They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie

They Came to BaghdadHaving just read Martin Edwards’ very entertaining The Golden Age of Murder (which I’m due to write about over at Vulpes Libris soon), I was in the mood for some Agatha – and decided to grab one which fulfilled one of the criteria on my Book Bingo. One of them is ‘Book set in Asia’, and so I grabbed They Came to Baghdad (1951), which my friend Simon gave me a few years ago.

I feel a bit guilty about it, since I don’t think it’s the most authentic portrayal of Asia imaginable (and I had been planning to read Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco), but at least Christie knew the area fairly well.

They Came to Baghdad has one of Christie’s most likeable heroines, the impetuous, charming, and accident-prone Victoria Jones. She starts the novel by getting fired from her position as a typist (for impersonating the boss’ wife) and wanders, bloody but unbowed, into the streets of London – whereupon she meets a gentleman as impetuous and charming as herself, the handsome Robert. They obviously rather fancy each other, but he is off to Baghdad the next day.

Luckily, Victoria manages to find someone willing to pay her board to Baghdad in exchange for helping her manage the journey, so she can go and surprise Robert. (Remember the impetuous thing?) Only… she doesn’t know his surname, and doesn’t have any money. A delight of a hotel proprietor gives her a room (he is forever offering her beautifully cooked meals, and describing everyone he knows as ‘very nice’) and she decides just to wait it out and see what happens. Only, what happens is that somebody ends up dead in her hotel room…

This isn’t a traditional Agatha Christie whodunnit, though, more’s the pity. The death doesn’t come until almost halfway through the book, for one thing, and long before that there has been much talk of intrigue and codes and meetings of international importance, etc. The novel is really a thriller, rather than a detective novel – and, had I known that, I might not have picked it up.

For much the same reasons I talked about in relation to spy novels recently, I am not enamoured with thrillers. I avoid anything with gore or sadism, which rules out many modern thrillers, but even Christie’s cosy approach to the thriller didn’t, er, thrill me. It is compellingly readable, as everything Christie wrote was, but I can’t bring myself to care about international plots and orchestrated assassinations and the like. I want Christie novels to revolve around anger that somebody knocked over a bird cage (for example) and to take place in a small village or country house.

There’s still a twist or two in the tale (though the main one is so obvious that I can’t really believe it was intended to be a twist), but there’s not really much to satisfy those on the lookout for the sort of clues and denouements that are the fabric of Christie’s archetypal output.

So, did I enjoy reading it? Sure, it was still pretty fun. But it’s probably one of the least enjoyable Agathas that I’ve read so far, and confirms my preference for Marples and Poirots. Speaking of which, I’ve just picked Nemesis off the shelf for my ‘one-word title’ square on Book Bingo…

25 thoughts on “They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie

  • August 4, 2015 at 5:13 pm
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    I have read lots of Agatha Christies before, but I haven’t heard of this one.

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    • August 4, 2015 at 10:26 pm
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      I don’t think it’s been filmed or anything, so it’s been pretty low profile.

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  • August 4, 2015 at 5:20 pm
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    I’ve read lots of Christie in my day, and while they’re far less gory or thrilling than most works you find today, they have a charm and an emphasis on figuring things out with the somewhat sinister background that makes them lovely to read.

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    • August 4, 2015 at 10:26 pm
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      I think I missed the figuring-things-out here. I like the puzzles of her detective novels; there just wasn’t enough to work out (or have revealed) here! But at least it wasn’t gory.

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  • August 4, 2015 at 7:11 pm
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    I must admit that I can’t remember anything about this one. But I *do* like Christie’s thrillers – I find once I get over the fact I haven’t got Poirot, Miss Marple or Tommy & Tuppence, I get on with them fine. And as you say, at least there’s no gore… As for “Nemesis” – that one would come in my top 10 of Christies so I look forward to your thoughts! :)

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    • August 4, 2015 at 10:25 pm
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      Oo, with that recommendation, I am excited! It’s such a late one that I wasn’t sure it would be any good. I’m also feeling a bit like I’ve read it before… so maybe I’ve watched or listened to it.

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      • August 7, 2015 at 8:10 am
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        It was one of the BBC Marples with Joan Hickson and I thought they did it brilliantly – maybe that’s where you know it from?

