Passenger to Frankfurt by Agatha Christie: Book Review

Passenger to Frankfurt 001

Passenger to Frankfurt is unlike any other Agatha Christie book I’ve read. It was first published in 1970, the year she was 80, as her “eightieth” title, although she had written more than that.

It rambles on a lot, has many characters, and at times I wondered what it was all about. I decided that it was best not to think of it as an Agatha Christie crime novel, but rather as a collection of her thoughts about life and the society she had lived through, with a bit of intrigue thrown into the mix.

It begins well, with Sir Stafford Nye, a diplomat on his way back to London, sitting in an airport lounge in Frankfurt. He was thinking that “life and journeys by air were really excessively boring” when he met a dark haired woman whose life was in danger and his own life changed for ever. The woman wanted his passport to get her safely to London, disguised by his dark purply-blue cloak with its scarlet lining and hood.  He agreed.

So far, so good. From then on Sir Stafford is dragged along, somewhat unwillingly at first into a world of espionage, and world-wide organisations dedicated to anarchy and violence, all mixed with strains from Wagner – with the Young Siegfried – and Nazism. It’s a bleak picture of the world with money and the power of money perverting young people world wide, following blindly like the children beguiled by the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

I never really got the impression that many of the characters were real, apart from Sir Stafford his Great-Aunt Matilda and the young lady known as either Daphne Theodofanous, or Mary Ann or Countess Zenata Zerkowski. Great-Aunt Matilda is a very verbose lady who tells him that things are in a very bad mess  and “once people learn to love destruction for its own sake, evil leadership gets its chance.” Cynically she also comments that politicians are not to be trusted:

And one can’t help coming to the conclusion that politicians have a feeling that they have a kind of divine right to tell lies in a good cause. (page 80)

Sir Stafford doesn’t really know who he can trust, or who is playing a double game. It’s his sense of humour that is in the way of his career that makes him useful in discovering what is going on – he’s not a hero-worshipper and can see through humbug. The power some people wield through their personality is vital in enthusing people with their vision but it’s also dangerous:

It’s the magnetic power that a few men have of starting something, of producing and creating a vision. By their personal magnetism perhaps, a tone of voice, perhaps some emanation that comes forth straight from the flesh. …

Such people have power. The great religious teachers had this power, and so has an evil spirit power also. (pages 106 -7)

I find myself rambling as I think and write about this book. It does get rather repetitive with it’s pessimistic emphasis on a

growing organisation of youth everywhere against their mode of government; against their parental customs, against very often the religions in which they have been brought up. There is the insidious cult of permissiveness, there is the increasing cult of violence. Violence not as a means of gaining money but violence for the love of violence. (page 113)

It certainly is not representative of Agatha Christie’s books and not one I’d recommend to anyone who hasn’t read any of her books. Although there is a degree of pessimism and cynicism running through it there is also a strain of humour, a sense that you shouldn’t take it all too seriously and I did enjoy it. Sir Stafford is the best portrayed character and as Agatha Christie has him say:

One cannot go entirely through life taking oneself and other people seriously. (page 43)

Agatha Christie – On Writing

Agatha Christie managed that most remarkable of achievements in publishing more than one book a year ever since the 1920s. How did she do it? Where did she get her inspiration I wondered?

I found some of the answers in the introduction to her spy thriller Passenger to Frankfurt, published in 1970.

Where did she get her ideas from?

Her immediate response:

‘I always go to Harrods’, or ‘I get them mostly at the Army and Navy Stores’, or, snappily, ‘Try Marks and Spencer.’

Her real answer is of course:

‘My own head.’

She did relent a little to add that if she had an attractive idea she would:

toss it around, play tricks with it, work it up, tone it down, and gradually get it into shape. Then, of course, you have to start writing it. That’s not nearly so much fun – it becomes hard work. Alternatively you can tuck it carefully away, in storage, for perhaps using in a year or two years’ time.

Do you take most of your characters from real life?

Her answer, indignantly:

No, I don’t. I invent them. They are mine. They’ve got to be my characters – doing what I want them to do, being what I want them to be – coming alive for me, having their own ideas sometimes, but only because I’ve made them real.

What about the settings?

She replied:

… it must be there – waiting – in existence already. You don’t invent that  – it’s there – it’s real.

… you don’t invent your settings. They are outside you, all around you, in existence – you have only to stretch out your hand and pick and choose.

Where do you get your information – apart from the evidence of your own eyes and ears?

Her answer:

It is what the Press brings to you every day, served up in your morning paper under the general heading of News. Collect it from the front page. What is going on in the world today? What is everyone saying, thinking, doing? Hold up a mirror to 1970 in England.

Look at that front page every day for a month, make notes, consider and classify.

