#398: The Cult of Celebrity in Full Swing in Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) by Agatha Christie

Passenger to Frankfurt

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.

shar-pei-puppies-information-1

“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.

Passenger to Frankfurts 1

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?”

Or, say:

“How’s Sybil?”

“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.

Passenger to Frankfurts 2

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.

four-little-chow-chow-puppies-portrait-waldek-dabrowski

Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaah!

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…).

Passenger to Frankfurts 3

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…

28 thoughts on “#398: The Cult of Celebrity in Full Swing in Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) by Agatha Christie

  1. While this wasn’t the first Christie book I read, it was among the earliest ones. I thought it shockingly bad at the time, unfocused and packed with the kind of vague wooliness that I think blights almost all of her thrillers. OK, some are more artfully written and disguise this weakness better, but it’s always there to a greater or lesser extent.

    I’m not a huge fan of Le Carre (far too verbose for his own good at times) but I agree with your use of him as a contrast. When you read his works, or those of people like Ambler, Fleming or Deighton, then you can immediately see that these people knew what they were talking about when it came to espionage writing – even guys like Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley and Hammond Innes had a surer and far more entertaining handle on how to tell an adventure.spy tale. Frankly, Christie couldn’t write this type of story with any assurance and thus they rarely felt natural.

    • It’s interesting — well, okay, not it isn’t, but I’ll say it anyway — how all Christie’s thrillers devolve into whodunnit territory in one way or another, as if she knows that’s what’s expected, or (perhaps more likely) she wants to at least end on a note of confidence. They’re not especially great whodunnits, with only really Destination Unknown proffering anything like a worthwhile shenanigan or two to make you sit up, but you can see her trying anyway.

      In this case the whodunnit angle is awful and hideously clumsy, where you’re told “so-and-so is the sort of person who would such-and-such” and then at the end they’re the secret villain with no-one else having ever emerged as a credible suspect. One can see a youthful Robert Ludlum and, yes, Len Deighton, picking it up and going “Well, damn, I can do better than that…”.

      • Surely “The Seven Dials Mystery” delivers quite well on the whodunit aspect? Or perhaps you don’t count it as one of her thrillers?

        • Y’know what, I don’t, and I’m not sure why. The whodunnit element is great, and I love the book overall, but maybe the presence of Battle blinded me to its thriller-ness…

  2. Well done on making it to the end. Think the Agatha Christie estate should post out a badge or a certificate to everyone who manages to finish it. Don’t feel I will ever be re-reading this one, short of having reviewed every other Christie on the blog. Like your idea that someone should adapt this one, as I agree fans will love events to be remoulded and changed and added to in order to make it an enjoyable story. Though knowing Phelps this would be the one where she would strictly adhere to the original plot…

    • Haha, you can just see the statement: “Given that people objected to the drug use in my adaptation of X, the change of killer in Y, and the additional elements in Z, I shall attempt to make the fan-base happy by producing a slavishly loyal adaptation of one of Christie’s novels…then maybe you’ll learn your lesson and shut the hell up”.

      Seriously, though, I do think there’s the basis of a good and pertinent story here. Just exclude everything else and you’ll be onto a winner 🙂

  3. “The tendency of any generation to complain about any that follows itself.” I once pointed this out in a school essay, aged 16, and got yelled at in front of the class for about ten minutes. I don’t think those in charge liked being rumbled. Thanks for the validation!

    • It particularly struck me because of how down on Young People Christie is often accused of being as she aged (indeed, see Brad’s comment below), and the fact that she’s willing to concede that some of them are actually okay (or at least not intent on burning and smashing and breaking) is worth highlighting.

      And, anyway, we all know it’s the preceding generations who naff everything up, not the following ones…

  4. “Fustigation” . . . . . You’re always teaching me something!

    I think the difference between today’s politics and this book is the concept of a hot Siegfried type attracting the masses, an idea that was run into the ground by Christie and others and seemed to transfer from political thrillers to horror movies. I cannot look at Trump’s ugly mug, and I can’t think of one attractive person in his fleet. It might be the ugliest administration in the history of American politics – and I’m including Taft!

