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Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition

They Came to Baghdad is an adventure novel by Agatha Christie, first published in the United Kingdom by the Collins Crime Club on 5 March 1951 and in the United States by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year. The UK edition retailed at eight shillings and sixpence (8/6) and the US edition at $2.50.

The book was inspired by Christie's own trips to Baghdad with her second husband, archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, and is also one of few Christie novels belonging to the action and spy fiction genres, rather than to mysteries and whodunnits.

Synopsis

A secret summit of superpowers is to be held in Baghdad in Iraq, but it is no longer secret. A shadowy group (which is both anti-Communist and anti-Capitalist) is plotting to sabotage the event. Things get complicated when enthusiastic young "adventurer" Victoria Jones discovers a dying secret British agent - Henry "Fakir" Carmichael - in her hotel room. His last words - "Lucifer...Basrah...Lefarge" - propel her into investigation. "Lucifer" refers to the mastermind, Victoria's false lover Edward, who is behind the plot. "Basrah" is the city where Carmichael saw Edward and recognized him as an enemy. "Lefarge" turns out to actually be "Defarge" and is a reference to a Charles Dickens character; it is an allusion to the fact that the name of a vital witness has been stitched into a scarf.

Plot summary

(may contain spoilers - click on expand to read)

A secret summit is to be held in Baghdad involving the US President and "Uncle Joe" (Stalin). At stake is world peace. But two British intelligence officials in Baghdad Dakin and Crosbie get wind of a secret group planning to sow discord and derail the event. They await the proof from one of their key agents.

Meanwhile various individuals make their way to Baghdad for different reasons. Victoria Jones has just lost her job. She meets one "Edward" in a park who tells her he is going to Baghdad as he works with "The Olive Branch", a literary organisation aiming to promote world peace through discussions of classical literature. Victoria falls in love with him and impulsively decides to get to Baghdad herself. Fortuitously, with the help of fake references from people such as "The Bishop of Llangow", Victoria lands a job with Mrs Clipp, an American who is also going there and needs a companion because she has just broken her arm. Anna Scheele, secretary of a powerful banker takes leave and goes to London. She is shadowed by intelligence agents with a mission of preventing her from getting to Baghdad but in a clever game of surveillance and counter-surveillance, she loses them and disappears. The British agent Henry Carmichael is also heading to Baghdad with the proof that his bosses need. All the "friends" and facilities that are supposed to help him seem to be betrayed and he has several narrow escapes from death before arriving at Basra.

A young British archaeologist Richard Baker, enroute to join a dig, arrives at the British consulate in Basra. Carmichael, disguised as an arab, also enters and recognises his old schoolmate Baker in the waiting room. He taps a warning message in morse to him with some prayer beads, using nicknames which they, as old Etonians, recognise. A stout Englishman also in the waiting room draws a revolver at Carmichael but Baker, alerted, strikes out and spoils his aim. The shot misses and Carmichael flees. Later Baker finds a scrap of paper in his pocket. It's a simple chit by an employer recommending an arab driver. From Carmichael! Must be important! Baker makes a fake replica and hides the real one. In the evening, Baker discovers that the fake replica which he placed in his coat pocket has gone!

Meanwhile, after a stopover in Cairo, Victoria and Mrs Clipp arrive at the Tio Hotel in Baghdad. Along with them is Sir Crofton Lee, a famous English explorer. He also checks into the hotel. The next day Mrs Clipp departs for Kirkuk. Victoria's contract is now ended and with little money left, she must find a job! Perhaps Edward at the Olive Branch can get her one. Marcus Tio, the ebullient owner of the Tio Hotel talks a lot but mostly about himself and can't give directions without getting distracted onto other topics. Nonetheless, Victoria finds her way to the Olive Branch. Unfortunately Edward has gone to Basra. Mr Rathbone, the director and Edward's boss seems more interested in getting her to join their discussion groups or work as a volunteer rather than as a paid worker. So it is back to the hotel.

