A brief search of the interwebs reveals that David Beckham has thirty, Britney Spears twenty-three, Christina Aguilera fifteen, Beyoncé fourteen, Katy Perry 9, and Ariana Grande a mere 5 — it’s not my area of expertise, however, so some of those numbers may be a little out.
They refer, you may be surprised to learn, to the number of fragrances those celebrities have tirelessly worked away in labs to help develop as an extension of their own souls, an attempt to bring some meaning, some sense of wider comprehension, to the je ne sais quoi of fame, of success, of the awe that mere mortals like ourselves feel at gazing upon such sacrosanct wonders as their achievements. These people and others have — in addition to their talents in fields as diverse as sport, music, and marrying someone famous — demonstrated the sheer determination required to capture the essence of hope, of warmth and love, of the inspiration provided by boundless possibilities, and to trap this in liquid form that we might feel closer to better grasping the agony and brilliance at war inside them.
“Pull the other one, Sunshine.”
Another perspective is that the legal teams who manage the rights and images of these celebrities have — because it can be difficult to gets oneself noticed in an overcrowded market dominated by specialists — signed off on some smelly stuff for 30% of the profits, hoping that allying their client with an existing brand will catch enough eyes to be financially viable. Do we need 30 different fragrances that David Beckham doesn’t wear and has probably never even inhaled? No. There are plenty of reputable perfumiers out there, producing a more than sufficient quantity of distinct scents for the human race (a brief glance at any duty free shop the next time you’re in an airport will confirm this), but the simple truth is that some people will buy anything that says ‘David Beckham’ on it.
Equally, did the world need Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) by Agatha Christie? Decidedly not. The sort of international intrigue it posits had by now been adopted by the upstart John le Carré, author of two masterpieces already, as well as his earlier kin Eric Ambler and Gavin Lyall, to name but two. The thrillers in Christie’s oeuvre (They Came to Baghdad (1951), Destination Unknown (1954), etc), are among the worst-regarded of her books, containing some fine disconnected ideas (the first hides a body in a hotel room with pleasing ingenuity) but nothing new or even vaguely realistic. As entertainments for her to tidy some loose ideas away between better stories they were fine, but were all copies somehow wiped from existence I doubt very many people would mind.
This undoubtedly comes from the weakest part of her career, but I’ve been enjoying my wander through the later works of Agatha Christie. Nevertheless, I had been reluctant to pick up Passenger to Frankfurt because either a) I was drawing out the remaining six novels and two collections for as long as possible, or b) I’d heard that this one was especially poor and so just didn’t want to face it. I’m not being coy with those options, I’m genuinely not sure myself which one it was. But it’s moot now, because I have read it, and I can tell you this: Passenger to Frankfurt is Agatha Christie’s celebrity fragrance of its day. It is a book published purely because it would sell, and it would sell because the simple truth is that some people will buy anything that says ‘Agatha Christie’ on it.
So. Many. Reprints.
The final three novels Christie was to go on and write would at least feature characters — Jane Marple, Hercule Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford — of who readers could claim some fondness, a result of the preceding decades of highly entertaining stories that had featured them. We might not expect them to be good, but at least a final glimpse of out little Belgian friend before his creator packed him away for good has some earned curiosity behind it. Equally, the Beresfords aged from book to book almost in real time, so seeing how Christie treats the now-elderly Young Adventurers is something that intrigues me, even if the prospect of another apparently terrible and wandering narrative doesn’t. People would, and did, similarly buy them because of the brand Christie had become by that point in her career, but undoubtedly the existence of those books lacks the whiff of opportunism that clings so pungently to this one.
If anything, the introduction here should clue you in to the fact that what you’re getting isn’t going to be constructed with Dame Agatha’s peak proficiency, especially when she quotes Macbeth’s “…it is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing” — which, as an epigraph, many would say, sums this one up rather neatly. True, the content herein is really more the tidying away of a few more loose threads than anything approaching a novel, but I’d also argue that there is a perspective from which this isn’t entirely without merit.
Intrigued? Read on…
Minor diplomat Sir Stafford Nye is on a flight back to Blighty when, due to inclement weather, the plane is diverted to Frankfurt airport. While waiting for a connecting flight to London, a woman approaches him, tells him she is in danger, and asks to use his passport to get to London safely. She claims to have approached him due to their startling facial similarity and the fact that the 45 year-old Nye apparently goes everywhere wearing a cape with a hood — no, I promise, this is in the book — and she’ll be able to hide behind that and get out of the country. Is she a terrorist? A Communist? An aggressor bent on destroying the Crown? Nye doesn’t ask. He simply consents to her request, drinks a drugged beer she gives to so as to generate some deniability, and sleeps it off in the airport departure lounge while she flees to who-knows-what ends. Stafford Nye, you hero.
The first third of the book can then be summarised as “they meet twice more, and each time she’s dressed differently and goes by a different name”. Also some people might be trying to run him over in a car, but you’re never really sure what to make of that. Nevertheless, this is in many ways the best stretch of the book, due in no small part to the fact that it might still turn out interesting but helped along by the garrulous and semi-doddery creation that is Nye’s Aunt Matilda, who does virtually nothing to aid the plot in any way, but whose wittering is note perfect:
“[The vicar]’s a most irritating man and he wants a new organ too. This one does quite well as it is. I mean the trouble is with the organist, really, not the organ. An absolutely abominable musician. The vicar’s sorry for him because he lost his mother whom he was very fond of. But really, being fond of your mother doesn’t make you play the organ any better, does it?”
