“They Came To Baghdad” by Agatha Christie (1951)

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Baghdad“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.”

People go on about how travelling broadens the mind and that if you don’t travel you only read one page of the world’s book and a lot of other stuff like that. It’s not for me, though. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t judge those who like it. Do what you do! But for me, I find it far more comforting to travel by book. There’s none of that tiresome waiting around at airports, you don’t need vaccinations, and there’s no problem trying to understand the language … unless you’re reading Kafka in the original German, of course. No, give me a quiet corner and a book and I’ll travel that way. I’ve spent the last week, for example, in Iraq.

Chrisite is once again here playing with international intrigue, doing away with a murdered body in a quaint English village in exchange for something a bit bigger. With the Cold War looming, things are tense between Russia and the USA, and talks are planned to try and broker an arrangement for peace. They will take place in Baghdad. But hidden within the Middle East is an underground organisation that plans to sabotage the talks.

Meanwhile, young Victoria Jones has just been fired from her latest typing job and while consoling herself with a sandwich in the park, she meets the curiously handsome Edward. He seems just as smitten with her, and admits that he is off the Baghdad the following day with the professor he works with. Both young things are sad that their affair must end before it’s even had a chance to get started, so Victoria becomes determined to find her own way to Baghdad, despite knowing nothing about it. She is a girl keen for adventure, and a new one begins when she indeed finds a way to her destination.

But once she’s there she’s in trouble. She can’t find Edward, has no money or prospects, and then as if things couldn’t get any worse, a man dies in her hotel room. As he slips away from life, he utters three words – “Lucifer … Basrah … Lefarge”. Victoria quickly finds herself embroiled in an adventure far bigger than any she could have imagined.

Whenever Christie goes big, I find myself slightly less interested. While there’s no doubt she could do the bigger plot lines as well as the smaller murder mysteries, I generally prefer the latter. This one takes a while to get going – there’s no death until about halfway through – but things move rapidly from that point onwards. Christie seems mostly to be using the novel to tell us what she knows about the Middle East. Her second husband was an archaeologist and Christie often accompanied him on his digs, meaning she had first hand knowledge of this part of the world and the customs. This does not go to waste, and has been seen in others of her novels too, including Murder in Mesopotamia and Death on the Nile. It definitely adds sparkle and colour to the writing.

The only character of any particularly memorable note is Victoria Jones, a natural-born liar who manages to get herself out of any tricky situation thanks to her quick mind and ingenuity. While she might go giddy for a man so quickly, she’s definitely no damsel in distress and can more than take care of herself. Otherwise, this isn’t one of her best books for characterisation. Nonetheless, it’s a fun romp through the world of secret agents and secret political discussions which feels like a bit of an interesting change from Christie’s usual fare.

Anyway, time to read myself into a new location. I’ll be in Dublin if you need me.

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“Murder In Mesopotamia” by Agatha Christie (1936)

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mesopotamia“In the hall of the Tigris Palace Hotel in Baghdad a hospital nurse was finishing a letter.”

Books are, of course, an escape – a whole new world you can carry in your bag. While mostly I like to read books when appropriate in the calendar (horrors around Hallowe’en, for example), sometimes I have to take full advantage of the ability to travel anywhere via fiction. As such, I ditched the relentless rain and storms battering Britain currently and jetted off to Iraq in Christie’s Murder In Mesopotamia.

Christie was married to respected archaeologist Max Mallowan and she followed him to many of his digs (they met on one, in fact) and she developed a keen interest in the subject. Because of this, they make a number of appearances in her books, this being one that centres wholly around a dig site.

The narrator is Amy Leatheran, a nurse who has been called out to a dig site in Tell Yarimjah to look after the dig leader’s wife, ‘Lovely Louise’ Leidner. She has been suffering from nerves and hallucinations. Perhaps it’s the heat, or perhaps it’s the letters she’s been getting from her deceased husband threatening her with death because of her second marriage. There is a distinct tension around everyone at camp – beautifully described with the phrase “they all passed the butter to each other too politely” – and it all reaches a head when Louise is found dead in her room. But no one could have got in without being seen, so how did it happen? Poirot is on the way, but will he be able to solve the mystery?

I wasn’t so immediately captivated by this one as I am by others. Nurse Leatheran is a marvellous invention, a strong, capable woman who understands what needs to be done and proves herself as an assistant to Poirot in the absence of Hastings or another of his regular companions. However, as pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place, I began to really enjoy it. It’s a great read and the setting of an archaeological dig site makes for an unusual and fascinating place. There are many tools for murder around and Christie is on great form here.

A fine example of the murder mystery genre.