Agatha Christie also wrote about her writing methods in her Autobiography:

Plots come to me at such odd moments: when I am walking along a street, or examining a hat-shop with particular interest, suddenly a splendid idea comes into my head, and I think, ‘Now that would be a neat way of covering up the crime so that nobody would see the point.’ Of course, all the practical details are still to be worked out, and the people have to creep slowly into my consciousness, but I jot down my splendid idea in an exercise book. (page 451)

Those exercise books she kept have now been published – Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran and these too make fascinating reading. But here is what she herself wrote about her notebooks in her Autobiography:

… but what I invariably do is lose the exercise book. I usually have about half a dozen on hand, and I used to make notes in them of ideas that struck me, or about some poison or drug, or a clever little bit of swindling that I had read about in the paper. Of course, if I kept all these things neatly sorted and filed and labelled it would save me a lot of trouble. However, it is a pleasure sometimes, when looking vaguely through a pile of old note-books, to find something scribbled down, as: Possible plot – do it yourself – girl and not really sister – August – with a kind of sketch of a plot. What it’s all about I can’t remember now; but it often stimulates me, if not to write that identical plot, at least to write something else. (page 451)

What a fertile mind!

King Arthur’s Bones by The Medieval Murderers

King Arthur’s Bones is a historical mystery written by The Medieval Murderers, a group of five authors, all members of the Crime Writers’ Association. The book consists of five stories with a prologue and epilogue tracing the mystery of Arthur’s remains.

The legend is that King Arthur is not dead, but sleeping with his knights ready to return to defend his country in a time of great danger. So when monks at Glastonbury Abbey find what are thought to be his bones that causes great consternation. If these are his bones then Arthur really did die. The implications are too much for some and the bones mysteriously disappear from the Abbey.

The stories by Philip Gooden, Susanna Gregory, Bernard Knight, Michael Jecks and Ian Morson follow the bones from their discovery in 1191 at Glastonbury Abbey through to 2004 when archaeologists at Bermondsey Abbey discover a nineteenth century iron coffin containing an incomplete skeleton of what had been a large man who had probably died after a severe head injury.

Each story involves a murder, as the bones are passed down the centuries. They’re all colourful tales. I particularly liked the story (by Philip Gooden) set in the 17th century involving William Shakespeare’s brother Edmund who discovered a long thigh bone and murder in the Tower of London in one of the compartments of the Lion Tower where the king kept lions and tigers. 

Now that I was here, against my will, I could not see the beasts, but I could smell and hear them. I was in one of the compartments of the Lion Tower meant for animal use. More of a cave or a cell than a chamber it smelled rank. In the next-door cell was a body, not animal but human and supposedly murdered. (page 260)

These are entertaining tales, full of action and surprises. I liked the way the stories interlink around the central theme and the similarities and differences that contribute towards making this such an inventive story. I could believe that one day Arthur will return.

I’ll be looking out for the four earlier books The Medieval Murderers have published and for books by the individual authors as well.

My Crime Fiction A – Z

Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet has come to the end. It’s been a most rewarding challenge. I’ve looked back at some books I read a while ago, read new books from favourite authors and discovered new authors.

The posts had to be related to either the first letter of a book’s title, the first letter of an author’s first name, or the first letter of the author’s surname. I did a mixture.

In the middle of the alphabet we moved house and I missed out the letter ‘L‘, so I’ve added in my review of Doctored Evidence by Donna Leon to complete the alphabet.

Here is my Crime Fiction A – Z:

They are all good reads in different ways.

I suppose it is inevitable that there are six books listed here by Ian Rankin and three by Agatha Christie as I’m reading steadily through their books. The series, though, has meant that I’ve sought out other authors, particularly to find those for the letters Q, X and Z and the books by the authors I found are probably the ones that most stand out in my mind now the series has come to an end.

Many thanks to Kerrie for thinking of this series. I hope she can come up with more ideas to stimulate my reading.

Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig: Book Review

I like novels that have an underlying  theme or themes that gradually impinge upon my mind as I read; themes that become clear often only after I’ve finished reading. There is no doubt about the theme of  Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig. Although it begins with a murder its main focus is a passionate denunciation of the treatment of illegal immigrants, thinly disguised as a novel. The characters are mouthpieces for the condemnation of social injustice.

It is page after page of unrelenting misery. Poverty and prejudice, squalor and suffering, prostitution, racism, illegal immigrants, and life in desperate circumstances. There is no relief from the images of brutality, fear, hatred, misery, and helplessness and evil, danger, deceit and terror abound.

In the midst of all this is Polly, a single mum and a lawyer working on behalf of illegal immigrants, employing them as au-pairs, cleaners and taxi-drivers. Whatever she does she feel guilty, exhausted, oppressed and in a mess. It rubbed off on me as I read this book, long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

It begins with the murder of a young woman, whose body is dumped in a pond on Hampstead Heath, then meanders through a whole host of characters (some one-dimensional) before the relationships (in some cases it seems forced) between them become clear. The main characters, apart from Polly, are all immigrants living in London, Job an illegal taxi driver from Zimbabwe, Ian, an idealistic supply teacher, from South Africa, Katie from New York  working for a political magazine, and Anna, a teenager from the Ukraine, trafficked into sexual slavery.