That night, someone flings Victoria's room door open and barges in asking her to help hide him. It's Carmichael! He has been stabbed and he dies shortly thereafter, only managing to say a few words: "Lucifer ... Basra ... Lefarge." Dakin (whom Victoria knows as an oil company worker) is on the same floor. He comes in and offers to help. With Marcus, they get rid of the body. Dakin then takes her into his confidence and asks her to work for him--she would be "on the side of law and order". He tells her that Carmichael was bringing proof that a mysterious organisation was trying to forment war by sowing discord between the Western governments and the Soviet Union. It was extremely well funded and had agents all over the world. Few people believed Carmichael and his proof was vitally needed. Since Victoria had become involved, she might as well carry on. As Carmichael mentioned Basra, she might go there and listened out for mention of "Lefarge" and also of "Anna Scheele". The latter, Dakin says, is an ally who is supposed to come to Baghdad but they don't know much about her.

Victoria travels to Basra and meets Edward there. She decides to take him into her confidence (Dakin never said she could not). He does not know any Lefarge but gives a start when Anna Scheele is mentioned. He says he once heard Catherine at the Olive Branch saying that Anna was coming out and she would be their boss. Edward decides to get Victoria a job as a typist in the Olive Branch so that she can learn more. The job at the Olive Branch is uncomfortable--Catherine seems to treat Victoria with suspicion, and Victoria doesn't like her because she is said to get on well with Edward. More surprising still, one day Dr Rathbone calls Victoria to his office and gives her a gentle warning not to get involved in things she does not understand. He suggests she go look for another job.

On an excusion to Babylon with Edward, Victoria has an epiphany. Something about Carmichael's death had been nagging her all along. Dakin had said that Carmichael was ever alert and had evaded death several times. What had led him to drop his guard so near to the end of his journey? Now Victoria recalls that Sir Crofton Lee had a boil on the back of his neck--she saw this when he sat in front of her on the plane out. But the Sir Crofton Lee at the hotel did not have a boil! He must be an impostor. And Carmichael had been on his way to see him and would have regarded him as an ally. He would have dropped his guard. So the imposter must be the killer! But Victoria doesn't get a chance to tell Dakin. Back from the excusion, she goes to have a shampoo and is chloroformed and kidnapped.



Characters

London

New York

They came to Baghdad

Tio Hotel Baghdad

The Olive Branch

The Iraqi Iranian Oil Company

British embassy in Baghdad

Basrah

Tell Aswad

Kerbela

Others

Book dedication

See also Agatha Christie's Book Dedications

To all my friends in Baghdad

Themes

An interesting comparison can be made between the romance themes of this novel and The Man in the Brown Suit, which is also primarily an adventure novel, rather than a straight whodunnit. In that book, the exciting, mysterious young man that falls into the heroine's room ends up as the romantic hero. In Baghdad, an exciting, mysterious young man also falls into the heroine's room, but he is disposed of, as is the other exciting, mysterious young man that the heroine has followed to Baghdad. A more conventional and staid archaeologist ends up as the romantic hero; Christie herself was married to Mallowan by this date.

References to actual history, geography and current science

  • They Came To Baghdad is one of the few Agatha Christie novels where one of the minor characters is a real person. When Victoria first comes to Baghdad, she visits the Tio Hotel, where she meets a bartender named Jesus. Jesus was an actual and well known bartender at the Zia Hotel. For details see article Jesus the bartender.
  • The 1948 assassination of the Swedish diplomat Folke Bernadotte in Jerusalem is referenced, but not the Korean War (June 1950). The publisher Collins received the manuscript in July or August 1950, implying that Christie had been planning and writing this in 1948-1949, before the Korean War.[1]
  • But the statement "They got the Shah of Persia last year, didn't they?" is inaccurate as there is no event in the plausible timeline this could refer to.

