A Cold War thriller that eschews the usual adversaries, They Came To Baghdad by Agatha Christie offers an outlandish but high-energy plot told with a few winks. Agatha Christie’s own experiences of Iraq (the book was written there), including her stays at several excavations led by her husband, Max Mallowan, infuse the descriptions of Baghdad, Basrah, and a fictional archaeological site with confident local colour.
1950. A high-profile meeting between Russian and American heads of state is to take place in Baghdad, Iraq, but international tensions are threatening to sabotage its effectiveness before it has even started. Key to its success is a message from a secret agent, but an unknown enemy is doing everything to stop either from reaching the necessary authorities.
Bored shorthand typist Victoria Jones perks up her dull life through imaginative lies. When her appetite for adventure sends her to Baghdad in search of Edward, a handsome young man she has previously only met on a park bench in London, and into the midst of international intrigue, her talent for spinning a tale suddenly becomes the difference between life and death.
Although Agatha Christie’s mysteries have grown in appeal for me over the years after a lukewarm appreciation in my teens, I rarely find the descriptions of scenery in her books other than bland. With its briskly detailed settings, They Came To Baghdad differs as much in this aspect from Christie's usual books as it does in being a thriller or adventure story rather than a typical whodunnit. Christie's Iraq in 1950 is not a romanticised Western vision of a mystical East: Baghdad, for example, at first lets the excited Victoria down with its ill-paved streets, dust storms, cacophony of street noise, and shop windows filled with international goods. I rather suspect Christie is recounting her own first impressions, and that these, like Victoria’s, gradually evolved into unexpected fascination with increased understanding of the city’s personality.
The story develops through multiple points of view, with the audacious Victoria Jones emerging as the central character whose adventures and misadventures lead to the unveiling of the central mystery. Although Victoria does have a code of honour in that she does not wish to be employed in any dishonest work, she is far from the stereotypical heroine whose virtues dictate she must starve rather than steal. The reader is introduced to her thus: “The superior fascination of fiction to fact was always irresistible to Victoria. She lied with fluency, ease, and artistic fervour.” I was curious to see how the author planned to redeem her – if redeemed she would be – but from early on it becomes clear that Victoria really is rather agreeable, being generally good-natured (excepting a few attacks of jealousy where her attraction to Edward is involved) and possessing both common sense and courage.
Since They Came To Baghdad also charts Victoria’s evolution from silly office prankster to an amateur spy whom danger and death teach sobering lessons, it is fitting that the romantic subplot takes an unconventional path. Everything ties neatly with the main flow of the story, and indeed enhances it.
Although some serious themes are broached, and the plot contrasts the rights of everyday people leading everyday lives with the goals of elitist idealists, They Came To Baghdad unapologetically espouses escapism over complexity and depth. Unlike, say, Helen MacInnes’s Cold War spy novels, They Came To Baghdad shows no interest in promoting or condemning either Communism or Capitalism, which helps the story bounce along with an air of carefree timelessness.
Agatha Christie fits a convoluted plot into a book of a mere 254 pages, and consequently the pacing is rapid if not always smooth. Due to the changing viewpoints it took me a few chapters to get properly settled into the story, but once I allowed its lightness and good spirit to carry me along I found the whole very readable. Tolerant suspension of disbelief regarding certain plot points is required, but then that seems generally the case with adventure stories, of which They Came To Baghdad is an amusing example.
(Fontana paperback, 1990, page 111-2):
"It was at this moment that without any warning her bedroom door swung open, a man slipped in, turned the key in the lock behind him and said to her urgently:
'For God's sake hide me somewhere - quickly...'
Victoria's reactions were never slow. In a twinkling of an eye she had noted the laboured breathing, the fading voice, the way the man held an old red knitted scarf bunched on his breast with a desperate clutching hand. And she rose immediately in response to the adventure.
The room did not lend itself to many hiding-places. There was the wardrobe, a chest of drawers, a table and the rather pretentious dressing-table. The bed was a large one - almost a double bed and memories of hide-and-seek made Victoria's recation prompt.
'Quick,' she said. She swept off pillows, and raised sheet and blanket. The man lay across the top of the bed. Victoria pulled sheet and blanket over him, dumped the pillows on top and sat down herself on the side of the bed.
Almost immediately there came a low insistent knocking on the door.
Victoria called out, 'Who is it?' in a faint, alarmed voice.
'Please,' said a man's voice outside. 'Open, please. It is the police.'"