They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie

The author who’s been a constant in most of my reading life is Agatha Christie; I first read her in my teens, collected all her books, and every return visit I’ve made to her work has been a delight. So the first thing I do when we decide upon a year for a ‘club’ is to see which titles of hers were published then, and as she was so prolific there’s usually something I can read! 1951 is no exception, as it saw the publication of her thriller, “They Came to Baghdad” – and what a marvellous read it turned out to be!

A 1980s cover that has nothing to do with the book…

I reckon I’ve read most, if not all, Christie titles, but with the thrillers I’m never quite sure. The latter (and indeed her other crime books) have tended to be overshadowed by her Marple and Poirot oeuvre, which is a great shame, particularly on the evidence of this book. I started “Baghdad” with absolutely no memory of it and no real knowledge of the plot but it took no time at all for me to be completely sucked in to Christie’s wonderful narrative and storytelling powers.

“Baghdad” has a far-ranging plot and features a large cast of characters. Central to the plot, and the heroine of our story, is a young woman called Victoria Jones. An inveterate liar, constantly making mendacious claims to liven up her life or get her another job, as the story opens she’s been sacked yet again. Running into a personable young man, Edward, she’s annoyed to find he’s off to work in Baghdad the next day, and determines to follow him out there despite having only a few pounds to her name. Miraculously, a job materialises the next day and she sets off as a companion to an American lady with a broken arm.

Meanwhile, while Victoria sets off on her adventure, the world has much trouble brewing. A number of other interested parties seem to be converging on Baghdad, and there are even hints that world leaders such as The President and Uncle Joe, will make it to the city. Initially, it isn’t clear who is on which side, although a man called Dakin and his sidekick Crosbie appear to be on the side of the angels. Then there is the great explorer Sir Rupert Crofton Lee, whose role seems ambiguous; Anna Scheele, who seems to have an air of the Mata Hari about her; and Carmichael, an undercover man vital to world security.

To go into the plot in any more detail would probably take as long as the book, and spoil it too. Suffice to say that Victoria has many adventures, from getting a job in Baghdad, being kidnapped and imprisoned, trying to rescue spies, getting roped in by the forces of good and even having a stint in the desert as a fake archaeologist (one of her various aliases is the niece of the famous Dr. Pauncefoot Jones, a recurring character on everyone’s lips who eventually appears). The plot is twisty and turny, full of action and red herrings, hugely enjoyable and very, very entertaining.

Agatha Christie in Syria in the late 1930s

Christie is sometimes condemned as lightweight, but there is an underlying theme of seriousness here that shouldn’t be ignored. 1951 was a year when there were plenty of tensions in the world; the post-War euphoria and sense of rapprochement between East and West at the defeat of Hitler had died down, the Iron Curtain was well and truly in place, and the arms race was seen as a growing threat to the world. Christie was obviously aware of the global situation and has the two sides going for a cautious approach to rapport which is threatened by a third party. It was obviously something she felt strongly about, having lived through two World Wars, and she has the likeable Dakin say at one point:

The delusion that by force you can impose the Millennium on the human race is one of the most dangerous delusions in existence. Those who are out only to line their own pockets can do little harm – mere greed defeats its own ends. But the belief in a superstratum of human beings – in Supermen to rule the rest of the decadent world – that, Victoria, is the most evil of all beliefs. For when you say, “I am not as other men” – you have lost the two most valuable qualities we have ever tried to attain: humility and brotherhood.

The moral message aside, there is so much to love in “They Came to Baghdad”. Christie knows how to pace her book and tell a story, and I ended up staying up much too late to finish it. Her characters are believable and the switch in one particular person’s behaviour entirely convincing; there’s humour too, and some beautiful descriptions which give a strong sense of place.

Victoria, breathing in hot choking yellow dust, was unfavourably impressed by Baghdad. From the Airport to the Tio Hotel, her ears had been assailed by continuous and incessant noise. Horns of cars blaring with maddening persistence, voices shouting, whistles blowing, then more deafening senseless blaring of motor horns. Added to the loud incessant noises of the street was a small thin trickle of continuous noise which was Mrs. Hamilton Clipp talking.

A love of archaeology shows in her descriptions of Victoria helping out and developing a fascination with ancient history; this speaks eloquently of Christie’s own life and her involvement in the expeditions of her husband, Max Mallowan. But one of the strongest elements which came through in my reading of this was the sense of a lost past and a missing landscape; the setting for the story, described and evoked so beautifully by Christie, has no doubt been changed beyond recognition because of war and conflict and this added an extra poignancy to the book.

Surely those were the things that mattered – the little everyday things, the family to be cooked for, the four walls that enclosed the home, the one or two cherished possessions. All the thousands of ordinary people on the earth, minding their own business, and tilling the earth, and making pots and bringing up families and laughing and crying, and getting up in the morning and going to bed at night. They were the people who mattered, not these Angels with wicked faces who wanted to make a new world and who didn’t care whom they hurt to do it.  

You could, if you chose to, criticise the book I suppose; the plot is probably a little fantastic, Victoria’s escapades unlikely for a girl of her background, and there is the occasional mild racial stereotype. But these are tiny little things when set against the sweep of the story, the cleverness of the writing and the plot, and the sheer enjoyment of reading the book. Christie’s love for the area shines through, her sympathy for and empathy with the people and their way of life is evident, and her desire for a tolerant, kinder world is clear. We could do a lot worse nowadays to take that message on board; but in the meantime, if you want an enjoyable, entertaining thriller, set in an evocative lost landscape, you need look no further than “They Came to Baghdad” – wonderful book!

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