A Sunday review of one of my all time favorite books, Agatha Christie's THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD (1951). It's a wide-ranging cozy that is not set in the usual small English village, but mostly in the Middle East. It's one of Christie's international 'thrillers' and yet it remains, for me, a beloved cozy. This is a book I've read probably about twenty times over the years and last night I zipped through it while sitting up with a sick dog, not wanting to sleep just in case he needed me for something...
Anyway, where do I turn when things get a bit gloomy? Agatha Christie. (She never lets me down.) Enough said.
On the football front, Seattle has lost to the Bears and that's not doing anything to lift my spirits. So while I wait for the Jets to lose to the Patriots later on today, I'll write my Christie review. I am not sanguine about the Jets, not at all. (I WAS WRONG! The Jets WON!! HaHA! An unbelievable win over an opponent that was expected to beat the Jets handily!)
More good news: Rocky appears to be feeling a bit better. Poor little tyke. I have to protect him from his own high spirits, it seems. Rimadyl did the trick. He was able to go for a walk outside to do his business just now. Hooray. Maybe we'll celebrate with some pasta!
Back to the book:
THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD begins with the reader meeting several people who will later play key roles. Many books begin this way, but not as many do it so well. (And it's often not one of my favorite beginnings.) This is not a Hercule Poirot book nor is it a Miss Marple, it is one of Christie's stand-alones. Her best one, I think, next to THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT with which it shares some similarities. In truth, I often get the two books confused in memory. But since they're both my favorites, I just shrug it off. Once I pick up the book and begin reading, it all sorts itself out.
The book takes place on the eve of an enormously important international conference being held in Baghdad. Various members of world-wide national delegations are converging on the fabled city, including a couple of Presidents and a Prime Minister or two - everyone anxious to avoid catastrophe. What the meeting is about, Christie never makes really clear, but it hardly matters as long as we understand that it is of most importance to the future of the Middle East.
Anyway, the book contains one of my favorite Opening sentences:
Captain Crosbie came out of the bank with the pleased air of one who has cashed a cheque and has discovered that there is just a little more in his account than he thought there was.
I also love his description:
Captain Crosbie often looked pleased with himself. He was that kind of man. In figure he was short and stocky, with rather a red face and a bristling military moustache. He strutted a little when he walked. His clothers were, perhaps, just a trifle loud, and he was fond of a good story. He was popular among men. A cheerful man, commonplace but kindly, unmarried. Nothing remarkable about him. There are heaps of Crosbies in the East.
This is even more telling when we learn, several paragraphs later, that Crosbie's is an assumed persona since he is an undercover agent, a spy. Then we learn that Mr. Dakin, a slovenly sloop shouldered, ineffectual man whom everyone disregards, is in, actuality, the strutting Crosbie's boss. These two characters have a very interesting opening conversation which sets the book in motion. Exposition, yes, but again, done very well.
From these two we learn that, Henry Carmichael, one of their more important operatives, a brilliant and canny young man of many faces and many languages, has discovered something incredibly important to the meeting coming up in Baghdad. Carmichael is, at the moment, in disguise as a Bedouin traveller (he speaks all the necessary languages and dialects) and trying to make his way to Baghdad. But the enemy is onto him and already several men who had the misfortune to look like Carmichael have been indiscriminately killed in and around Baghdad. It will be a miracle if Carmichael makes it as far as the embassy.
What this important 'thing' is Christie is never clear about, but that doesn't matter either. The 'thing' is what Alfred Hitchcock called, "a mcguffin," something everyone wants that sets a story in motion.
Then we have the introduction of another intriguing character, Anna Scheele the mysterious blond, a confidential secretary to an American tycoon. Scheele's secretly scheduled appearance at the conference sets several governments on edge. Upon her arrival in London, of course, she is kept under surveillance, even by the British. How she slips away from them is a tribute to the intelligence of the character and her wily creator.
Finally, we have the heroine of the piece, Victoria Jones. An impressionable (and very imaginative) young lady freshly out of a job who meets a young man in the park, a young man conveniently travelling to Baghdad to join up with a misguided cultural group bent on bringing Shakespeare in translation to the Middle East. The group is a kind of non-profit literary peace corps run by an absent minded professor named Rathbone and the young man regrets he can't stay in London to spend time with Victoria, but may he have a picture to remember her by before he leaves?
In a very short space of time, the penniless Victoria (incredible as it may seem) manages to get to Baghdad, believing herself in love with the young man, thinking herself a Juliet to his Romeo. She arrives lacking a job or a place to stay. But not for long. Soon she is not only reunited with her young man and volunteering at Rathbone's spurious literary group but she is running up a tab at the local hotel run by a jolly type who takes a liking to her. How will she pay the eventual bill? Oh well, she'll worry about it later.
It's all a romp, breathtaking in some spots as when Victoria unknowingly courts danger and when we follow Carmichael on his perilous trek into the city, eventually winding up at Victoria's hotel and a fateful midnight meeting.
Enter Mr. Dakin , the heretofore mentioned spy master at a most unusual moment and, of course, he offers Victoria a job spying. Finally, Victoria has a paying job.
The plot is neatly woven by Christie, jumping in intrigue from Victoria to the spies and back again. And just when you think you almost know what's going on, there's a kidnapping with curious beauty salon consequences. Then we're off to an archaeological dig (something Christie knows heaps about) then finally, we're whisked off to the international conference where Anna Scheele comes out of hiding and an assassination must be averted.
Phew! This is a Christie book that moves at breakneck speed. It's full of clever twists and turns and a like able heroine whom you can't help rooting for as well as a romantic storyline with a surprise ending.