It is heart-rending, but totally depressing reading. I could only read it in short bursts. It’s depiction of life in London today is harsh, and criticises the British who aren’t willing to do the work carried out by immigrants and complain that life in Britain is no longer the same with jobs are being taken from them. It asserts that it is only the immigrants who do work such as nursing and taxi-driving, teaching and cleaning. Reading this book should deter anyone from wanting to live here, particularly in London. Everything comes in for criticism from the NHS to the state school system. There are not only illegal immigrants but also asylum seekers, trafficked under-age prostitutes, suicidal Moslems, mindless journalists and the idle rich.

I can see that this is a worthy book, a serious book and yet I found I just couldn’t warm to it. I’m waiting with interest to see if it makes the Orange Prize shortlist, to be announced on 20 April.

Wondrous Words Wednesday – King Arthur’s Bones

Wondrous Words Wednesday, run by Kathy (Bermudaonion),  is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our reading.

 

This week I have a few words from King Arthur’s Bones by The Medieval Murderers, which I’m currently reading.

  • Calvarium – ‘Gingerly pulling that aside, they gazed down on a jumbled heap of mottled brown bones, some of which even their inexpert eyes recognised as human, especially as they glimpsed the rounded calvarium of a skull.’ (page 150)

I realised from the context what a calvarium is but didn’t know before that it is the upper domelike part of the skull without the jawbone or facial parts. From the Latin.

The next words all have a medieval origin as is to be expected in a book about medieval murder. No doubt I’ll come across more before I’ve finished this book. The meanings can all be surmised from the text but the dictionary definitions flesh out the words.

  • Cote-hardie – ‘A grey-haired man, dressed in a sombre but good-quality cote-hardie,  nodded his agreement.’ (page 157)

Obviously a garment of some sort – the dictionary defines it as a medieval close-fitting tight-sleeved body garment – from Old French.

  • Lymer – ‘ Before he got fifty paces, a dozen hounds broke cover, including several lymers and running dogs,  which hunted by scent rather than sight.’ (page 162)

Another word defined in the text, more specifically a lymer was  a forerunner of today’s bloodhound, used to find the lay of the game before the hunt even started, and it was therefore important that, in addition to a good nose, it remained quiet. Silence in the lymer was achieved through a combination of breeding and training. See this article on Medieval Hunting.

  • Mazer – ‘Peter lifted his eyebrows and gazed pensively at the jug as his bottler poured two mazers of wine.’ (page 201)

A mazer is a type of drinking bowl made originally of maple wood (Old French masere, of Germanic origin).

  • Murdrum – ‘ ” No need to worry about proving he was local, then. Just a murdrum fine and the usual amercements”, Sir Richard grunted.’ (page 210)

Again from the text I could understand that murdrum is a fine. Specifically as defined in the Norman Conquest Encyclopedia murdrum “derives from the Old French murdre from which the English word murder comes. The new law provided that if a Norman was killed and the killer was not apprehended within five days, the hundred within which the crime was committed should be liable for a collective penalty of whatever balance of the sum of forty-six marks of silver the lord of the hundred could not pay. The killing of a Saxon triggered no such penalty.”

  • Deodand – ‘I will say the weapon was worth at least a shilling, and that much is deodand.’ (page 219)

My Chambers Dictionary defines deodand as ‘ a personal chattel [property] which had been the immediate accidental cause of the death of a human being, forfeited to the crown for pious uses. (Latin deo to God, and dandum, that must be given from dare, to give).’

The online Free Dictionary gives additional information that it traces back to the 11th century and has been applied, on and off, until Parliament finally abolished it in 1846. In theory, deodands were forfeit to the crown, which was supposed to sell the chattel and then apply the profits to some pious use. In reality, the juries who decided that a particular animal or object was a deodand also appraised its value and the owners were expected to pay a fine equal to the value of the deodand. If the owner could not pay the deodand, his township was held responsible.

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Share a couple or more sentences from the book you’re currently reading. You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your ‘teaser’ from €¦ that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

My teaser is from King Arthur’s Bones by The Medieval Murderers:

Each of the individuals who stared at these remains in the abbot’s parlour was lost for a time in his imagination, seeing a great and final battle in which a warrior-king had been fatally struck down. They put out their hands – even Michael and the other labourers – to touch the scullcap, the jaw-bone, the mighty shin-bone, the fragments of ribcage, as if some trace of Arthur’s spirit might be transmitted to their own blood and sinew. (page 22) 

This is a book of shortish interlinked stories tracing the whereabouts of King Arthur’s skeletal remains. It begins in 1191, when monks at Glastonbury Abbey discover an ancient cross and lying beneath in a hollowed out tree trunk are bones in the form of a body.

 Are these really King Arthur’s bones? As soon as the bones are found they are carried away by the ‘Guardians’ whose heritage is to protect them until the legend is fulfilled and Arthur returns to save his country. The story moves forward through the centuries and treachery, theft, blackmail  and murder follow the bones.