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Agatha Christie

Two books by Agatha Christie to review today. One is fictional, They Came to Baghdad, the other non-fiction, Come, Tell Me How You Live. Both are set in the Middle-East, Iraq and Syria specifically, war-torn areas today, and not without problems back then of course. That fact made for an interesting read in the case of both books.

First up, They Came to Baghdad. This is my book 18 for Bev's Vintage Mystery Bingo challenge and covers the category, 'A book outside your comfort zone'. I had trouble thinking of a book for this category because there was nothing I could think of that was actually outside my comfort zone. I eventually chose this because I'm not that mad about espionage or spy type books and this that kind of book.


Victoria Jones gets the sack from her job as typist in London. She's not a very good typist so is not very surprised when it happens, although she was sacked for another misdemeanor. Sitting in the park wondering what to do next she meets a young man, Edward, and falls immediately in love. But he's off to Baghdad in Iraq to start a new job so it can come to nothing. But must it? On a whim Victoria gets a job as a companion to an American woman who's travelling to Baghdad. Once there she's on her own and sets about trying to find Edward. He proves elusive but she manages to fall into an adventure of her own when a man dies in her hotel bedroom. Victoria gets embroiled in some serious international espionage, working to find out what secret the man was carrying and what he might have done with it. One thing is for sure... it's unlikely Victoria will ever again be satisfied with a job as a typist.

I honestly didn't expect to like this as much as I did. As I said, spy yarns are not my thing. I find them confusing with their sometimes hard to follow plots and double agent doings and so forth. Not for me. But Victoria is a very engaging heroine... rather flawed in that she likes to lie her way out of situations rather than tell the truth. She is however brave and steadfast, seemingly undeterred by the set-backs that life throws at her. There's a lot of humour in this story - I was surprised by that but am not sure why. It's all a bit mad-cap to be honest as Victoria gets herself mixed up in some quite dangerous goings-on but always managing to extricate herself one way or another. I was genuinely surprised by the outcome of the 'mission'. I should have guessed but didn't. I thought that was nicely done. An enjoyable romp through 1950s Iraq and a thoroughly engaging book.

Next, Come, Tell Me How You Live. This is my book 30 for Bev's Mount TBR challenge and my book 10 for the My Kind of Mystery challenge, which is being hosted by Riedel Fascinaton, as it's a non-fiction written by a crime writer.

Tell me

In 1930 Agatha Christie, already a successful crime writer, met and married Max Mallowan, an archaeologist. This was after her divorce from her first husband, Archie Christie. In the mid-1930s the couple set off for Syria, the first of a series of digs Agatha accompanied her husband on. In her foreward she stresses that Come, Tell Me How You Live is not an academic book. It's not about the nuts and bolts of archaeological digs, it's about day to day living, the trials and tribulations of living away from civilisation with only men for company. She calls it, '... small beer - a very little book, full of everyday doings and happenings'.

And I suppose that's exactly what the book is, but it didn't feel small or inconsequential while I was reading. Agatha describes in minute detail how it was to be at a dig in the 1930s. This was before archaeological digging became a science full of precise techniques. Back then anyone could go wherever they liked and dig up what they fancied. And I suppose a lot of valuable artifacts and knowledge was lost but it did sound like Max Mallowan's digs were very carefully undertaken.

I loved hearing about the various local natives that assisted the couple, especially the house servants and the mischief they got up to. Misunderstandings were rife of course as Agatha spoke no Arabic or any of the other tongues because as well as Arabs there were also Turks, Kurds, Armenians and Yezidis. The other thing is that it was all very primitive, but Agatha was made of stern stuff - she was only really bothered when one house they slept in was over-run by mice and cockroaches in the night and they crawled all over her face. She drew the line at that and had what she called 'hysterics'. Who can blame her...

One sad thing that struck me was how little has changed in the area of Syria and northern Iraq. She says:

'We come to the question of religions generally - a very vexed question in this part of the world, for Syria is full of fiercely fanatical sects of all kinds, all willing to cut each other's throats for the good cause!'

That shook me rather. It was written in the 1930s and, over eighty years later, nothing has changed. I actually found it very strange to be reading about various towns that are now centre-stage in world affairs, which were then so remote and peaceful. Tragic.

On a more cheerful note it was interesting to compare the two books in this post, one fictional, the other non-fiction, but both set generally in the same area. In They Came to Baghdad Christie talks of one of the archaeologists travelling to Iraq with a suitcase full of books and his clothes shoved in around them. Which, in Come, Tell Me How You Live, is exactly what her husband, Max, did. Victoria in They Came to Baghdad spends a few weeks helping at an excavation and clearly Christie used her love of this life she led to help her with this section and embue Victoria with the same enjoyment and sense of inner peace it brought her.

This is a gorgeous little book. It's written with gentle humour and a great deal of love... for the natives and for the beauty of Syria. I would call it a gem quite frankly. I'm going to read the other crime novels she set in this region, Murder in Mesopotamia is one I think, and Appointment with Death, both Poirot novels. I'm also going to read Agatha Christie's autobiography at some stage and am now really looking forward to finding out a lot more about this extraordinary woman.


