The Agatha Christie Challenge – They Came to Baghdad (1951)

They Came To BaghdadIn which Victoria Jones bumps into Edward in a park in London over lunchtime sandwiches and falls in love with him in an instant. He’s going to Baghdad to help open a bookshop for his boss, and, troubled that she won’t ever see him again, she decides to chuck everything in and follow him to Baghdad. But many other important political and influential people are also travelling to Baghdad, and Victoria gets caught up in a spot of espionage because she’s that kind of girl.  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal its most exciting secrets!

BaghdadThe book is dedicated “to all my friends in Baghdad”. Since the political and Islamist developments of the late 20th century it’s difficult for most westerners to imagine Baghdad being the kind of place where people could just up and visit on a whim. But Christie would have accompanied her husband Max Mallowan on many an archaeological dig out there, and her autobiography has several references to her times there and the people she worked with. They Came to Baghdad was first published in the UK in eight abridged instalments in John Bull magazine from January to March 1951, and in Canada, in an abridged version in Star Weekly Complete Novel, a magazine supplement published in Toronto, in September 1951. Unusually, there was no magazine pre-publication of this book in the US, until the full book was published by Dodd, Mead & Co in late 1951. It had previously been published in full in the UK by Collins Crime Club, on 5th March 1951.

whodunitThe first time I tried to read this book (aged about 10 probably), I couldn’t get on with it at all. I was voraciously reading all the Christies I could lay my hands on, and when I realised this wasn’t a murder mystery (as such) I completely lost interest and went to find another “proper” whodunit instead. Then when I went back to it as an older teenager I gave it another chance and got completely wrapped up in the escapism of it all; the fascination of the setting, the excitement of the adventure, and who could resist the charms of Victoria Jones?

VictoriaIf you met her in real life, she’d be a keeper, for sure. Full of daring, absolutely fearless, but prone to making a few bad judgment calls; an imperfect kind of heroine that actually would make her a very realistic creation. Victoria’s the sort of girl who would go off on a whim; she believes in taking a chance on life in the hope that it would pay off. When she’s chloroformed and held captive in some miserable hovel, on regaining consciousness her instant reaction is to celebrate the fact that she’s still alive – she’s ineffably optimistic. She doesn’t let a mere thing like incarceration hold her back; and whilst she’s not particularly learned she is enormously practical.

ArchaeologistChristie keeps a steady conversational style going through much of this book; written in the third person but almost always with Victoria as the central character. Occasionally Dakin or Edward take control of whatever scene is playing out, but nine times out of ten we’re seeing life through Victoria’s eyes. This is particularly effective in the few archaeological dig scenes, where Victoria has installed herself as an anthropologist despite knowing nothing about the subject. Christie’s writing flows vividly as she shows Victoria experiencing life on a dig, just as Christie herself had done a few years earlier. There’s a sense of wonder and excitement about the work; a respect for and interest in the dead of centuries ago whose minutiae of life is becoming apparent. The chief archaeologists themselves as portrayed as rather eccentric boffins, like Dr Pauncefoot Jones, or suspicious nit-pickers like Richard Baker. I’m sure Christie saw both on her travels.

RitzAs usual, there are a few references to check out, starting with the locations. The book starts in London; with Victoria and Edward meeting at Fitzjames Gardens, Victoria working for a firm in Graysholme Street, WC2, and another character living at Elmsleigh Gardens, “a quiet, rather dingy Kensington square”. None of them is real, sadly. Edward invites Victoria to dine on a sausage at the “SPO in Tottenham Court Road” – whilst Tottenham Court Road is of course real, I’ve no idea what the SPO was. Victoria walks past the Ritz Hotel in Green Park (real) and down Albermarle Street (also real) in search of Balderton’s Hotel (fictional – although there is a Balderton Street just south of Oxford Street.)

Rashid Street BaghdadOnce Victoria has decided to follow Edward to Baghdad, the rest of the book takes place in the area of present-day Iraq. Dakin’s office near Bank Street and Rashid Street in Baghdad, seems extremely likely; a map of modern day Baghdad shows Rashid Street and the Bank of Iraq being close by. A body is found on the Rowanduz Road – Rowanduz is a town in the north of Iraq; it’s perhaps unlikely that it’s big enough to warrant a road named after it. Victoria spends some time wandering around the Copper Bazaar in Baghdad – today it’s better known as the Coppersmith Souk but it’s still there.

