. In a typical Christie touch, she takes his place on a plane to London while he is found drugged in a corner of the airport. (Of course she cuts her own hair short in the Ladies, with a pair of nail scissors.)

He returns to London and the story takes an Avengers, Murder She Wrote, John Le Carré turn. Nye is taken by the young woman from a fairly boring Embassy dinner party to a house in Sussex, where he meets Christie's series characters Lord Altamont, Colonel Pikeaway (usually to be found behind a door marked MARINE BIOLOGY in what is obviously Foyle's bookshop), Mr Robinson the money expert and Horsham – an ex-policeman and the above characters' right-hand man. They are like The Champions – they belong to no department and are answerable only to themselves; or like Dr Who's Brigadier with his brief to keep an eye on aliens. Their job seems to be "watch out for evil masterminds wanting to take over the world". They fill in Sir Stafford and explain why they want to recruit him – but oddly he has already had a hint of the global plot from his elderly Great-aunt Matilda, who likes to waffle on about her old friends who were once very influential, you know.

The scene moves to Bavaria and some obvious neo-Nazis. Sir Stafford and the young woman (Renata) dine at the Schloss of "Big Charlotte" who seems to want the Reich to return. Wagner plays moodily throughout.

Now we are at a committee meeting of high-ups from European countries and the States – they discuss student unrest and the movement of money, planes and arms around the globe. Surely it's all connected – but it seems confused and meaningless. Things are more serious than they really were in 1969 – cities under martial law, others dominated by young activists. ("Where do they get the guns from?")

They consider ways of fighting back: nuclear weapons? Poison gas? Biological warfare? (Though what body would declare war on half the citizens of all the world's countries? On what grounds?) One of the pundits seriously considers wiping out everybody under 30. He has failed to think his plan through. What about the demographics, let alone the morality?

Others have called this section "confused", and it is – but mainly because Christie is recording the anti-conspirators' speech. She always did write her novels in dialogue, and she is good at the rambling way people really talk.

In her Autobiography, she describes meeting a German official in the Middle East in the 30s. I've quoted the passage here. She is describing the incident with hindsight – I wonder if it happened exactly like this, including the "extraordinary change that came over his face" when he said "Maybe your Jews are not like ours..."

In Passenger to Frankfurt, one of the anti-conspirators also remembers an incident from the 30s:

One of the Embassy wives, clever, intelligent woman, well educated. She was very anxious to go personally and hear the Führer speak... She was curious to know what oratory could do. Why was everyone so impressed? ... She came back and said, “It’s extraordinary. I wouldn’t have believed it. Of course I don’t understand German very well but I was carried away, too. And I see now why everyone is. I mean, his ideas were wonderful … They inflamed you. The things he said. I mean, you just felt there was no other way of thinking, that a whole new world would happen if only one followed him...  I’m going to write down as much as I can remember, and then if I bring it to you to see, you’ll see better than my just trying to tell you the effect it had.” ... She came to me the next day and she said, “I don’t know if you’ll believe this. I started to write down the things I’d heard, the things Hitler had said. What they’d meant—but—it was frightening—there wasn’t anything to write down at all, I didn’t seem able to remember a single stimulating or exciting sentence. I have some of the words, but it doesn’t seem to mean the same things as when I wrote them down. They are just—oh, they are just meaningless. I don’t understand.”

Another character remembers being in Germany at the same time, and enthusing to his hosts about the Passion Play of Oberammergau. His hostess replies: "We don't need Jesus Christ – we have Hitler!" Are these stories that Christie heard at the time?

This is not the first time Christie has tackled dictators, conspiracies and world politics. In the 40s, she wrote a short story about the kidnap or assassination of Hitler, that was never published. There is a sinister organisation in Destination Unknown (and to my mind she is better at brainwashed drones than Le Carré). They Came to Baghdad has a similar plot to Passenger to Frankfurt.

I shall read on, hoping there is room for some humour and social observation of the kind that lightens Postern of Fate... No sign yet. No, instead we get rhetorical speeches and egregious melodrama.

Not much of the book left – does Aunt Matilda have the clue? This is another Christie constant: the person whose retentive memory may hold the key to the whole thing. The idea turns up in Postern of Fate, but is sadly never resolved there.

How can they cure the young of violent rebellion? The question is raised in They Do It With Mirrors, set in an institution for delinquent young men. It turns out that wanting to "mould" young people is closely allied to wanting to rule your own fiefdom as a benevolent dictator. Perhaps megalomania is more of a constant with Christie than tweed, chintz and bone china.

