Friday, May 25, 2012

So Many Steps to Death: Review

So Many Steps to Death (originally published in 1954 as Destination Unknown and first published in the US under this title in 1955) is one of Agatha Christie's non-series books.  As seems to be usual for her stand-alone books, this is a foray into spy/thriller territory.  This time we have scientists and chemists and medical researchers disappearing at an alarming rate.  In the Cold-War-Era climate, this is particularly disturbing and England's secret service becomes especially interested when a young scientist by the name of Thomas Betterton vanishes. They suspect that his wife knows where to find him and when she suddenly decides to leave England for her health on "doctor's orders" they decide to keep close tabs on her.  Then her plane crashes and she isn't expected to live.

Enter Hilary Craven.  Hilary's husband has deserted her for another woman and her daughter has just died from a long illness.  She thinks that taking a trip will somehow change her life.  But when she arrives in Morocco she finds that what she has been trying to run away from is herself...and you can't do that.  Thinking that she has nothing left to live for, she goes from pharmacy to pharmacy gathering enough sleeping pills to end her life.  But Hilary has caught the eye of one of the secret service men...or rather her red hair has.  And he offers her a bargain...take an assignment that means almost certain death (and which might just get her interested in living again) rather than taking pills which may not be as pleasant a way out as she anticipates.

What is wanted is for Hilary to take the place of Mrs. Thomas Betterton and her particular shade of red hair makes her the perfect candidate.  The scientist's wife is definitely not going to survive her injuries and Hilary is to take on her persona.  If anyone contacts her about joining her husband, she is to follow along and lead the agents to where the scientists have been taken.  It will be dangerous and she's going to have to be letter-perfect in her role.  Will she do it?  Hilary decides she will.  Off into the unknown, taking what seems to be So Many Steps to Death.

Generally speaking, I haven't been as big a fan of Christie's stand-alone novels as I am of Poirot and Miss Marple and Tommy & Tuppence.  The one big exception is And Then There Were None (aka Ten Little Indians, etc), which I think is absolutely awesome.  But this one is pretty darn good. Christie loves to take the standard of various plots in the mystery/detective world and give them her own little twist.  Here she does it with the "scientists defecting to the other side" motif.  Only....are they?  Or, rather, are they going where they think they are and for the purpose that they believe in?  That's the real question.

Hilary Craven is a very intelligent and likeable character.  It is easy to see why she might have been full of despair, but being the type of woman she is, it's also easy to see why she would take up the challenge offered her by Jessop.  It's not that she despises life in general--she just wants a reason for living.  And he provides that for her.  The plot--her taking on another woman's persona--may be a bit shaky, but it's got enough grounding to make the reader willing to believe it.  A fun and quick read.  Four stars.

W: Nobody's so gullible as scientists. All the phony mediums say so.  Can't quite see why.
J: Oh, yes, it would be so. They think they know, you see. That's always dangerous.
~Wharton; Jessop (p. 3)

As for Nigel, she had no wish to burden him with useless remorse even if a note from her would have achieved that object...."Poor old Hilary," he would say, "bad luck"--and it might be that, secretly, he would be rather relieved. Because she guessed that she was, slightly, on Nigel's conscience, and he was a man who wished to feel comfortable with himself. (p. 23)

HC: You think I shall differently tomorrow? [about suicide]
J: People do.
HC: Yes, perhaps. If you're doing things in a mood of hot despair. But when it's cold despair, it's different. I've nothing to live for, you see.
~Hilary Craven; Jessop (p. 26)

I don't go in for being sorry for people. For one thing it's insulting. One is only sorry for people if they are sorry for themselves. Self-pity is the biggest stumbling block in our world today.
~Jessop (p. 36)

E: When one has at last reached freedom, can one even contemplate going back?
HC: But if it is not possible to go back, or to choose to go back, then it is not freedom!
~Ericsson; Hilary Craven (p. 83)

One must have common sense, nothing is permanent, nothing endures. I have come to the conclusion that this place is run by a madman. A madman, let me tell you, can be very logical. If you are rich and logical and also mad, you can succeed for a very long time in living out your illusion. But in the the end this will break up. Because, you see, it is not reasonable what happens here! That which is not reasonable must always pay the reckoning in the end.
~Dr. Barron (p. 118)

There speaks the passion and the rebellion that go with red hair. My second wife had red hair. She was a beautiful woman, and she loved me. Strange, is it not? I have always admired red-haired women. Your hair is very beautiful. There are other things I like about you. Your spirit, your courage; the fact that you have a mind of your own.
~Mr. Aristides (p. 144)


Jeannette said...

Very nice review, Bev! I have never heard of this one, but I will definitely look for it.

Unknown said...

In the past, I never used to like AC's stand alones either but when re-reading them, I've come to enjoy them a lot more.

J.G. said...

Gosh, this sounds really interesting. I'm not a mystery/thriller fan but this is a great set-up. Imagine not caring that certain death was part of an assignment. Intriguing!

(Your BYRC candle is up, too!)

TracyK said...

I was glad to see this review because I am looking for Agatha Christie books to read or re-read. Based on your review, I will put this one on the list. I like spy fiction of any vintage, so it sounds perfect. (Unfortunately of the 35 books of hers that I already own, this is not one of them.)

Ryan said...

I haven't read this one yet, but think I would really enjoy it.

As far as her stand alones, do you like The Man in the Brown Suit at all?

Bev Hankins said...

@Ryan: I do like The Man in the Brown Suit (3 1/2 stars worth)--I just didn't go into raptures over it like some people *cough*Yvette*cough*. :-) At least, I didn't when I read it last year. Might be different if I reread it...