Review: Passenger to Frankfurt by Agatha Christie

Trust No One.

Sir Stafford Nye, a minor diplomat, encounters an irresistible call to adventure on a routine business trip. All his training and his common sense tell him to refuse. But he’s bored with his ordinary life, he’s curious, and he’s got a mischievous streak that he can’t help indulging. Impulsively, he takes the plunge and finds himself lost in a sea of suspicion, betrayal, and irrevocable consequences.

Passenger to Frankfurt, like many of Agatha Christie’s post-WWII novels, doesn’t fit the cozy mystery mold that made her the Queen of Crime. Instead, it’s a political thriller, trading pastoral country houses for scenes of glamorous undercover infiltration and international intrigue.

On a layover in the Frankfurt airport, Sir Stafford is approached by a beautiful woman who claims to be in mortal danger. He realizes at once that she’s not talking about personal risk. She’s on a mission, she knows what she’s doing, and she chose him for very specific reasons. He agrees to help her, not knowing whether she’s an ally, an enemy, or simply a grifter. That chance encounter inflames his curiosity to find her again, and above all to find the real source of the deadly plot she’s trying to uncover.

The Muses forfend I should ever say a cross word about Dame Agatha, but…

This isn’t one of her best. Published in 1970, when the Cold War provided ample fodder for international tensions, Passenger to Frankfurt barely gives passing mention to the East-West divide. Instead, the story is driven by a vast conspiracy theory that merges the protests and culture wards of the late 60’s with the lingering horrors of World War II.

It just doesn’t age well. Now that the rebellious youth of that era are the middle-aged Baby Boomer Establishment, it’s hard to take seriously the fear of global revolution that permeates this story.

Christie’s “cozy” aesthetic doesn’t serve her well in this context, either. She does well at creating the atmospheric tension and sense of menace. But, as with her mysteries, she never directly portrays violence. It’s hard to keep the emotional stakes high based on diplomatic reports and newspaper accounts of bad things happening far away, while all the characters we’ve met are safely drinking tea in comfy chairs.

In contrast, I’d recommend The Mind Readers by Margery Allingham. It’s also a postwar thriller by a Queen of cozy crime, but in my opinion, a far more successful one. Instead of reaching into the past for an existential threat, Allingham focuses on new technologies and their psychological effect on human users. She takes the archetype of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and spins it into a surprisingly accurate prediction of the future — our present.

But after all, Passenger to Frankfurt is an Agatha Christie novel through & through. And a second-rate Christie is still better than most writer’s top shelf. She creates a cast of characters you like and root for — particularly Sir Stafford and his mystery woman. She sprinkles clues across vivid, exciting locations, rendered in just enough detail to spark your mind’s eye without languishing in too much detail. And she simply compels you to find out what happens next. Even when I “tsked” over the book’s shortcomings, I had to keep reading to the end, just to see if any of my guesses were right. I’m giving it four stars just because Amazon rates 3 as “negative.” If I could give half-stars, I think it really belongs at 3.5.

If you’re a longtime Christie fan, Passenger to Frankfurt is certainly worth picking up, to see her work develop over time. And if you’re not already a Christie fan? Don’t start with this one.

I’d like to hear from you! What Agatha Christie book would you recommend to someone reading her for the first time? Leave a comment on my Facebook page, and let’s talk about it!

Passenger to Frankfurt is available in Kindlepaperback or hardback. It’s also available as an audiobook, which you can listen to for free with an introductory trial of Amazon’s Audible service. The audiobook is narrated by Hugh Frasier, with whom Christie fans will be familiar as Captain Hastings in the long-running Poirot television adaptations.

By request, I include a “Squick Factor” rating on reviews, to give tenderhearted readers a heads-up on graphic or disturbing material.

If there were an anti-squick score, I’d give it. Honestly, I think a little whiff of sex and violence would have helped. Squick factor = 0.

Squick Factor Range:
0 – Nil.
1 – Meh.
2 – Kinda.
3 – Oh yah, you betcha.
4 – GAAAHHH! Nuke it from space!

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