“Dear child! Very naughty but such fun.”
“I bought her home a woolly panda,” said Sir Stafford Nye.
“Well, that was very nice of you, dear.”
“I hope she’ll like it,” said Sir Stafford, catching the panda’s eye and feeling slightly nervous.
“Well, at any rate, she’s got very good manners,” said Aunt Matilda.
Seriously: So. Many. Reprints.
In this way, this distinguishes itself from the celebrity fragrance analogy above because you can see snatches of Christie actually having something to do with its creation. Many will question whether that’s to the book’s advantage, given her tendency to excel in an idiom very much not represented by this milieu, subject, purpose, or genre, but there’s some life in here even if she will come across like the 80 year-old woman she was by this point; for instance, I rather like the following passage, given the tendency of any generation to complain about any that follows itself:
“They’ve recruited a service of their own and the danger about that is that it’s a service of young people. And the kind of young people who will go anywhere, do anything, unfortunately believe anything, so long as they are promised a certain amount of pulling down, wrecking, throwing spanners in the works, then they think the cause must be a good one and that the world will be a different place. They’re not creative, that’s the trouble — only destructive. The creative young write poems, write books, probably compose music, paint pictures just as they always have done. They’ll be all right — but once people learn to love destruction for its own sake, evil leadership gets its chance.”
And this is easily the most fascinating theme in the book, indeed the entire purpose one feels, but Christie was never one for a nuanced view of political machinations, and so the ways she explores it never really join up. The essential idea has enough ingredients to turn into something almost very prescient — well, okay, not prescient, but given the tendency of political circles to follow terrible decisions with more terrible decisions (I have no particular desire to get political or current on this blog — I’m already uncomfortable being as modern as 1970 — so make your own decisions about what possible examples could be cited…), there’s a sort of timelessness at the heart of this that, because of the sort of narrative indigence that provokes fustigation whenever this book is mentioned, feels weirdly dated and irrelevant.
The essential direction this ends up taking — that an emotive response perpetrated by rabble-rousing but ultimately empty language spun from personality politics is a fundamentally harmful thing used to hateful ends — is…correct. And has become possibly more relevant today than it was when written, with celebrity cults pervading not just cosmetics, advertising, bookshops, cookery shows, social media, groceries, and other such swamping and harmless esoterica, but with people now also given considerable influence or a wider reach for their views purely on account of their fame (sure, you’re thinking of the President of the United States, but don’t forget vaccine opposition, or the proliferation of celebrity-endorsed non-ethical businesses making, say, children’s clothing with slave labour; I’ll save you further examples to preclude accusations of proselytising). Christie’s exploration of this herein, poorly framed simply as a sort of unfocused social unrest instigated by young men doing violent things in multiple countries, is the obvious manifestation of the discord attained, but it’s a short and straight line from there up to far more pervasive and insidious ends.
Whew, things are getting heavy. Let’s have a comfort break.
However, Christie’s mise-en-scène fails to convince partly because she’s so far out of where she usually finds herself, and these considerations get lost. There’s a reason le Carré went on to become the titan he did, and that’s in no small part down to his ability to explore the themes in a more succinct and subtle way. Christie, for all her superior years of experience, is very much the ingénue here, and the manner in which she doesn’t quite find her feet or direction on such a thorny topic opens her up to chastisement in a way that I feel is both fair and undeserved. It’s not, after all, her fault that she couldn’t see how these themes would develop in the years to come, and we should be thankful that one the whole this sort of thing was kept out of her detective fiction (that entirely pointless “there’s a spy on the boat!” episode of Death on the Nile (1937) aside), but at the same time someone should have stopped this one before it crossed the publishing border.
And so, how and where to finish this? The cat-callers amongst you will point out that Christie’s book doesn’t have an ending so much as simply a point past which there are no more words printed in it, and so I shouldn’t feel obliged to bring my own semi-apologistic wanderings to any sort of conclusion. And I’m aware that I haven’t even touched on the “it wasn’t really Hitler in the bunker at the end of World War 2” bit, nor the moment someone honestly says the line “Don’t you start arseing around with the Russkies again”. Because, see, in a weird sort of way it’s those two things that exemplify this book for me — naturalistic dialogue and settings were not the Christie we came to know and love, and her attempt to weld on some of the old magic misdirection and ingenuity makes the falseness of the enterprise even more plain (the whole “Who is the secret extra person we don’t know about?” thread is painfully beneath the talents of someone who had written even such relatively minor works as The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962) in the preceding decade). The urge is to at least commend her for attempting something that was not her forte, but it’s too badly bungled to be much more than a curiosity for perhaps only the hardiest of fans (urf, spare some pity for any poor soul who picks this as their first Christie…).
This isn’t even the last of them.
But, hey, take solace in the fact that we were spared the full celebrity fragrance experience by also having to sit through endless “reimaginings” of this one, as it remains one of only a few Christie novels to have never been adapted in any form. Sure, it’s not difficult to see why, but anyone with even a smidgen of political insight could do some good work with it in the current climate, and it’s not like fans will be complaining about the lack of fidelity to the source material…