Having 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…