Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Crime goes to Baghdad

 
The Tuesday Night Club has chosen Foreign Mysteries as this month’s theme – as usual, in any way the bloggerLogo likes to interpret it.
Bev at My Reader’s Block has produced another great logo for us, and she is also collecting the links this month.

Anyone is welcome to join in, either as a one-off or on a regular basis. Just contact one of us.


Last week I looked at Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death, set in what was then called the Near East – the murder takes place at Petra in Jordan. There were some great comments from Christie fans who had a soft spot for the book, and a lot of love also for Murder in Mesopotamia. I had already decided I had an interest in re-reading They Came to Baghdad. And I had found at the Library of Congress a most wonderful source of photographs of the region – the Matson collection. So, pretty much, this week’s entry was settled…

 
Baghdad 2
 

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie



published 1936



An old favourite. I said in the comments last week that there is a basic huge problem with the plot of Murder in Mesopotamia, something most unlikely you have to swallow with the solution, but I love everything else, particularly the details of life on the dig, and I think I could draw the house plan from memory.

Like John at Pretty Sinister Books,  I read the book as a teenager and it opened up a whole new world to me – I loved the foreignness, and the idea of living and working on a dig. It seemed so exotic to me as a very untravelled young person.

 
Baghdad 5


Later on I found out that the character of Louise Leidner is based on Katharine, wife of the archaeologist Leonard Woolley. The Woolleys introduced Christie to her second husband Max Mallowan, who worked on excavations with them. Christie frequently accompanied him after that, so she knew whereof she wrote – both about the digs and about the boss’s wife. Mrs Woolley’s reaction to the portrayal does not seem to be recorded. Christie had dedicated her The Thirteen Problems to both Woolleys a couple of years earlier.


Baghdad 4 inscriptions


We find out what books Louise Leidner has on her bookshelves. A couple of years ago I featured a rather obscure novel on the blog, Rose Macaulay’s Crewe Train. I was very impressed when my good friend Margot Kinberg of the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog pointed out to me it was one of those books on Leidner’s bookshelf: a solid gold piece of trivia. Hercule Poirot concludes that the list shows that the owner is 'not a fool... she had a mind.' He tells us that each book reflects some aspect of the victim (though it won't solve the crime for you), Crewe Train because of its picture of an independent individualist.

The book stands up well to a re-read – even if you are unlikely to have forgotten the solution – and the narrator Nurse Amy Leatheran is still a fine creation.
 


They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie



published 1951


 
Baghdad 3 Copper Bazaar


This is a throwback to the more thriller-esque of Christie’s books from between the wars, the flapper adventures, with young Victoria Jones off on a madcap trip to Baghdad in pursuit of a man. But she’s much more like Anne Bedingfield (from Man in the Brown Suit) than my bete noire Tuppence and I enjoyed the book very much. It has the usual ludicrous plot and coincidences – it would be a brave reader who tried to make too much sense of what is going on – but Victoria is brave and resourceful and funny, and her adventures are weird enough to stay interesting. At one point she has her hair forcibly dyed, and is put out because:

A phony platinum blonde with no facepowder and no lipstick! Could any girl be more unfortunately placed?
She enjoys Baghdad, and then goes off into other parts of Iraq, all beautifully described – I particularly enjoyed the men with the travelling cinema setup. Of course, she visits an archaeological dig. Amid the general kerfuffle, there is one genuinely clever trap for the unwary reader.


Baghdad 6


And, after reading Christie’s descriptions of the area, and then reading the current news from Iraq and Syria, this passage near the end struck me. Victoria thinks of an everyday bowl from thousands of years ago that she saw at the dig:
Those were the things that mattered – the little everyday things, the family to be cooked for, the four walls that enclosed the home, the one or two cherished possessions. All the thousands of ordinary people on the earth, minding their own business, and tilling the earth, and making pots and bringing up families and laughing and crying, and getting up in the morning and going to bed at night. They were the people who mattered…
It may be simplistic, but as true now as it was in 1951.

As last week, I could have use dozens of the pictures from the Matson collection: these are just a few, of archaeologists, digs and cities.

Archaeologist from the Matson Collection
Archaeologists and pillars at Basra.
Archaeologist showing inscriptions.
Copper bazaar in Baghdad, mentioned in both books, from same collection.
Baghdad street scene.



























14 comments:

  1. "They came to Baghdad" was the first Christie I ever read, and although it hasn't remained a favourite, I still have a soft spot for it. I love the Christies set in the Near East, she obviously had a real fondness for the area. Have you read her archaeological book - "Come tell me how you live"? It's fascinating.

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    1. I loved Come Tell Me How You Live - very funny and informative. I think she puts more into describing the Near East settings that any of her other places...

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  2. I actually can't remember the solution to Murder in Mesopotamia (I seem to have a talent for forgetting a lot of solutions, makes re-reading a lot of fun, although obviously there are ones where one NEVER forgets who did it...) although I do remember HOW the murder is done (so simple, yet makes so much sense...)

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    1. Interesting - I would definitely put MiM into my 'Never forget' category. But forgettability certainly makes for better re-reading.

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  3. I've always loved the physical setting of Murder in Mesopotamia, Moira. Christie did such a great job of evoking what a dig scene is like, what the surrounding area is like, and so on. And I do like the way the tension is built in that novel. I admit to being less fond of They Came to Baghdad, but still, it shows Christie's ability to evoke that place.

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    1. You can really believe in the details of the dig: she could easily have written a literary novel about the relationships there. I think I like They Came to Baghdad more than most people!

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  4. Oh gosh, Daniel, and I thought it was just me! I very rarely remember the murderer, but the method virtually always.

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    1. AS Brad says below, I think you might find you did remember the MiM murderer if you did re-read. But yes, methods can be easier than people. Particularly if there were a number of similar suspects...

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  5. I have to say, Moira, that I've got this strong image of you and me sitting in a teashop, facing each other at the table as we type away on our respective laptops. "What are you writing about this week?" I ask you. "None of your business," you reply. "And you?" "You'll find out!" I say. And voila!

    Daniel, I have a feeling that if you were to re-read Mesopotamia, you would glom onto the killer right away, as the method tends to reduce the field of suspicion drastically!

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    1. I think I do remember who did it, but not with great certainty. I do remember the method was one of the most effective solutions to a locked-room mystery, with its almost audacious simplicity.

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    2. That's exactly how I like my impossible crime solutions to play out! If a reader needs to understand elementary physics or calculus, I'm lost, and when I'm lost in a book, I cease caring. Christie may not have been a master of the impossible crime like Carr, but her solutions in such cases always satisfied me. (See Hercule Poirot's Christmas!)

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    3. Brad, we mustn't give our conspiracy methods away to everyone else. I do think it's a good thing we have a couple of Christies we have varying views on, or people would start to say 'Has anyone ever seen them in the same room?'
      Yes the murder method is simple and clever - and I suspect Brad is right that the perpetrator might come back to you..

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  6. I haven't read either one of these yet, so looking forward to trying them eventually no matter what the flaws.

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    1. I'm sure you will enjoy them: they are vivid and readable.

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