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Literature / Destination Unknown

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Destination Unknown is a 1954 thriller by Agatha Christie.

Hilary Craven's husband has left her, her daughter has died, and she has nothing to live for. Planning suicide in a Moroccan hotel, she is interrupted by secret agent Jessop, who convinces her to go on a dangerous mission to discover the whereabouts of scientist Thomas Betterton, by taking on the identity of his wife Olive, who has just died in a plane crash. Along the way, Hilary regains her will to live, but is it too late?


As of January 2017, the novel has not been adapted for the screen, stage or radio.

This novel contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Always Murder: It turns out that Thomas Betterton's main crime, and the reason he was avoiding the authorities, was his murder of his first wife.
  • All Women Are Prudes: The Unit administrative staff includes prostitutes "for those men who came in without wives and formed no attachment with colleagues." No mention of any means of catering to women on board at all. Not surprising, of course, for a book written in the fifties by a writer raised in the Victorian era.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: neither Boris, Andrei or Pavlov are Polish namesnote  and Glydr is not a Polish surname.
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  • Behind Every Great Man: Thomas Betterton's brilliant discovery - that got him kidnapped in the first place - was actually his wife's work, and he murdered her to take the credit for it.
  • Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: when authority figures finally visit the Unit, a French minister is described as "anxious to submit" while American and British diplomats are described as "hesitating for diplomatic reasons." An old British aristocrat is the one incorruptible force for truth.
  • Closed Circle: The lab is disguised as a leper colony in the Atlas Mountains, and the scientists working there are stowed away whenever officials come calling.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: Hilary Craven is convinced by Jessop to impersonate the dying Olive Betterton.
  • Distressed Dude: Scientist Thomas Betterton has disappeared, and it is speculated that he is being held captive.
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  • Fake Assisted Suicide: Secret agent Jessop recruits the suicidal Hilary, telling her that if she has decided to die, she might as well make herself useful to her country, and promising that at the end of the mission, he will help her with it. Naturally, at the end she has found happiness with another agent and has no intention of killing herself (just as her recruiter intended).
  • Fiery Redhead: Hilary Craven is told at one point that she is "demonstrating the passion that goes with red hair."
  • Foreshadowing: Quite a bit of it, and quite deft, too. For instance, Andy says the word "ordinary" means something different where he comes from, which it wouldn't if he came from the US. And Aristides mentions some scientists come to the Unit to evade the law.
  • For Science!: Many of the scientists were brought to the lab with false impressions of working for the betterment of mankind (others had fascist or frankly disturbing Evilutionary Biologist vibes), but in fact the man running the lab intends to sell their research to the highest bidder.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: and the villains, too.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Betterton was all too glad to join a secret lab to escape pursuit for his wife's murder, but once there it turns out the only reason he was wanted there was to continue his wife's work, as he'd murdered her to claim her work as his own despite lacking her genius.
  • Identical Stranger: Downplayed when Hilary Craven is asked to impersonate Olive Betterton — yes, both are redheads with blue-green eyes, but they don't look like each other when they're described with actual details. It nonetheless fools the people tasked with making Olive Betterton disappear.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Jessop breaks in on Hilary just as she is about to take an overdose. He had followed her after observing her asking at several chemists for sleeping pills.
  • Ironic Name: Hilary Craven's surname turns out to be this, as she is a very brave woman.
  • It's Personal: Boris Andrei Pavlov Glydr a.k.a. Andy Peters is Elsa Betterton's cousin, who after her death hunts down her husband to prosecute him for her murder.
  • Stealing the Credit: The greatest scientific minds captured and brought to a purpose-built super-laboratory, with the man behind it all intending to allow them to do their research without political guidance or restrictions (which is why there are communists and fascists among them), but intending to lease their services to governments that can pay the price. However, it turns out that one of the scientists, Thomas Betterton, has been unable to produce anything since a groundbreaking paper published shortly after his wife Elsa was murdered. It turns out that she was the genius, and he had deliberately romanced, married, and murdered her to take the credit.
  • Sucks at Dancing: Hilary dances with a man who can't dance, but manages to save her toes by being a rather good dancer herself. Other women commiserate with her as the man is a known "danger".
  • Suicide by Pills: Implied. Jessop contacts protagonist Hilary because he's noticed she bought several sleeping medicines and uses the upcoming mission to keep her from doing so.
  • Suicide Mission: Jessop offers one to Hilary in lieu of her planned suicide by sleeping pills, suggesting that she would find the mission a far more interesting way to die.
  • Til Murder Do Us Part: It turns out that Mr. Betterton killed his wife in order to take the credit for her groundbreaking scientific work.
  • Title Drop: In the very last chapter.
    Jessop: I sent Hilary Craven off on a journey to a destination unknown, but it seems to me that her journey's end is the usual one after all."
  • Wham Line: The last line of the penultimate chapter, in which it is revealed that Betterton murdered his first wife Elsa.