I have a small collection of Agatha Christie first editions – not the very early or rare ones of course as they are rather prohibitively expensive. Mine are from the 50s 60s and 70s while some are the true first edition others are just book club editions, the Crime Club editions always came out the previous year – in one or two cases I have both the Crime Club and the book club edition.
I have had They came to Baghdad for years – my earliest first edition – but never actually read it. You can see I have had to protect the fragment of original dust wrapper in a protective cover (and yes, I remove them to read the book). I was delighted to find an excuse to finally read a book I had almost forgotten I had got. Simon and Karen’s 1951 club began on Monday and I flew through this marvellous book last weekend – one of those books I was sorry to finish.
They came to Baghdad is not a Poirot or Marple story – and although there are a couple of deaths – which are not dwelt upon – They Came from Baghdad is more of a spy story – and a darn good one at that. Agatha Christie’s second husband was an archaeologist and the novelist travelled widely with him on his archaeological explorations, and she certainly used these experiences in several of her novels.
A secret summit is taking place in Baghdad – and a shadowy organisation intent on creating a new world order wants to sabotage the talks – and more besides.
Anna Scheele an intelligent, capable American woman takes leave from her job in New York and travels to London to visit her sick sister. Someone is watching her – and reporting on her movements – and then Anna disappears from view.
Carmichael is a British agent – born in Kashgar – his father was a government official – Carmichael grew up speaking several local dialects perfectly. He can blend in with the Arab people he feels so at home with – slowly, he makes his way with the help of men he trusts toward Baghdad.
“A faded red knitted scarf was tucked into the ragged coat. His head showed again the dignity of Arab dress, the inevitable keffiyeh of black and white held in place by the black silk agal. His eyes, unfocused in a wide stare, looked out blearily over the river bund. Presently he too began to hum in the same key and tone. He was a figure like thousands of other figures in the Mesopotamian landscape. There was nothing to show that he was an Englishman, and that he carried with a secret that influential men in almost every country in the world were striving to intercept and to destroy along with the man who carried it.”
Later at the British Consulate, Richard Baker a member of Dr Pauncefoot -Jones Archaeological dig notices a man in Arab dress, hears the click, click, click of the prayer beads in his hands. He realises the face of the man is that of an old-school friend – and that he is signalling to him in Morse-code with the beads. Richard taps out ‘message received’, just before all hell breaks out – a shot is fired and the man in Arab dress flees.
Victoria Jones is a second-rate typist in London, her most recent position comes to a sudden halt when she is overheard impersonating her boss’s wife. She isn’t too distressed at getting the sack – again – Victoria is bored by the work, and by London, she has a lively imagination (not shy of gross exaggeration or downright lies) she longs for excitement and adventure. Victoria takes herself off to sit in a London square, here she meets Edward a good looking, friendly young man, and the two get on like a house on fire. Edward works for The Olive Tree; an organisation bringing English culture and poetry to the East – Edward explains he is off to Baghdad as dogsbody to his boss Dr Rathbone; who translates Shakespeare and Milton into Kurdish and Arabic.
Victoria thinks Baghdad sounds much more interesting than London and she can’t help but acknowledge to herself that she is very attracted to Edward and wants to get to know him. Impulsively, Victoria decides she must get herself to Baghdad, although she is possessed of exactly three pounds ten, with another five pounds in the P.O savings, and the fare to Baghdad being at least sixty pounds. Victoria needs a job that will take her to Baghdad – and sets out to do so with determination. Amazingly, Victoria does manage to get a job accompanying a woman with a broken arm – her salary is her ticket out – after that she is on her own. Victoria is full of hope, looking forward to surprising Edward and positive she will find an exciting job in Baghdad.
Once in Baghdad, Victoria find herself installed at the hotel Tio – where famous travel writer and explorer Sir Rupert Crofton-Lee is also staying. The hotel is presided over by Marcus, the cheerful and amiable owner – who promises Victoria a banquet of ‘baby chickens’.
Before poor Victoria can be re-united with Edward – who she learns has been sent on an errand to Bashrah but will be back in a couple of days – she finds herself embroiled in more excitement than perhaps she had imagined. A man stumbles into her hotel bedroom, mumbles some inexplicable final words and dies.
“She must call someone – get someone to come. She was alone here with a dead man and sooner or later the police would want an explanation.
Whilst her brain worked rapidly on the situation, a small sound made her turn her head. They key had fallen out of her bedroom door, and whilst she stared at it, she heard the sound of the lock turning. The door opened and Mr Dakin came in, carefully closing the door behind him.
He walked across to her saying quietly.
‘Nice work, my dear. You think quickly. How is he?’
With a catch in her voice Victoria said:
‘I think he’s – he’s dead.’”
Dakin enlists Victoria’s help in his secret work, he tells her to take no risks, and sends her to Basrah – one of the words whispered by the dying man. Here, she is told she must stay with the Claytons at the consulate – everyone stays there, and Victoria is delighted to realise she will finally be able to surprise Edward. From here Victoria’s adventures begin, when not trying to conduct a romance with Edward – who she is afraid, is also popular with other girls he works with – she finds herself getting into all sorts of trouble.
They Came to Baghdad is a rollicking good page turner – superbly plotted with plenty of surprises along the way – it is a very clever novel.