Destination Unknown (aka So Many Steps to Death) by Agatha Christie is also one of my all time favorites, but Christie is much less intimidating to write about. The book was written in 1954 and is one of Christie's stand-alone novels - it doesn't feature Poirot or Jane Marple or any of the other well known Christie characters. I consider it a suspense thriller though it also has, as a major plot surprise, an element of the whodunit thrown in for good measure at the end. This book is probably not as well known as the titles in the Poirot and Marple canons, but I think it is, in many ways, one of Christie's best, even if the oh-so-improbable plot requires a larger than average suspension of disbelief. This is perfect escapist entertainment. It begins with a sad woman on the verge of suicide and ends with her as heroine of the piece - a woman who finds her true strength at last.
Hilary Craven is a young, typically British woman who has lost her beloved child to illness and her husband to ennui. As an escape, she gets on a plane to Paris, a runaway who discovers almost immediately that you cannot run away from yourself - wherever you are, there you are. Seeing no point to her empty life, she plans a nice, quite out-of-the-way suicide - wouldn't want to bother anyone. Christie was not being especially subtle when she named her heroine Craven. Though, in truth, I do understand the character's deep, deep sadness.
How this quest for oblivion is improbably deduced at a very opportune moment by a shady character named Jessop (a mucky-muck in the intelligence service), who picks up on Hilary's intention with no more than an experienced hunch, is so much fun to read. To watch him reel her into his grand scheme of impersonation - it's her red hair, you see - is a Christie, fairy-tale delight. (Yeah, this is definitely a candidate for my Fairy Tale Crime sub-genre.)
"...You're not intereseted in life, you don't want to live any longer, you more or less welcome the idea of death?"
"Good," said Jessop, cheerfully. "So now we know where we are. Let's go on to the next step. Has it got to be sleeping pills?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I've already told you that they're not as romantic as they sound. Throwing yourself off a building isn't too nice, either. You don't always die at once. And the same applies to falling under a train. What I'm getting at is that there are other ways."
"I don't understand what you mean."
"I'm suggesting another method. Rather a sporting method, really. There's some excitement in it, too. I'll be fair with you. There's just a hundred to one chance that you mightn't die. But I don't believe under the circumstances, that you'd really object by that time."
The gist of the plot: several top-notch scientists have disappeared from their various corners of the world and no one knows where they are, not their governments, their families, their closest friends or fellow workers. Because of the delicate nature of their scientific specialties, government agencies are naturally concerned. The suspicion is that these learned men and a couple of women have gone over to the other side, have slipped away behind the Iron Curtain - it was that time in history. If so, then there's not much to be done, but if there should be another explanation then...
When Olive Betterton, a young, trim red-headed woman suspected of being on her way to wherever her husband Tom - a physicist - is hiding, gets hurt in a plane crash on the very plane that Hilary Craven would have been on had not the weather forced a detour away from the Paris airport, well then, you kind of know where this is headed. Olive Betterton is pulled barely alive from the wreckage and taken to hospital where all she knows (IF she knows) about Tom Betterton's mysterious destination will die with her, unless...
Well, this is an Agatha Christie plot, so you have to expect surprises on top of surprises and boy do you get them in this book. This is such an outlandish plot, but I go along with it every time I re-read the book. I mean, why not? It couldn't happen now, but it could have happened then.
Terrific book if you're stricken with the doldrums and feel like a strangely comforting tale of spies, murder, travel, an incredible secret hideout, a fantastic villain with an equally fantastic plot and last, but not least, a bit of romance and a whodunit twist.