Cannonball Read IV: They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie
It was quite strange for me to read a book set in the Baghdad of 1950 considering the events of the last decade - the mention of contemporary Iraq and Baghdad today so immediately bring television news images of war, strife and tragedy to my mind that it's a bit disorienting to be confronted with a tale published in 1951. I know next to nothing (if next to nothing lies more nothing) of the political situation in the Middle East at that time, and to what extent Christie meant to reflect it - in They Came to Baghdad, Iraq serves as more of a backdrop for international conspiracy and warmongering rather than as a participant in world politics in its own right.
While Baghdad seems quite a peaceful place at the beginning of the story, the world is not - it is the early years of the Cold War (though not called such in the book) and tensions between Eastern Europe and the USSR and the UK and USA were running high. Some intelligence officers suspect that tensions are being deliberately fermented by a third party outside the Communist/Capitalist binary, and various adventurous men have been deployed to ascertain the truth of what are barely conspiracy theories, just faint whispers and rumours of disappearing scientists, underground installations in hidden valleys and a diabolically clever propaganda factory. Evidence is needed before a peace summit between the president of the USA and the Russian Premier that is supposed to take place in Baghdad...but the men sent to find it must outsmart deadly enemies on their way back. Into this strained atmosphere bursts Victoria Jones, a penniless gifted liar ("To Victoria an agreeable world would be one where tigers lurked in the Strand and dangerous bandits infested Tooting" (11)) in her early twenties who is bored of getting fired from office jobs in London and decides to travel to Baghdad in pursuit of a man called Edward she meets by chance in a park. She finds a room in a Baghdad hotel and a job at an agency dedicated to spreading culture (mostly English) where something fishy may be going on, and then a man dies in her bed after murmuring the mysterious words ""Lucifer...Basrah...Lefarge"...
The idea of Lucifer is presented in They Came to Baghdad as a metaphor for people who think themselves not only above the law but beyond humanity; Lucifer's sins of pride and arrogance are represented through the shadowy masterminds of the possible conspiracy. This theme recurs through Christie's fiction and other writings; Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot catch criminals and hand them over to the law so they can be punished not only for murder but hubris. Everyday people and everyday life are important to Christie, and perhaps became more so during her time spent at archaeological excavations piecing together fragments of ordinary people's pottery and thus bringing their lives to light, a process Victoria also goes through.
They Came to Baghdad is full of unlikely events and coincidences, but all the more amusing for that. It's told with verve and humour, and Victoria is a refreshing heroine - neither woman of steel nor wilting flower, she has brains and daring in tight spots but a healthy dose of situation-appropriate fear and a very human capacity for forgetfulness, being naive and thinking wishfully. Overall it's a slight novel, and we are told the truth about the conspiracy rumours too soon, but it enjoyably combines Christie's flair for intrigue with her passion for travel and for the past - a scene in the ruins of ancient Babyl0n is particularly lovely. They Came to Baghdad also shares with other detective stories the quality of being perhaps even more fun to read the second time and noticing the clues I missed before.
"Edward had gone now and she was alone. She must get back from Babylon before the candles went out.
And we are for the dark.
Who said that? Violence, terror - evil - blood on a ragged khaki tunic. She was running - running - down a hotel corridor. And they were coming after her.
Victoria woke with a gasp." (154)
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(Header image Baghdad Sunset by Michael McKenzie.)
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