Yet again your books sound brill - my immediate reaction is I must track those down! It is sad to think that not much seems to change in some parts of the world (including our own). Such a different life people have, who aren't us, all safe in our houses with our books and all...
I think you would really enjoy Come, Tell Me How You Live. AC's 'voice' is just delightful and so funny all the way through.

Sad, depressing, horrendous. Especially looking at world events right now. Do we never learn? I can hardly bear to watch The News atm.
It's been a long time since I read They Came to Baghdad you've made me want to re-read it.
It was *huge* fun and quite different to what I've come to expect from AC after all the Poirots and Miss Marple eps I've seen.
Come, Tell Me How You Live

I really like Agatha Christie and never thought to try this book but you've made it sound very readable so I shall look out for it in my library. Thank you!
It was immensely readable, I was really surprised at it, tbh. And so gently funny all the way through.
Thanks so much for this review. I have read a lot of Agatha Christie, and I re-read They Came To Baghdad very recently. So your reactions to that help me gauge whether I would like Come, Tell Me How You Live. And I must definitely find it!

Murder in Mesopotamia and Appointment With Death are probably excellent follow-ons from They Came To Baghdad, as they are indeed both set in the general area. There is also a historical ancient Egypt one, the title of which I have forgotten (I wasn't that keen on it). I wish I'd known you were looking for these: I had nearly a complete set of Agatha Christies (all the novels, all the short stories, most of the dramas and her autobiography) a while ago - and they went to the local charity shop. Ah well.

(I like Tommy and Tuppence, and Miss Marple, much better than Poirot!)
Oh, how odd that you reread TCtB recently. Yes, try to find CTMHYL... it is *huge* fun. I thought I might be getting rid of mine once I'd read it but won't as it's so good. Happy to lend it to you at some stage!

OK, well I shall get to those two asap. Fascinating to see how she uses little bits from her real experiences! Not to worry, I have a few of her books on my Nook and the library has others.

I really haven't read much AC (seen all of the various TV dramas) so have not read any T&T or Miss Marple. One or two Poirots which I quite enjoyed.
Ah, she is lovely. All her village parallels. You have to be okay with the unconscious approval of the society she remembers though - I was just talking to a friend who cannot get past the attitudes of the times which underlie all the books.

The BBC did some excellent, excellent Miss Marple dramatisations in the 1980s with Joan Hickman. She really got Miss Marple down pat. All the other Miss Marples on TV are - well - rubbish, im(ns)ho!
The attitudes of the times can grate a little but that's what they are... 'attitudes of times past'. I think they serve to tell us how far we've come, even though that might not, as yet, be far enough.

Yes, Joan Hickman was my definitive Miss Marple too. I can just about tolerate Julia McKenzie but the other one - name forgotten but I called her Flirty Gerty - was appalling.
This is exactly my feeling about it too. And I learned so much from reading them, products of their time, in a different time. The way that men are described as 'hatless' taught me that there was a time when hats were utterly the norm and you wouldn't leave the house without one. Or there was the expectation of the post arriving later the same day in the Holmes books! And the attitudes to divorce in 'Towards Zero', a non-Poirot, non-Marple Christie book, with the chaos surrounding both 'the first Mrs Strange' and 'the second Mrs Strange' in the same social circle, and how it was appropriate to behave. The nasty little comments about 'Hebrews' in the Father Brown books.

All this was my argument to my friend. Who could see it, but wasn't going to read the books!
Oh yes 'hats'. They were just becoming 'not automatically required' when I was very young. My uncle still wore one in the winter in the early 60s ( I was around 10) and I remember thinking it unusual.

I don't remember comments about Hebrews in the Father Brown stories (aren't they wonderful?) so time for a reread I think. I've been reading a lot from the 20s and 30s all year and in something I read recently one character said something along the lines of, 'Well if she would marry a darkie what could she expect?' I almost shot off the chair with shock. Trying to remember which book it was, I think it was Watson's Choice by Gladys Mitchell. So saying, I can well remember my gran in the 1960s using similar terms. But she was bringing her generation's attitudes into a changing world. I disliked hearing her speak like that but was not brave enough at 12 to speak out.

I honestly think reading these books brings about change so it's a real shame about your friend.
I may be wrong about the exact word in the Father Brown stories, but the story I remember it coming up in has a title like 'The Twelve Fisherman' and deals with the theft of the silver plates from an exclusive dining club. The remarks in it are just asides in the narrative - not the characters' thoughts - and needless, and I think that's the thing - that they were asides, and needless. When I was reading it aloud to someone once, I skipped them. And there's another about a black boxer. Um. And the one about 'the eastern mind' in the one which begins with the dog howling on the beach. Oh dear, quite a few, all in all.

Oh yes, darkie. I went to see the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about Stephen Ward when it was still running, and something that made me very uncomfortable was the use of period-appropriate language which I am privileged enough not to hear these days, and which made me wince. There was a crowd chorus about Mandy Rice-Davies (who is being compared to Christine Keeler at the time) which went something like 'bet she got up to all sorts of malarkey / but at least she never did it with a darkie', and I just cringed. And as for the chorus where the newspapermen are pushing Christine to spice up her story and explaining what the public want to read about, oh dear. Trying to decide whether to quote it or not!

But yes, I think we are in agreement here!