    But I get the parallels. As an old woman, Christie seemed to feel very savage toward the young: everyone in Third Girl is unwashed and rude, so you forget the fact that they’re all rich and well-bred! As you will see in the next three books, she finally gave up trying to depict modernity. Celia Ravenscroft in Elephants Can Remember is the living reincarnation of Carla Lemarchant from Five Little Pigs, all the young people in Nemesis are dead, and all the young people in Postern of Fate are . . . well, there’s nobody under the age of 70 in that one.

    Incidentally, I really did like the idea of a hidden conspiracy and a secret mole/spy in my fiction, but I just couldn’t penetrate Le Carre. Then someone recommended The Chancellor Manuscript to me. I think I read every Ludlum novel in a year!!! As a reader, that was my Year of Living Macho! But at his best, he sure knew how to do it! Some of his early books were quite clever whodunits in their way.

    Your point about Christie reverting to form as a whodunit writer was well taken. I think the twist in They Came to Baghdad brightens that dreary narrative just a bit, but the ending of Destination: Unknown almost redeems the intense silliness of what went on before.

    Thank you, by the way, for your advanced warning, but despite your not descending to fustigatory levels, it’s not like you liked this, right???

    Fustigatory . . . see what I did?

    • It’s not so much the “hot Siegfried type” as it is the empty hyperbole that carries over — look at the fustercluck that Br*xit has become, and how thoroughly un-understood that still reamins to this day. Plenty of political agendas are pushed through because the intent or purpise behind it isn’t fully understood even by the people who vote in favour of it. That’s the message here, I feel. Part of it, at least.

      And, no, I didn’t like this — I doubt if I could even reread it at any point ever in the future, and I’d not encourage anyone who hasn’t tred it to do so — but I was pleased to see something in it that at least have it some…merit, do I mean? It’s a cynical cash-grab, I stand by that, but Christie may have legitimately thought she was putting out something that had a drive and a purpose and structure to it. It’ll be interesting to see how Nemesis stacks up, because if that’s even less gainly then these final few are going to require some sort of depth to them to make them finishable.

      And, agreed: Ludlum at his best was unbeatable at this sort of thing. Never mind the films, The Bourne Identity remains the best thriller ever written, and he has a few others that run it damn close.

      • Nemesis is tons better than this, although it has a mountain of problems. At least Christie is trying to do something new, and we have Miss Marple as our constant companion. That’s not to say that it won’t make you highly irritable, for reasons I won’t give due to spoilers.

        Even Elephants is better than this, although it’s pretty terrible. We get a LOT of Mrs. Oliver, and the premise is pretty good. The only problem is . . . everything that follows Chapter One.

        Postern . . . well, I’ve come to the conclusion that one day I must re-read this one, take the mystery equation completely out of it (not hard to do), and consider it for what it is: the last recorded writings of my favorite mystery author. And I must try and figure out what it tells me about her, besides the obvious fact that it shouldn’t have been published in this form.

        • Where do you stand on the reading of Miss Marple’s Final Cases after Sleeping Murder? They were published in that order, but I sort of like the idea of SM being my final Christie because…well, if I’m honest, I don’t know why.

          • I see from the table of contents of MMFC that four of the stories were published in the U.S. Edition Three Blind Mice and Other Stories, a collection not published in the U.K. (something to do with the play, I’ll bet!) This was the third Christie book I read, and those four tales were my first taste of Miss Marple.

            I just think that Christie’s talents were so much better suited to long form than short story. I love The Thirteen Problems and The Labours of Hercules, but more for their charm than anything else. I can’t think of a single story – barring “The Witness for the Prosecution” – where she does a new “trick.” And the play version of that story is her best play, bar none, and the Billy Wilder movie is one of the best adaptations ever done. Both trump the story, in my opinion.

