I have about 10 books left to read of Dame Agatha’s canon of fictional work, and I must admit that this was one of the ones I was not looking forward to.
Knowing from previous experience that Christie did not excel totally sucked at writing international espionage thrillers, and still suffering from some sort of PTSD following my reads of Passenger to Frankfurt, Destination Unknown, Postern of Fate, … I expected that this book could only be approached with the help of:
1. A Support System
So, imagine my surprise when the book turned out to be a romp with a fabulously delightful young female lead character – Victoria Jones – who stands up for herself and, as is unfortunately rather unusual in a Christie novel, does not completely loose her mind to a sapless idiot of romantic interest…well, … it’s a long story…just read the book.
I loved the setting of the story in Baghdad, even tho it is littered with the ex-pat cliches of its time. I loved the inclusion of the archaeologists…especially Dr. Pauncefoot-Jones (whom I simply had to call Dr. Jones in my head all the way through…even if he did not resemble our fedora-wearing favourite at all), and I even did not mind the ridiculous conspiracy plot.
Now, you may ask why I didn’t mind the ridiculousness here in They Came to Baghdad when I have so often on this journey through Dame Agatha’s canon complained about the sheer idiocy of similar plots?
I honestly have to say that it is because They Came to Baghdad opened my eyes even more to the overrated status of Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, which to date I had considered the epitome of ridiculous espionage thrillers.
The fact is that I recognised a lot of the really cool elements from the Bond series (of which there are very few elements in the entire series, imo) in this very book, written by Christie, years before Fleming even published his first spy thriller – Casino Royale.
The “similarity” that stood out most for me was a scene where a character checks her/his hotel room to see if anyone has been snooping while they were away. It is one of the most memorable scenes in Casino Royale and was also one of the scenes that made it into the movie franchise (in Dr. No, I believe…one of the Connery ones anyway).
So, it came as a shock to me to see the exact same scene written by Agatha Christie in used in They Came to Baghdad, which was published 2 years before Fleming’s first Bond novel. 2 years before!!!
There were other elements, too. For example, Christie dreams up a conspiracy in this book that resembles an organisation that features in the later Bond novels (“SPECTRE” anyone?).
I mean, I know that Fleming basically copied the entire plot of Casino Royale from Phyllis Bottome’s book The Lifeline, and I had great fun in researching this claim earlier this year and compiling a comparison of both books after seeing for myself how much Fleming “borrowed” from Bottome.
What I had not expected, tho, is that there are other elements of the iconic classic that is the Bond myth, that may have not originated as such with Fleming, but that may have existed prior to Fleming’s canon.
Least of all, I expected to find these elements in Christie’s work! I love her mysteries. I love her writing even tho her sometimes antiquated views drive me nuts.
And now I have to yet again salute Dame Agatha for the very thing I had not thought her capable of – I have to salute her for being able to create an international espionage romp that has all the hallmarks of a Bond novel, mocks the entire essence of the Bond novel, and simultaneously improves upon – and all of that before the blasted Bond novel even became a thing!
But never mind my weird obsession with Bond and Fleming’s plagiarism thievery. They Came to Baghdad does not need the comparison to work as book. Christie dreamt up a hilarious adventure and it is obvious that she had great fun writing the story.
Nearly every chapter starts with a tongue-in-cheek comment, and the characters themselves – including a celebrity sporting a cloak and a large, unusual hat – are so much fun to watch.
Some of Christie’s comments and descriptions are dated, of course, but They Came to Baghdad seems positively enlightened when compared with that other, slightly more famous, series of spy adventures that was to be created two years later.
Previous reading updates *** SPOILERS AHEAD – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED – SPOILERS AHEAD***:
Reading progress update: I’ve read 5%.
‘But then,’ added Mr Morganthal heavily, ‘all the world is mad.’
I’ve not made a lot of progress last night, but what I can say from reading the first chapter is that I liked it. It has a different feel to it than Dame Agatha’s other “thrillers”, almost as if it isn’t taking itself too seriously.
I hope this is a sign of things to come.
Reading progress update: I’ve read 7%.
‘So there you are,’ he observed. ‘I’ve had about enough of you, young lady. Do you see any particular reason why I shouldn’t pay you a week’s salary in lieu of notice and pack you off here and now?’ Victoria (an orphan) had just opened her mouth to explain how the plight of a mother at this moment suffering a major operation had so demoralized her that she had become completely light-headed, and how her small salary was all the aforesaid mother had to depend upon, when, taking an opening glance at Mr Greenholtz’s unwholesome face, she shut her mouth and changed her mind. ‘I couldn’t agree with you more,’ she said heartily and pleasantly.
‘I think you’re absolutely right, if you know what I mean.’
Mr Greenholtz appeared slightly taken aback. He was not used to having his dismissals treated in this approving and congratulatory spirit. To conceal a slight discomfiture he sorted through a pile of coins on the desk in front of him. He then sought once more in his pockets. ‘Ninepence short,’ he murmured gloomily.