Shatt al ArabElsewhere a boat paddles along the Shatt el Arab, a river made by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates river in modern day Iran; Carmichael is said to have been born in Kashgar, an ancient city on the banks of the Tigris, but now regards Kerbela, 100 km south west of Baghdad, as “his city”; and Basrah, also mentioned, is a modern city on the Shatt el Arab. Dr Pauncefoot Jones is excavating the ancient city of Murik, which is said to be 120 miles from Baghdad, although the only Murik I can find is in Syria, well away from Baghdad; curious. When Victoria accompanies Mrs Clipp, they arrive at Castel Benito Aerodrome, an airport in Tripoli created by the Italians in Libya. Originally, it was a small military airport, but it was enlarged in the late 1930s and was later used by the British RAF after 1943. Tripolitania is the region of Libya in which Tripoli is situated. Interesting that they had to change planes here in order to get to Baghdad. And when Victoria is captured, she is held in Mandali, which today is a small town on the Iraq/Iran border. Clearly, Christie put a lot of effort into setting her story in real places in and around Baghdad.

Arabic CalligraphyThere are few Arabic words and quotations used in the book, for which it might be helpful to know the English meanings. People on the street in Baghdad call out “Balek!” at regular intervals; balek is Arabic for mind, so maybe they mean “mind out”? Victoria uses the phrase “el hamdu lillah” to her captors, which endears her to them; it’s a praise to Allah. She also works out that the word “bukra” means tomorrow; although not according to Google Translate it doesn’t. And Abdul Suleiman sang an Arab chant: “Asri bi lele ya yamali, Hadhi alek ya ibn Ali”. Google Translate gives this as: “My family, for me, O dictate, this is on you, Ibn Ali”. I think we just about get the picture.

BernadotteAnd now for some other references. Mr Morganthal tells Miss Scheele, “they got the Shah of Persia last year, didn’t they? They got Bernadotte in Palestine.” Who was Bernadotte? He was a Swedish diplomat who negotiated the release of about 31,000 prisoners from German concentration camps, including 450 Danish Jews from the Theresienstadt camp, and became United Nations Security Council mediator in the Arab–Israeli conflict of 1947–1948, until he was assassinated in Jerusalem by the paramilitary Zionist group Lehi. During Edward’s first conversation with Victoria, he thinks Jones is an unsuitable surname for a Victoria, and that Victoria Sackville-West would be better. Of course, Victoria Sackville-West did exist and was well known as a poet and lover of Virginia Woolf. And, c.1979, I attended a party in Oxford where my friend Sarah Sackville-West, who was reading English in the year below me, introduced me to her sister Victoria. So I’ve met the real Victoria Sackville-West, so there.

JumboWhen Edward says goodbye to Victoria at this first meeting, he ends with “partir, say mourir un peu”. In the correct, original French, partir c’est mourir un peu is a direct quote from the 1890 poem Rondel de l’adieu by Edmond Haraucourt. And there’s another poem quoted, that starts, “Jumbo said to Alice I love you…” Jumbo was the elephant imported into America by P T Barnum, that died whilst on tour. It was then replaced by Alice, Jumbo’s “widow”. Their transatlantic love affair was a source of some fascination in the Victorian era. Carmichael remembers travelling with his friends who were members of the Aneizeh tribe. Today better known as the Anazzah or Anizah tribe, these are a widespread people, currently mainly found in Saudi Arabia, but originally from the area in the north of modern day Syria, and they pre-date the rise of Islam.

Scheele's GreenBaghdad is said to be “in the sterling area and money therefore presented no difficulties”. I can do no better than to quote you what Wikipedia has to say on the matter: “At the outbreak of the Second World War, the sterling area was formed as an emergency measure to protect the external value of the pound sterling, mainly against the US dollar.” Iraq left the sterling area in 1959. Sir Rupert at one stage mentions “Scheele’s Green” as a coded message about Anna Scheele. It’s a cupric hydrogen arsenite, a yellowish-green pigment which in the past was used in some paints and wallpapers, but has since fallen out of use because of its toxicity. As a form of arsenic, it’s a carcinogen, and its presence in the green paint on Napoleon’s walls is said to have contributed to his death.

Gilbert a BecketVictoria reflects that she was very much like “the Saracen maid who arrived in England knowing only the name of her lover “Gilbert” and “England”. This is the tale of the capture and release of Thomas à Becket’s father while on Crusade in Palestine. A version of the tale appeared in Charles Dickens’ A Child’s History of England, where it is said that “a worthy merchant of London, named Gilbert à Becket, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and was taken prisoner by a Saracen lord;” he is released only by the agency of the lord’s daughter, who “wanted to become a Christian, and was willing to marry him if they could fly to a Christian country”. The faithless Gilbert, however, only returned her love until he found an opportunity to escape and flee to England. Gilbert had taught the lady only two words: “London” and “Gilbert.” Armed only with this knowledge, the lady sets out to find him.

