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.


  1. I need to bookmark this, Lucy, in case anyone ever holds someone dear to me for ransom, the ransom being having to re-read this. I haven’t touched it since I received it as that year’s Christie for Christmas,” and it was always rough k owing we would only get one new book a year and if the new one was bad, one had to wait a while twelve months . . .

    As you stated, this is basically They Came to Baghdad approached from a different perspective. Christie had a distinct
    Wagnerian bent when it came to her thrillers, and there’s a tiresome sameness to them: all those feisty heroines and Young Siegfrieds and old white men abusing their great power to “make a better world. Yaaawwwwwnnn!

  2. The "make a better world" is sometimes a disguise for "I make a lot of money". Though why isn't Mr Robinson more worried about the effect of creeping anarchy on the value of money?

  3. True! The "hidden" mastermind in Destination: Unknown is buying and selling scientists for profit. No better world there! (Although his underground lair does include a fabulous dress shop and beauty salon for the ladies . . .) Nobody wants to make the world a better place! They just want money and power. At least, that's what it feels like watching the news these days . . .

  4. The killer in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe thinks the country needs him because he can look after the money supply. Perhaps Christie was haunted by Germany post-WWI.

  5. It has just struck me - both the Goodies and the Baddies go to the trouble of recruiting Stafford Nye - but then they don't get him to do anything! In fact he does nothing! I wonder if more plot was planned...