Research notes

  • As noted above, the mention of Bernadotte and the absence of the Korean War suggests a setting of 1948-1949 for the events in the story.
  • Although some reviews and commentaries mention that a tripartite summit is being planned in Baghdad, involving the U.S. President, Stalin and the U.K. prime minister, it is unlikely that the U.K. prime minister is involved. For one thing, he is only mentioned in the text once in the context of domestic news. For another, if he were involved, the Foreign Office would have ensured that the ambassador would have arrived well beforehand, and the embassy would not have been so short-handed, leaving everything to the junior Lionel Shrivenham.
  • The local descriptions e.g. of the Copper bazaar in Baghdad and life at an archaeological dig are remarkable in their detail and it's possible that Christie was just "having a bit of fun" in talking about some of her fond memories. The remark by Mrs Clayton that archaeologists make splendid husbands might well be Christie herself speaking through her.
  • What Victoria Jones did at the dig at Tell Aswad e.g. photograpy and hosting visitors is very similar to what Christie herself did at Nimrud.[2]
  • The geographical details and directions in Baghdad are remarkably accurate.

Literary significance and reception

Julian MacLaren-Ross enthusiastically reviewed the novel in the 20 April 1951 issue of The Times Literary Supplement when he said it was: "more of a thriller than a detective story, though there are plenty of mysteries and two surprises reserved for the closing chapters; one of these is perhaps her best since the unmasking of the criminal in The Seven Dials Mystery". He went on to comment on that, "the easy expertise of the writing is once more a matter for admiration" and concluded that Christie's powers of invention "never fail her".

Maurice Richardson of The Observer (4 March 1951) wrote: "A bit light and frilly, in parts almost giggly, as Agatha Christie's thrillers are apt to be, but it has the usual creamy readability and a deeply planted fiend."

Robert Barnard: "Fairly preposterous example of thriller-type Christie, but livelier than some. Engaging heroine and unusually good minor characters – archeologists, hotelkeeper, etc. The plot concerns attempts to prevent The Big Three (Britain was one of them then) from coming together and making peace. Though the villains are not left-wing, they sound like her left-wing idealists of the 'thirties (wanting, as usual, to create a 'New Heaven and Earth' – highly dangerous!)"

Publication history

  • 1951, Collins Crime Club (London), 5 March 1951, hardback, 256 pp
  • 1951, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1951, hardback, 218 pp
  • 1952, Pocket Books (New York), paperback (Pocket number 897), 215 pp
  • 1957, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), paperback, 192 pp
  • 1965, Dell Books, paperback, 221 pp
  • 1965, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, hardcover, 256 pp
  • 1969, Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), hardcover, 287 pp ISBN 0-00-231814-8
  • 1970, Greenway edition of collected works (Dodd Mead), hardcover, 287 pp
  • 1974, Pan Books, paperback, 221 pp
  • 1978, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, hardcover, 410 pp ISBN 0-7089-0189-1

In the UK the novel was first serialised in the weekly magazine John Bull in eight abridged instalments from 13 January (Volume 89, Number 2324) to 3 March 1951 (Volume 89, Number 2331) with illustrations by "Showell". 

An abridged version of the novel was published in the 1 September 1951 issue of the Star Weekly Complete Novel, a Toronto newspaper supplement, with an uncredited cover illustration.

International titles

  • Czech: Sešli se v Bagdádu (They Met in Baghdad)
  • French: Rendez-vous à Bagdad (Appointment in Baghdad)
  • German: Sie kamen nach Bagdad (They Came to Baghdad)
  • Hungarian: Eljöttek Bagdadba (They Came to Baghdad)
  • Dutch: Rally naar Bagdad (Rally to Baghdad)
  • Portuguese: Encontro em Bagdad (A Meeting in Baghdad), Intriga em Bagdad (Intrigue in Baghdad)
  • Turkish: Bağdat'a geldiler (They came to Baghdad)
  • Swedish: En flicka kom till Bagdad (A girl came to Baghdad)

References

  1. John Curran, Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making (London: HarperCollins, 2011), 405.
  2. D. J. W., "Dame Agatha Christie Mallowan D.B.E., HON.D.LITT., F.R.S.L." (obituary), Iraq, 38(1), I-I. URL
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