WIlliam Ernest Henley“And we are for the dark” thinks Victoria, just before she awakes from a nightmare vision. This is a line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Act Five, Scene Two. She loves her quotations, does Victoria; later on, she says “When you were a King in Babylon and I was a Christian slave”, which comes from William Ernest Henley’s “Or Ever the Knightly Years”. Finally, with the literary references, Victoria wants to answer the question, “who is Lefarge?” with the reply, “he’s brother to Mrs Harris”, in an allusion to Sairey Gamp’s imaginary friend in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. In this book, Anna Scheele is said to have bought a sapphire and diamond ring from Cartier’s for £120 – its value today would be £2635, so that’s a nice little piece of gear. The cost of getting from London to Baghdad was estimated as being between £60-£100, which would be £1300-£2200 at today’s rates, which seems quite pricey. Victoria’s total assets amount to £9, 2/-, which today equals £200 – that’s not a lot. Mrs Clipp espies someone wearing a mink coat that she estimates cost $3000; that’s a $30,000 dollar coat today. And the coat that Carmichael examines in the souk was priced at seven dinars, which he says is too much; for many years the Iraqi dinar was fixed as equal to US $3.22, so that coat would have been worth $22.54, which at today’s rate would be about $225. Very expensive for a souk.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for They Came to Baghdad:

Publication Details: 1951.  Hardback publication for the Thriller Book Club, 121 Charing Cross Road, London WC2. No dust jacket survives!

How many pages until the first death: 108, although another character in the book has died before then but we don’t realise it. Quite a long wait – but then, it’s not a whodunit as such, so it matters less.

Funny lines out of context: a couple, with a stretch of the imagination.

“It’s for you, Jonesey,” a colleague remarked unnecessarily, her eyes alight with the pleasure occasioned by the misfortune of others. The other typists collaborated in this sentiment by ejaculating” (the sentence goes on to add “you’re for it Jones”.)

“Lot of cock”, thought Shrivenham disrespectfully.

Memorable characters:

Victoria wipes the floor with all the other characters, for the reasons given earlier. Apart from that, you have the rather camp, over the top expressions of the hotel proprietor Marcus Tio, who brightens up the scenes he’s in; and I rather like the understated villainy of the duplicitous Catherine.

Christie the Poison expert:

You wouldn’t know it from this book. She’s been replaced by Christie the Archaeology Expert. Her fascination with the bringing the past to life is summed up in this reflection from Victoria: “as they went along the Processional Way to the Ishtar Gate, with the faint reliefs of unbelievable animals high on the walls, a sudden sense of the grandeur of the past came to her and a wish to know something about this vast proud city that now lay dead and abandoned.”

Class/social issues of the time:

Victoria’s a working-class girl trying to fit in to very middle-class settings – that of the archaeologists and the intelligence units; no wonder she has to fumble her way through to the success she achieves at the end. When Dakin first encounters Victoria, he’s extremely patronising towards her. Otherwise there aren’t many “class” observations in this book.

Other observations that set this novel firmly in the mid-20th century are the excitement of air travel – Victoria wonders how a great big aeroplane could actually get into the sky, and is alarmed at all the noises and movement – and concern about world Communism, with “Uncle Joe” (Stalin) maybe appearing at the world conference to be held in Baghdad, fear of war against (or for) Communism in many places around the world.

But the political imperative in this book isn’t simply socialism versus conservatism. There’s a New Order on offer, and attainable with sacrifices. “The bad things must destroy each other. The fat old men grasping at their profits, impeding progress. The bigoted stupid Communists, trying to establish their Marxian heaven. There must be total war – total destruction. And then – the new Heaven and the new Earth. The small chosen band of higher beings, the scientists, the agricultural experts, the administrators […] the young Siegfrieds of the New World. All young, all believing in their destiny as Supermen. When destruction had run its course, they would step in and take over […] “But think […] of all the people who will be killed first.” “You don’t understand […] that doesn’t matter.””

Classic denouement:  As this isn’t a classic whodunit, the denouement isn’t as straightforward as many of Christie’s other books. The realisation of exactly what’s gone on, and the nature of the final twists, is slowly, but excitingly drawn out, using short, mini-chapters that build towards are very rewarding finish.

Happy ending? Yes! Primarily, Victoria survives her escapades – that’s a reward in itself. But it also looks like a happy, if unexpected, relationship is about to blossom.

Did the story ring true? There’s so much fanciful adventure going on in this book that it’s very hard to believe some parts of it. The most extraordinary thing is that when Victoria is on the run, she’s picked up by Richard Baker; of all the people in all Mesopotamia, it has to be him that encounters her. And then it’s revealed that Baker has all sorts of innocent connections with Carmichael. #Yeahright.

Overall satisfaction rating: Thoroughly enjoyable escapist nonsense. Worthy of a 9/10.

Mrs McGinty's DeadThanks for reading my blog of They Came to Baghdad and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Mrs McGinty’s Dead, and for some reason I can never recall the plot of this book – so I have no idea what to expect! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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