Saturday, November 01, 2014

'So Many Steps to Death' Wasn't Your Typical Agatha Christie

No matter how many conversations you may have about murder mysteries (I'm speaking of books here, not TV adaptations, so I'm guessing that number is actually lower than you may first have imagined), and no matter how many of them include discussion of Agatha Christie's works, I'd be willing to wager that "So Many Steps to Death" never came up.

And, most likely, it wasn't mentioned under its original title, either, which was, aptly, "Destination Unknown."

But it was probably only possible for Christie to write it in the 1950s. Actually, it was published on this day 60 years ago. The story featured things like a missing nuclear scientist (who may have defected to the Soviet Union) and a secret scientific research facility disguised as a leper colony/leprosy research center in northwest Africa.

The story centered around a woman named Hilary Craven, one of Christie's more inspired character names, I thought — not unlike some of the names of the James Bond characters. Like Ian Fleming's spy novels, "So Many Steps to Death" was a light–hearted thriller, the kind of book Christie had written before — and reasonably successfully.

But Christie was always Bond Lite, in my opinion. I guess it wasn't really her genre. Fleming's stories always had more heft to them. They had more of everything, really — especially more rogue criminals who were just plain evil, perfect for the post–Hiroshima Cold War paranoia in which they were written.

Christie was better at writing detective stories, and hers were the gold standard of that genre. But her thrillers were like horse–drawn carriages compared to Fleming's thrillers, which were like sleek sports cars.

Anyway, back to Hilary Craven. She had been abandoned by her husband, and she was grieving the loss of a child. She had reached a point in her life where she had nothing to lose and was contemplating suicide — when she was approached about posing as the wife of the missing nuclear scientist to help investigators. She was told that it was a hazardous assignment, but she accepted, anyway. What difference did it make if she died by her own hand or someone else's?

Well, I suppose that gives you an idea of what kind of ride you're in for if you sit down to read this book. I'm not saying it isn't enjoyable because it is — but it isn't typical Christie.

Consider yourself warned.