            So yeah, I totally agree that your last “first” reading should be of a novel. Mind you, Sleeping Murder is fair to middling as a novel of the mid-1940’s goes. One can’t help hoping for more, since it was the last Christie I “first” read! But since all those short stories were written much earlier, I’d say read ’em now and have a nice little ceremony for SM.

            • There may be a reason why it’s only fair to middling as a novel of the 1940s; John Curran thinks it was written in the ’60s.

            • Nick, Was this in his book because I don’t remember that! What kind of lie was perpetrated upon all of us then???

            • Good heavens! Has this whole “written during WW2” thing been a gigantic piece of misdirection? How appropriate!

            • When I started getting a little more obsessed with Christie, back in those heady days, I sat down with the different UK and US short story listings to reassure myself that there was nothing published in one country and unvailable in the other. So I should have remembered that MMFC wasn’t a US title, my apologies.

              Thanks for taking the time to pick through them. I think I shall adopt a slightly wild approach and do maybe Nemesis then MMFC, Elephants and then PEC, Postern, and then Curtain and SM to finish.

              In fact, at some future point waaay ahead of us now, how do you feel about doing a Spoiler Warning post on both Curtain and SM?

            • Said JJ: “When I started getting a little more obsessed with Christie, back in those heady days, I sat down with the different UK and US short story listings to reassure myself that there was nothing published in one country and unvailable in the other. So I should have remembered that MMFC wasn’t a US title, my apologies.”

              Well, there is one Christie short story that was only published in one of the territories…

  5. I’ll be the voice of insanity here. I’ve read Passenger to Frankfurt twice as an adult – last year, and in ’07 – and enjoyed it both times.

    Not, I hasten to say, as a thriller, but because it’s full of ideas. She’s thinking about the world, politically and philosophically.

    I don’t have the book or my notes to hand, but from memory:

    It’s her response to the student uprisings of 1968, weaving in ideas from her 1930s and ’40s stories: the beautiful but amoral, even evil, youth (cf Lucifer in They Came to Baghdad); duplicate Hitlers (The Capture of Cerberus); the siren call of demagoguery (Destination Unknown); the dangers of idealism – Utopia built on destruction and suffering, without compassion (Baghdad again, but also One, Two, Buckle My Shoe).

    Christie has also read Beckett and Sartre – possibly Marcuse and Derrida; there’s a list in Osborne’s Life and Crimes, which again I don’t have with me – so she’s trying to understand the nihilism and absurdism of the times. She’s also suspicious of the hippie / peace movement (unsurprising from someone who lived through two world wars).

    And Wagner is a Leitmotif! So it’s a “tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying Nothung”!

    (Does everyone hate They Came to Baghdad?)

    • Yeah, so you’re going to have to turn this into a full-length post, Nick. There are too many fascinating ideas in this to leave it lingering in the comments here…

  6. Rather than le Carré, think Le Queux; or Oppenheim, or Sapper, or Edgar Wallace, or (best of all) Buchan–if you’ve read nothing of Buchan but the not even vaguely realistic The Thirty-Nine Steps, you wouldn’t think him capable of taking a nuanced political view either, but the earlier novel A Lodge in the Wilderness disproves this; and the bald situations and attitudes in The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Power-House, and Prester John, are there as distortions, exaggerations or simplifications for the purpose of telling a madcap story. So, in short, Chrisitie is writing an Edwardian “shocker”, and fifty years too late–But what should that worry us another fifty years later? You could argue that le Carré’s moral relativism is quite as dated an affectation as these Jewish-Bolshevik-Irish-Labour-movement conspiracies. I remember enjoying Passenger, but it was clear Christie had lost her ability to properly frame and pace her story, so it requires a large sympathy on the reader’s part even beyond that required to recognize the sort of book it is in the first place: out of date, increasingly obscure and hard to understand.

    • Yeah, that’s a not unreasonable comparison. There’s a distinct lack of the standard shocker thrills — no-one is kidnapped and hidden in a mine, and there are no fistfights or speechifying on the bads guys’ part — but the essential unformed threat is ripped straight out of the pages of Buchan and Le Queux.

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