Destination Unknown is a work of spy fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on 1 November 1954 and in US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1955 under the title of So Many Steps to Death. The UK edition retailed at ten shillings and sixpence (10/6) and the US edition at $2.75.
The novel opens in Morocco, where Hilary Craven is staying after a failed marriage. She plans to commit suicide, but is instead recruited by the British secret service for a mission. She is asked to impersonate the wife of a nuclear scientist who has recently disappeared. Hilary is soon transported to meet her new “husband”.
This book explores the 1950s subject of defection to the Soviets, but it also demonstrates how the break-up of Christie’s first marriage in the 1920s remained with her. Like her 1934 Mary Westmacott novel Unfinished Portrait, it starts with a youngish woman who has married, had a daughter and whose husband has replaced her with someone else.
In both books, a young man displays remarkable perceptiveness in spotting her intention to end her life and defies convention to save her, not only in tackling a stranger on intimate matters but in spending time in the woman’s hotel bedroom to talk her out of suicide. In this story he talks her into espionage instead.
Hilary Craven, a deserted wife and bereaved mother, is planning suicide in a Moroccan hotel. British secret agent Jessop knocks on her door to propose that she undertake a dangerous mission as an alternative to taking an overdose of sleeping pills. The task, which she accepts, is to impersonate the wife of Thomas Betterton, a nuclear scientist who has disappeared and may have defected to the Soviet Union. Soon she finds herself in a group of oddly-assorted travellers being transported to the unknown destination of the title.
The destination is a secret scientific research facility disguised as a modern leper colony and medical research center at a remote location in the Atlas Mountains. The scientists are well-treated and supplied with all equipment needed for their research, but they are not allowed to leave the facility for any reason. They are locked in secret areas deep inside the Mountains whenever government officials and other outsiders visit. Hilary Craven successfully passes herself as Betterton’s wife Olive, because he is miserable and wants desperately to escape. He says he cannot do his best work without freedom.
Hilary discovers that the facility was built by the fabulously wealthy and somewhat villainous Mr Aristides, for financial rather than political ends. He has lured many of the world’s best young scientists to it with various deceptions so that he can later sell their services back to the world’s governments and corporations for a huge profit. She falls in love with Andrew Peters, a handsome young American and a research chemist who travels in the group with her to the facility.
With the help of clues that Hilary has left along the route to the secret facility and local Berbers who find those clues for him, Jessop, with diplomats from nations losing young scientists, locates the facility, tours it, and breaks that wall of separation. Jessop rescues Hilary and the others held there. Peters proves to be Boris Glydr of Poland, using an assumed name and speaking American English. He is on a mission for his late cousin Elsa. He wants Betterton to face justice for the murder of his first wife, Glydr’s cousin Elsa. Betterton is not a creative, world-class scientist, having fraudulently announced the discovery of ZE Fission as his own after plagiarising his wife Elsa’s work. Betterton is arrested. Hilary no longer wants to die, rediscovering her desire to live; she and Peters are free to begin their life together.
- 1954, Collins Crime Club (London), 1 November 1954, Hardback, 192 pp
- 1955, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1955, Hardback, 212 pp
- 1956, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, 183 pp
- 1958, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 191 pp
In the UK the novel was first serialised in the weekly magazine John Bull in five abridged instalments from 25 September (Volume 96, Number 2517) to 23 October 1954 (Volume 96, Number 2521) with illustrations by William Little.
The novel was first serialised in the US in the Chicago Tribune in fifty-one parts from Tuesday, 12 April to Thursday 9 June 1955 under the title of Destination X.
Destination Unknown – First Edition Book Identification Guide
The books are listed in the order of publication. While the majority of Agatha Christie’s books were first published in the UK. There are many titles that were first published in the US. The title of the book may differs from the UK edition in some cases.
|Year||Title||Publisher||First edition/printing identification points|
|1954||Destination Unknown||William Collins & Sons, London, ||First edition. "1954" on single line stated on the copyright page. No statement of later printings. Red cloth lettered in black. Price 10/6.|
|1955||So Many Steps to Death||Dodd, Mead & Co, NY, ||First American edition. Copyright 1955 stated on the copyright page. No statement of later printings. Red boards lettered in black. Price $ 2.75.|
Note about Book Club Editions (BCE) and reprints:
UK: You can see statements of later reprint dates or of book club on the copyright page.
US: The US reprint publishers usually use the same sheets as the first edition and are harder to identify by looking at the title page or the copyright page. One may identify a BCE by looking at the DJ, which doesn’t have a price on top of the front flap and a “Book Club Edition” imprint at the bottom. If the dust jacked is clipped at both the top/bottom of the front flap. You can safely assume it’s a BCE . If the book is missing the dust jacket. Later BCE editions can be identified by its plain boards, while first printings are issued in quarter cloth.
Please refer to the gallery for detailed images of true first edition bindings and dust jackets.
Destination Unknown – First Edition Dust Jacket Identification Guide
First edition bindings and various dust jacket printings identification.