My previous Christie novel was set in Jordan, and this entertaining standalone spy thriller continues the Middle Eastern pattern.
The book begins with a dedication To all my friends in Baghdad, and Christie of course had plenty of chances to visit Iraq while accompanying her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan, who she actually met while visiting the ruins of the ancient city of Ur. This first-hand knowledge of the city and the inner workings of an excavation site really comes through in the lively descriptions, capturing a time and place that has since changed forever.
So who is “they” that came to Baghdad, and why? A large cast of seemingly unconnected characters, as it turns out. Chief among them is our plucky heroine, Victoria Jones, an exuberant young woman with a soul of an incurable romantic, vivid imagination and an uncanny ability to lie on the spot with flair and conviction (pathological liar would be the less kind description). Fired from her job as a typist, Victoria is enjoying her modest lunch in a London park when she’s approached by a handsome young man named Edward. It’s love at first sight… except that Edward must leave for Baghdad the next day. What’s a girl to do? Lie her way into a companion role and follow the man of her dreams to Baghdad of course.
Meanwhile, an international intrigue is brewing, involving several plot lines and an assortment of characters converging upon Baghdad, which has been chosen as a location for a secret summit of superpowers. It seems that there’s a growing concern about – wait for it – a sinister undercover group plotting to impose a new order over the ashes of the old world. This is probably the third Christie spy novel featuring a secret organisation led by an evil mastermind out to destroy the society, and it’s getting too repetitive to feel any urgency about.
Anyway, a key figure in all of this is a British agent named Carmichael who is desperate to present the proof of this dastardly plot, if he can make it safely into Baghdad. Other characters of note include Anna Scheele, a brilliant young woman moving in the stratosphere of international banking, a flamboyant explorer, a local British agent in Baghdad, and a couple of archaeologists including the eccentric Dr Pauncefoot Jones (no relation to Victoria).
Christie’s espionage novels are a mixed bag and I feel that this one sits somewhere in the upper middle perhaps. While the central conspiracy is nothing to write home about and the spy stuff is only mildly diverting, as Victoria’s Madcap Baghdad Adventure the book is a fun and suspenseful ride. At times Victoria comes off as an impulsive airhead, but she’s a charming and engaging heroine to follow and it’s hard not to be won over by her resilience, cheerful spirit and undying optimism. And, as mentioned already, Christie seems to have put a bit of her “second career” as an assistant on the digs into this book, which gives it a rather lovely indirect personal touch.