There is a rather good scene in Frankfurt when Nye, having trailed a coat by travelling to Bavaria, is visited by some fearfully nice young people who claim "We're different. We don't think violence is the answer. We want to form a new political party". But it is clear that they want to recruit him for the Movement, offering him a high-up position in the new regime.

But then nothing more is heard of them, and Nye and Renata almost vanish from the plot. I wish I could read the book Christie set out to write, and observe Nye's impish, maverick personality – that was so carefully set up – put to good use as he has various adventures undercover with the "Young Siegfried" movement. Swathes of plot have gone missing here.

Suddenly we are back with the committee of Oldies, who rush off to Scotland to visit a scientist who is not long for this world. But not before delivering some more long speeches about The Youth of Today.

So, they get hold of the formula to make people benevolent but we hear no more about it. How will it be administered? A gas would affect too many people – perhaps it will be introduced into the drug trade. It causes permanent changes to the brain – not so wild an idea when you read the proliferation of contemporary articles claiming that Google (or the latest folk devil) has permanently altered our children's grey cells.

Christie wrote a few novels before her mystery debut, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. She sensibly took advice from writer friends and connections, one of whom warned her against a tendency to preach. She removed this aspect from her mysteries, leaving only pungent observations from Poirot, Miss Marple and Mrs Oliver, but it can be found in her straight novels – where there is at least one mastermind who thinks he's got the solution to right living if people would only listen to him...

She may have been writing to a deadline, which could explain why most of the plot is missing, and the end of the book seems to have been finished by a secretary.

Do we ever discover who Big Bad is?

POSTSCRIPT: I failed to notice that Aunt Matilda's companion is Amy Leatheran from Murder in Mesopotamia. She must now be 66. And I wanted her to marry Bill Coleman from the earlier book.

More Christie here, and links to the rest.

Friday 22 October 2021

Overheards 13



In the caff.
It all builds up. "I don’t f***in’ like you," I said. You’re so self-centred. When you have known someone for a long time you kind of go into denial. I’ve got rid of all the people in my life... I have got to get a grip on this.
Very rare that anyone changes. [Gives another example.] He was a workaholic – she was married to a ghost.
What’s 'e banged up for?
Knockin’ er about.
Everybody needs everybody. Keep you up to reality.
I’ve lived ’ere for 70 years – still haven’t got the hang of it.
I’m reduced to being a loner.

There was a lot more of it – the violent “workaholic”, who had five kids with two women, turned out to have another girlfriend and was no more a workaholic than the Man in the Moon. The self-centered friend was always checking his phone (“addicted to the internet”), and talking about going to the gym.

Man shouting into phone: You can’t tell me they moulded the clay and engraved it and baked it and buried it just for someone to find thousands of years later in 2021!

Conversation witnessed today, British tourist at vineyard:
"These vaccination checks everywhere, it's like bloody Nazi Germany"
From elderly German man who overheard,
"No my friend, I can assure you it's really not."

Man in the street shouting “BUT I SHOULD HAVE NO REASON TO SHOUT!!” (@Andr6wMale)
A couple share rice-cakes on the bus.
Man: Nice aren't they?
Woman: No Nathan. I'm sorry. I'm going to stop pretending I like them.

Overheard today at the gatehouse to Highgate East Cemetery, a volunteer explaining, in exasperated tones, to two women who mistook it for Waterlow Park: "No, this is a cemetery ... [sigh] ... it doesn't lead anywhere." (@VictorianLondon)

When the opposite ends of London meet: guy from Arsenal on the bus between Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park. On the phone to his mate: Putney, Wimbledon way. Nah man, it's fuckin' scary. Too many trees. (@Mole_9)

Have just been privileged to witness the most east London moment of my life. Spoken by a woman kayaking frantically down the Regent's canal towards a pedestrian on the towpath:  "Oh my God. Francesca is that you? We met in Goa! At the breath workshop! Remember?" (This sounds incredibly made up but it’s a verbatim quote.) (@j_amesmarriott Of course the parties to the conversation were on Twitter and chipped in to say they were real.)

I had to take the handles off after the Lulu incident. (From FB)

Two oldsters across the way.
Did you go?
Yeah. Did you?
Yeah. What did you think?
Not a lot.
It was like McDonald's with alcohol. I came home.
So did I.
I'll never know.