‘Never mind,’ said Victoria kindly. ‘Take yourself to the pictures or spend it on sweets.’
Haha. I think I’m really going to like Miss Jones. 😀
Reading progress update: I’ve read 11%.
OMG.OMG.OMG… This scene!
After lunch Anna Scheele took her key and went up to her suite. The bed had been made, fresh towels were in the bathroom and everything was spick and span. Anna crossed to the two light air-cases that constituted her luggage, one was open, the other locked. She cast an eye over the contents of the unlocked one, then taking her keys from her purse she unlocked the other. All was neat, folded, as she had folded things, nothing had apparently been touched or disturbed. A brief-case of leather lay on top. A small Leica camera and two rolls of films were in one corner. The films were still sealed and unopened. Anna ran her nail across the flap and pulled it up. Then she smiled, very gently. The single almost invisible blonde hair that had been there was there no longer.
This scene, guys, is almost exactly the same in Casino Royale!!
You guys, Casino Royale was published 2 years after They Came to Baghdad!!!
Reading progress update: I’ve read 24%.
With a swirl of his voluminous cloak, Sir Rupert passed out through the door leading to the aerodrome. The door swung to behind him with vehemence.
A cloak?? LoL. Christie is really having fun here, isn’t she?
Also, it makes me wonder who Sir Rupert is based on. 😀
Reading progress update: I’ve read 38%.
‘I’ve had A Midsummer Night’s Dream translated into forty different languages,’ said Dr Rathbone. ‘Forty different sets of young people all reacting to the same wonderful piece of literature. Young people—that’s the secret. I’ve no use for anybody but the young. Once the mind and spirit are muscle-bound, it’s too late. No, it’s the young who must get together.
Please, please, please, book, don’t turn into Passenger to Frankfurt!
The mention of an organisation trying to influence the young just gave me flashbacks to that one – one of the worst books ever written.
I’m kinda scared now. I still can’t get over that Christie may have written a spy thriller that hasn’t turned bat-shit crazy, yet.
Reading progress update: I’ve read 46%.
Certain things led one or two people to believe that this activity comes from a third party or group working under cover and so far absolutely unsuspected by the world at large. Whenever there is a chance of agreement being reached or any sign of dispersal of suspicion, some incident occurs to plunge one side back in distrust, or the other side into definite hysterical fear. These things are not accidents, Victoria, they are deliberately produced for a calculated effect.’
‘But why do you think so and who’s doing it?’
‘One of the reasons we think so is because of money. The money, you see, is coming from the wrong sources. Money, Victoria, is always the great clue to what is happening in the world.
Agatha Christie even invented…SPECTRE!!!!
Reading progress update: I’ve read 74%.
Luckily, thought Victoria, men were always so superior about women that any slip she did make would be treated less as a suspicious circumstance than as a proof of how ridiculously addle-pated all women were!
The second half is dragging a bit, but it’s still far more entertaining than I originally feared.
But this question did come up for me, was Christie making fun of Anthropologists as a whole when she made Victoria succeed in passing as one?
Reading progress update: I’ve read 86%.
Oh, for crying out loud, it is time for the gin. The love story has gone the way of The Man In the Brown Suit and the plot just seemed to have jumped off a cliff. Gaaaaahhh……
Reading progress update: I’ve read 88%.
Never mind. It appears, someone is way more reasonable that it appeared at first.
Tho, this is Christie. She might still provide a totally bonkers ending to this.
Reading progress update: I’ve read 93%.
‘That you’d formed an attachment. That’s the worst of having women on a Dig—especially good-looking ones. I really did think we were safe with Sybil Muirfield the year before last, a really distressingly plain girl—and see what came of it! I ought to have listened to Claude in London—these Frenchmen always hit the nail on the head. He commented on her legs at the time—most enthusiastic about them. Of course this girl, Victoria, Venetia, whatever her name is—most attractive and such a nice little thing.
Hahaha. Ok. I think we’re back to form now.
Reading progress update: I’ve read 100%.
Hang on. Wait a minute… Did I really just read a Christie story telling about this? WMDs buried in Iraq?!?!
Doctor Alan Breck of the Harwell Atomic Institute contributed his quota of information in a small precise voice. Certain specimens had been left with him for analysis by the late Sir Rupert Crofton Lee. They had been acquired in the course of one of Sir Rupert’s journeys through China and Turkestan through Kurdistan to Iraq. Dr Breck’s evidence then became severely technical. Metallic ores … high uranium content … Source of deposit not known exactly, since Sir Rupert’s notes and diaries had been destroyed during the war by enemy action. Then Mr Dakin took up the tale. In a gentle tired voice he told the saga of Henry Carmichael, of his belief in certain rumours and wild tales of vast installations and underground laboratories functioning in a remote valley beyond the bounds of civilization. Of his search—and of the success of his search.