They Came To Baghdad, by Agatha Christie

>> Friday, January 11, 2013

TITLE: They Came To Baghdad
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: 1950s London and Iraq
TYPE: Thriller

Baghdad is holding a secret superpower summit, but the word is out, and an underground organization in the Middle East is plotting to sabotage the talks.

Into this explosive situation appears Victoria Jones, a young woman with a yearning for adventure who gets more than she bargains for when a wounded spy dies in her hotel room.

The only man who can save the summit is dead. Can Victoria make sense of his dying words: Lucifer... Basrah... Lefarge...
After the disaster that was my experience of reading The Body In The Library, I was almost afraid to pick up my next Christie. They Came To Baghdad restored my confidence a bit. I might find a couple of unexploded granades amongst Christie's books, but I'm thinking the majority will be more like this one... a couple of instances of "oh, those foreigners are a bit funny", but nothing to bother me overly.

This one's very definitely not a typical Christie. It's not a domestic mystery, but more of a thriller. It's what I would describe as a caper, madcap adventure along the lines of some of Elizabeth Peters' standalones. It reminded me quite strongly of some of her titles, in fact, such as The Camelot Caper or The Dead Sea Cipher.

Our protagonist is Victoria Jones, a bored typist living in London in the early 1950s. One day, having just been fired from a job (that often happens to her), she meets an attractive young man in the park. They start talking and they seem to click, but unfortunately, the young man, Edward, is about to leave for Baghdad for his job. Impulsively, Victoria decides she must get herself to Baghdad as well.

She has nowhere near enough money to get there, but in a stroke of luck, she gets hired as a travelling companion to a lady who's broken her arm (even travelling by air, getting to Baghdad took days back then, including a couple of pit stops). The job ends once they arrive at their destination, however, so a couple of days later, Victoria is trying to sort out what she's going to do next and how she can get a job.

And that's when a mysterious man breaks into her hotel room one night, begs for her help and promptly dies, but not before uttering some cryptic words. Before she knows it, Victoria has a job: trying to get information on a mysterious international conspiracy which could lead to all-out war between the Americans and the Soviets.

I had an absolute blast reading this. Oh, the plot is complete nonsense (think of the more preposterous Bond villain plans and you'll be in the right territory), but that's not the point. It's all about following the delightfully plucky Victoria, as she gets into situation after situation where it looks like she might be in over her head, and then emerges triumphant. She is street-smart and resourceful, with a facility for telling the most outrageous lies, but a strong sense of right and wrong, and I loved her.

I realise she sounds like a bit of an idiot if you summarise the setup. I mean, going all the way to Baghdad, chasing after a man she met for all of 5 minutes? Reading the book, though, she doesn't come across as stupid for doing it. She tells herself she's chasing after him, but it felt quite clear to me that she was just bored of her life and thirsty for adventure. If it hadn't been Baghdad, she would have been off somewhere else a week later.

Christie is not known for her characterisation. Even her fans will admit it's the plotting she's good at, and characterisation her weak point. Well, this is the exception. McGuffin plot, brilliantly drawn protagonist. The other secondary characters are a bit more reliant on types, but there's still enough to make them come alive.

The other protagonist of the story is Baghdad itself. Christie spent quite a bit of time in Iraq, working in her archaeologist husband's excavations, so the setting comes alive and is drawn with fondness. I enjoyed the strong sense of place, but also the portrait of a time long gone, both in Iraq and the London right after World War II. Christie was obviously writing this as a contemporary, so she doesn't make a big song and dance about her own world, but there are details that stop the 21st century reader short. For instance, no mention is made of the fact that in 1950 London there was still some rationing going on, but the American lady Victoria accompanies to Baghdad gives her a pair of silk stockings as a parting gift, the assumption being that contemporary readers would have know just how impossible it would have been for her to get them on her own.

Anyway, this was a good one, not a typical Christie, but still great. We even get a nice little romance!


AUDIOBOOK NOTES: This was the version I listened to, narrated by Emilia Fox, who was just brilliant. I loved the voice she did for Victoria, and she was great with all the others as well, really brought out the humour.


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