After reading Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer, the second novel I decided to read for Karen and Simon’s 1951 Club this week was another crime one – by Agatha Christie this time. It seems that whichever year is chosen for the club (so far, anyway) there’s always at least one Christie novel published in that year, and as soon as I saw that 1951 marked the publication of They Came to Baghdad, I knew that I wanted to read it. The title had me intrigued immediately: who came to Baghdad and why? I couldn’t wait to find out!
This book is not one of Christie’s Poirot or Miss Marple mysteries – it’s a standalone and actually much more of a spy novel or thriller than a mystery. With an exciting plot involving kidnappings, conspiracies, impersonations, disguises and secret messages, I found it a lot of fun to read – one of those books I genuinely didn’t want to have to put down until I was finished!
So, who came to Baghdad? Well, first of all there’s our heroine, Victoria Jones, a young woman with a vivid imagination and a gift for coming up with creative yet convincing lies. Having just lost her job as a typist, Victoria takes a walk in a London park where she meets Edward, a charming, handsome young man with whom she falls in love at first sight. When, to her disappointment, Edward tells her that he’ll be leaving the next day to go and work in Baghdad, Victoria decides that she must follow him there…the only problem is, she has no money to pay for the flight. As luck would have it, she then discovers that an American lady, Mrs Hamilton-Clipp, will be flying to Baghdad three days later and requires a companion for the journey. It seems that Victoria’s problem is solved.
Meanwhile, an interesting assortment of other people are beginning to converge upon Baghdad, including the flamboyant explorer Sir Rupert Crofton-Lee; the eccentric archaeologist Dr Pauncefoot Jones (no relation of Victoria’s, although she’s quite willing to pretend that he is); Anna Scheele, a clever and elusive young woman; and the mysterious Carmichael, whom we first meet in the British Consulate wearing Arab dress and trying to convey an important message to a fellow visitor. And why have all of these people come to Baghdad? It will spoil the story if I go into too much detail, but it’s probably enough to say that an international plot is brewing and Victoria Jones is about to become caught up in it.
What a great book this is! The story is a bit far-fetched and silly at times, but it was so entertaining I didn’t mind at all. Although, as I’ve said, it’s not really a mystery novel, there are still puzzles to be solved (I particularly loved the way one of my favourite Dickens novels provides Victoria with a vital clue) and there are plenty of plot twists too – I had my suspicions about some of them, but others took me by surprise. The setting is wonderful as well, with lots of colourful descriptions of Baghdad capturing a time and place that has changed forever. While it was easy enough for Victoria to travel to Baghdad (once she’d found a way to pay for it), for most of us Iraq is sadly no longer a place that we will have the opportunity to visit, apart from through fiction.
Much as I enjoy Agatha Christie’s detective novels, Victoria Jones is such an engaging heroine that it didn’t bother me that there’s no Poirot or Marple in this one. If you’re looking for something slightly different from Christie, I would definitely recommend trying They Came to Baghdad!