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    • August 4, 2015 at 10:23 pm
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      I so agree, of course, Helen. I imagine the thrillers are easier to write, but they’re much less satisfying to me.

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  • August 4, 2015 at 10:15 pm
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    I can’t actually remember if I have read this or not I feel as if I must have. I do have a slightly battered first edition minus dj of it and have been thinking of reading it soon. I don’t mind old fashioned thrillers it’s the modern ones I don’t care for.

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    • August 4, 2015 at 10:21 pm
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      This might be more up your street, Ali! And how lovely to have a nice old edition.

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  • August 5, 2015 at 3:11 am
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    I saw this book recently and was wondering if it would be worth reading. I’m so glad you reviewed it, as now I know that it can be pushed off of my “to read” list (which is lengthy; therefore only truly worthwhile reads go on it!).

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    • August 5, 2015 at 9:17 am
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      There are plenty of Agatha Christie novels I’d recommend reading before you get to this one, certainly :)

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  • August 5, 2015 at 6:02 am
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    This is one of those Christies that I’m 90% certain I’ve read but can remember absolutely nothing about it. Nada. Will blame this on both shoddy memory and inattentive reading habits as Christie-obsessed twelve year old. Doesn’t sound like it was worth remember, though, so at least I can be happy my subconscious prioritized well when it came to dropping memories.

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    • August 5, 2015 at 9:18 am
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      Ask me in a year, and I’m pretty sure I’ll have forgotten everything about this…

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  • August 5, 2015 at 7:37 am
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    have you read girl on a train?

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    • August 5, 2015 at 9:17 am
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      No, nor likely to – doesn’t sound my cup of tea.

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  • August 5, 2015 at 8:25 am
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    I have never heard of this one either and it sounds pretty much like one to avoid. Somewhat surprised you persisted with it to be honest!

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    • August 5, 2015 at 9:16 am
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      Well, Agatha at her worst is still very readable, I find.

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  • August 5, 2015 at 9:46 am
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    I am always delighted when there is a bright young female thing protagonist in a Christie novel. They are a marvel of playful sophistication. They are inventive, brusque, with an appetite for life that could fill the personalities of a hundred Christie heroes. It’s action, action, action with these women. Thoughtfulness seems to be a quality to be avoided at all cost; why think when you could be in delicious, mortal danger. I must say that I never met such a creature but I live in hope.

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    • August 6, 2015 at 6:51 pm
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      I would love a heroine like this in a whodunnit! I think she would be rather a nightmare in real life, but great fun to read about.

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  • August 6, 2015 at 10:53 am
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    It’s been years since I read this one, I might give it another go as I do enjoy her thrillers although find they are oddly lacking in much of the conventional architecture of ‘thrill’ and are more adventure stories. Her skill with the ‘whodunnit’ doesn’t really transfer with the same skill to her thrillers, which is odd.

    Nemesis is one of my favourites. After you’ve read it, watch/re-watch the BBC Miss Marple adaptation as it’s such a perfect adaptation of it and is one of my favourite things.

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    • August 6, 2015 at 6:50 pm
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      Finished Nemesis now! I loved Marple in it, she was at her finest – but the plot wasn’t *quite* up to her finest, I think. I will, however, seek out the BBC version – are we talking Joan Hickson era Marple?

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      • August 6, 2015 at 6:57 pm
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        Yes the plot is more of an existential one in many ways, a story about the power of love. It’s not one of her ingenious or high concept ones certainly but I love the task she’s given and the bus tour around England and as you say, Miss Marple is really at her finest here. It’s the nadir of Miss Marple-ness.

        I am indeed talking about the BBC adaptation as the ITV one is an abomination. LMAO! I think they change one or two things form the book, but perhaps for the better if I can say that as a Christie Purist. Joan Hickson at her absolute finest.

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  • August 6, 2015 at 11:36 pm
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    I love Nemesis mostly because of the continuity between it and A Caribbean Murder.

    I have read And They Came to Baghdad but I also don’t really love Christie’s spy novels much either. They are usually a romance with some very implausible espionage plot…people meeting with masks on, etc. Even the Poirot novels and stories that involve espionage are my least favorites.

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