They Came to Baghdad, first published in 1951, is one of Agatha Christie’s espionage/thriller novels which very much centres around the issues of the day—the post war environment, and ideas prevalent at the time. I read the book for a Goodreads group with which I’m reading through 12 lesser known Christies this year. This is the book for August.
As the story opens, we are following three threads. We learn that a conference of superpowers is to be held at Baghdad—described in a ‘hush hush’ manner though everyone on the street seems to know of it. We also learn that a man called Carmichael who has been born and brought up in the East and can pass for an Arab has obtained some crucial information which he is going to bring to this conference.
Alongside, in America, a woman called Anna Scheele, efficient and highly intelligent secretary to a financier Otto Morganthal, seeks leave of absence to visit her sister who is to have surgery in London. There she does some shopping, goes to the nursing home to visit her sister and then seems to simply vanish. Some people have been following her but we’re not quite sure if they mean to do her harm or keep her safe (and if so, from what?)
And then there is our third thread—our heroine of sorts, Victoria Jones works as a steno/typist in a firm. She is quite bad at her job, and is fired when caught mimicking the boss’s wife. Not completely put out by this, she takes her lunch to the park where she runs into and falls in love at first sight with the very handsome Edward. But she learns that Edward (formerly in the RAF) is to travel to Baghdad for his work—with a Mr Rathbone who works in cultural promotion though an organisation called the Olive Branch where translated classics are taken around the world. Edward also tells her he feels not all is right with the organisation but in his position work is hard to come by and he must stick by it. Victoria, in love, and with no job decides to travel to Baghdad. But how will a penniless girl do that? Luck it seems is in her favour and she manages with her talent for sprouting lies at the drop of a hat to secure a position as companion to travel with an American lady Mrs Hamilton Clipp, who is heading to Baghdad to visit her married daughter but can’t travel on her own because of a broken arm.
In Baghdad, Victoria is at a loss for what to do though she is sure Edward (whose last name she doesn’t know at this point) will find her work. But before she can even find him, a wounded man stumbles into her hotel room and dies—he’d been stabbed. Soon she is drawn into an adventure beyond her imagining, and finds herself falling further and further into it.
Agatha Christie’s espionage and thriller books as readers and fans will know are on a completely different plane from her mysteries, because really, her ‘cloak-and-dagger’, hush-hush international secret plots don’t feel as credible or strong as her mysteries, but at the same time, if one suspends disbelief a little, I think these can be a good deal of fun because she does do suspense really well. This book much more than some of her others in this category that I’ve read recently (The Man in the Brown Suit, for one) falls within the espionage/thriller category, to the point that unlike some of these others, there isn’t a traditional murder mystery at its heart, though there is a mystery and there are murders.
Still, the suspense is kept up throughout and quite well, so one doesn’t really know what the solution will turn out to be, who can and can’t be trusted and how our heroine will get out of the soup she lands herself into. Though I have read this one before, and I did vaguely remember the solution, the book still held my interest throughout (one never does remember all the details and subplots), and I know the first time I didn’t guess anything correctly.
The espionage and world powers thread does have its basis in the developments of the day for this book was written in the early years of the cold war; and just a few years after the Second World War so the shadows of the war and the tensions, fears and insecurities of the period do reflect in the book—and would have been something people would have related to far more back then. Also perhaps, the philosophy or idea related to the solution may have been something again popular in the period but I won’t go into it since it would be a spoiler.
But apart from the ‘hush-hush’ elements, we also have the colour and feel of the Middle East (which Christie would have experienced on her trips with her husband Max Mallowan), and we see the place and its sights as an English traveller back then would have—not just the physical place, but attitudes towards time, food, etc. (there was perhaps a certain sneer in her tone in some places I felt, but other aspects like the impatience of the West are acknowledged as well). But it was fun nonetheless. Also we have the Archaeological dig where Victoria ends up (headed by the very eccentric Dr Pauncefoot Jones), where again one can see Christie’s own experiences reflected—in the work, the finds (pottery shards to be put together, almost like pieces of a puzzle), flows of visitors, and such. This was something that I also enjoyed very much.
Our heroine, Victoria, mightn’t be the most truthful of people but she has a great deal of spunk, and she reminded me at one level of the heroine of The Man in the Brown Suit, Ann Beddingford, ready to just get up and go after adventure, with next to nothing in their pockets, and only themselves to rely on. She does pretty well for herself in the process, and acts rather sensibly much of the time, which made one want to cheer her on.
This was a fun read for me in which the elements of suspense and the setting (both the Middle East and Archaeological dig) were my favourite aspects.