I did actually overhear one woman at the races in around 2011 wail: ...and we've had to move into the gatehouse!!! (LW)

Woman at the cafe near my flat giving advice to a friend on the phone about honestly Lord knows what: “Make sure your tattoos are covered... wear a polo neck ... and bring some fish.” (@rosalyster)

He's not idiosyncratic, Alex. He's a f***wit. (@rupertg)

Supermarket checkout assistant, handing me 2 slips of paper:
Here you are, love. Your receipt and a random bit of advertising. (@Dymvue)

Woman walking past my window: I wish I had this Bible on that day, because I would have dashed it at her... (@VictorianLondon)

There was a big police raid in South Norwood last week. Overheard: ...that barber's that's always empty, the juice bar by the railway bridge, and the charity shop that's not a charity shop. (@Andr6wMale)

At the community project: The London I grew up in has gone... just little pockets left... places like this. What’s the odds this place was started in the 80s?

In the café: She put a ring on my finger and said “You are going to be my husband and I am going to be Mrs Watkins”.

At the V&A: I can tell you now that Korean inlaid lacquer leaves me cold.

In café, man talking quietly and reasonably to nobody: What do I have to do? Why ain’t I included? I’m asking you, where’s my family? I have often wondered. What do I have to do now?  What do I have to do to be included? How far do I have to go? (Possibly the saddest speech I have ever heard. Feb 2020)

More here, and links to the rest.

Wednesday 6 October 2021

Inspirational Quotes 103: Relationships

Looks don't matter, cultivate inner beauty and anyway women don't need to get married any more now they can have jobs. E
njoy the moment, don’t make plans, don’t compare yourself with others.

They concerned themselves, as people always do, with birth, education, love, marriage, money, property and death. (Stephen Fry on the Regency novels of Georgette Heyer, 2021)

A single man over 30 is a big red flag! Especially with no kids. (SP via FB)

She hadn't met a suitable partner in her 30s... unlike with romantic heartbreaks, there was no promise of eventual redemption. (Hadley Freeman on childless women, Guardian Sept 2021)

A few days later a couple of our German friends sheepishly announced that they had just got married in secret. Only the two of them in a registry office, with no witnesses other than a city official and their three-year-old daughter. There had been no sudden epiphany of imperishable love; it was just that they’d worked out during lockdown that getting hitched would save them about €300 a month in taxes. (Oliver Moody, Times Aug 2021)

At the age of 37 felt he was staring down the barrel of a lonely bachelor life. (

Until the 1990s it was common for hormone treatment to be offered to girls to limit their adult height. It was felt that girls who were "too tall" would be unhappy and would never get married... One classic reason for families wanting their girls to reach a shorter adult height has been that parents were worried their daughter might never marry. But the US study also found that height made little difference. Even the tallest women were likely to be in a relationship. (, paraphrase)

The young woman’s burden is always wanting to be liked. (Carol Midgley)

There is no one there to converse with, to build with, to make memories with. There is no one there to listen when you need it the most. You feel abandoned and forgotten. (Birdstreamphotos on being single)

Musa Okwonga “was embarrassed at how his penurious life as a single writer nudging 40 compared with his fellow alumni, by then wealthy executives with houses and families.” (Guardian 2021)


Peg Bracken writes about a friend who couldn’t be bothered “setting” her hair all the time (as all women did in the 50s), and just let it grow. Bracken adds that she has grown a different personality to go with it.

I know a lady who – if she could dress the way she’d really like to – would wear nothing but gypsy clothes: full swinging satin skirts, bare legs, high heels, bracelets to her armpits, and a sleazy chiffon blouse. But she knows as well as you do how fast she’d get kicked out of the Parent-Teachers’ Association.
(Peg Bracken, I Hate to Housekeep)

At my school there were popular kids in every activity, the thing that made them all hang out with each other was wealth first, then attractiveness.

Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart. (Kahlil Gibran. Liar.)

Now that I’m in good shape, people offer to carry my groceries to the car and hold doors open. (Rebel Wilson)

Men have only one criterion for judging partners on Tindr: how attractive the woman is. (Times 2021-02-10)

I know someone who once showed up for an interview dressed in orange and green. This type of behavior verges on self-sabotage. (Psychology Today)

In Barbara Amiel’s recent memoir (Dec 2020) she says she had a disastrous nose job when young. “I was an ugly girl. Nobody held the door for me, nobody asked me out.” Her nose was eventually rebuilt using bone from her hip.

Chris looked different from other kids. Would he be able to make friends? (Anne Reinking on her son, who has Marfan syndrome.)

Six out of ten jobseekers thought their looks would hold them back. (Times 2020-11-30)

And you should hear what they told me.

More here, and links to the rest.