The Tuesday Night Club has chosen Foreign Mysteries as this month’s theme – as usual, in any way the blogger 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…
Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
A phony platinum blonde with no facepowder and no lipstick! Could any girl be more unfortunately placed?
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.