Published in 1970, Passenger to Frankfurt is one of Christie’s final novels, and her last “stand alone” novel that didn’t include any of her well-known protagonists. This is an odd book, one that doesn’t really follow the normal pattern. There is no murder – really, in some ways, no mystery. This is more of a dystopian novel than anything.
In her insightful foreword (which should definitely be read before reading the book – and probably after reading the book as well!), Christie states quite plainly that she is not trying to write a “true” story (e.g. any of Poirot’s books, for instance, could have happened within our “real world” rules). She talks about how much violence and unrest is going on in England and around the world in 1970, and says that she started with that and went from there.
Fear is awakening – fear of what may be. Not so much because of actual happenings but because of the possible causes behind them. Some known, some unknown, some felt. … All seeming to lead to worship of destruction, pleasure in cruelty.
She tells us that the story she has written is a “fantasy – and extravaganza” – but –
Nothing is impossible; science has taught us that.
This story is in essence a fantasy. It pretends to be nothing more.
But most of the things that happen in it are happening, or giving promise of happening in the world today.
It is not an impossible story – it is only a fantastic one.
This, then is the lead-in for Passenger to Frankfurt. “Not an impossible story – it is only a fantastic one.”
Our story begins with Sir Stafford Nye. In his mid-40’s, Nye (who is referred to as “Sir Stafford Nye” throughout almost the entire book, which honestly was a bit aggravating at times) is rather halfheartedly involved in diplomatic relationships for the British government. We are told that he has too much of a sense of humor to really work his way further up the ladder, which is fine with him, as he thinks everyone further up the ladder is insufferably dull.
Nye is on his way home when his flight is delayed by fog and forced to layover in Frankfurt. There, in the airport, Nye is approached by a desperate young woman who tells him that her very life is in danger. She asks him for his help. And, being a man who likes a bit of a gamble, Nye agrees – and the adventures begin.
There were a lot of things about this story that I really enjoyed. The first half is completely engaging as we begin to see that all the rebellions and rages around the world are part of an intricate web being woven by someone. Nye is a likable character, entertaining and intelligent. As he and the mysterious woman (who has multiple names, and finding out her true one is part of the story so) begin to pick their way through the web, it’s all quite exciting and interesting.
And then – it just sort of – gets weird? What really happens is we get to this super exciting climax with Nye and his companion, and they have plans for what they’re going to do next and then – we don’t hear from them again. Instead, we start hopping around to various government cabinets and listening to them gripe about how bad the state of affairs is around the world. All these youths trying to tear down the governments, etc. It just felt like all the momentum that Christie had been building suddenly dissipated. I didn’t care about these random ministers and politicians. I wanted to be with the action!
Although I have to say that that section was not without its humor –
Monsieur Grosjean sighed. “It is very popular among the young,” he said, “the anarchy. …”
“The students, ah, the students,” said Monsieur Poissonier.
He was a member of the French government to whom the word “student” was anathema. If he had been asked, he would have admitted to a preference for Asian flu or even an outbreak of bubonic plague. Either was perferable in his mind to the activities of students. A world with no students in it! That was what Monsieur Poissonier sometimes dreamt about. They were good dreams, those. They did not occur often enough.
The other weird thing is that throughout this is emphasized as a movement of youth, of empowering youth and enabling youth and, basically, manipulating youth. So I was confused as to why Nye, at age 45 (we are told specifically on page one!), is being courted by this organization. He seems outside of their usual net, and it seemed like the whole story would have made more sense if Nye was twenty years younger.
In the end, this was only a 3/5 read. It starts very strong, but the middle bit, muddling around with the governments, and then the ending, which is almost nonsensical in its abruptness, were much weaker. A lot of what Christie has to say is very thought-provoking and insightful. She has a real grasp on the ease with which the unscrupulous can manipulate the young, and how a movement can start with positive ideas but swiftly become something negative. I was really reminded of all the “Black Lives Matter” nonsense that’s been going on, where a desire for positive change has been railroaded into destruction for the sake of destruction.
“Idealism,” said Lord Altamount, “can arise and indeed usually does so when moved by a natural antagonism to injustice. That is a natural revulsion from crass materialism. The natural idealism of youth is fed more and more by a desire to destroy those two phases of modern life, injustice and crass materialism. That desire to destroy what is evil sometimes leads to a love of destruction for its own sake. It can lead to a pleasure in violence and in the infliction of pain. All this can be fostered and strengthened from outside by those who are gifted by a natural power of leadership. This original idealism arises in a non-adult stage. It should and could lead on to a desire for a new world. It should lead also toward a love of all human beings, and of good will toward them. But those who have once learned to love violence for its own sake will never become adult. They will be fixed in their own retarded development and will so remain for their lifetime.”
That is actually so brilliantly insightful. The enthusiasm for a new world that every young person possesses can either become tempered with a love and empathy for humanity – leading to positive change – or can be influenced by the love for violence and destruction, leading to anarchy.
Anyway. Passenger to Frankfurt is definitely worth a one-time read, but I really wish that Christie had about doubled the size of this book. More time spent with Nye and his friend would have really made this story better. The ending of the book hinges on this mysterious sniper-like woman being unmasked, but it felt very abrupt and would definitely have benefited from her being in the story more earlier on – people getting knocked off by her, adding some drama and terror to the story.
It was just a little frustrating because there were a lot of really good bones to this tale, and I think that with a little more flesh, it would be a book with a lot to offer in our complicated times. But instead it muddles around and skims a good bit, leaving me feeling ultimately rather dissatisfied.
As an aside, this is actually my final Christie book! I started all the way back in January of 2012 by reading The Mysterious Affair at Styles with a goal of reading all of her published novels. I have thoroughly enjoyed the journey and may even loop back around through them sometime…