They Came To Baghdad
First Published: Serialized in John Bull Magazine in the UK in 1951.
I Read: New York, Harper, 2011.
Series: Stand Alone
Summary: Victoria Jones lost her job, again. But on the upside, she was given references and a week's pay - so with money in her pocket, Victoria treats herself to lunch in the park. While there, she meets Edward, a rather dashing young man on his way to Baghdad for work. Before Victoria can learn much more about him, he blends into the crowd and is gone. In an instant Victoria decides she must get to Baghdad to see Edward again.
Shortly upon arriving in Baghdad a man, who turns out to be a British agent, dies in her hotel room. His death and last words plunge Victoria into a whole new adventure in the covert world of secrets and spies. A world which, if she doesn’t play her cards right, might just claim her life as well!
Review: This volume is an interesting entry in the Christie canon, as it is not a whodunit or thriller per se. It follows in the footsteps of The Man In The Brown Suit, as it is an adventure novel at its core with political intrigue and mystery thrown in for flavor. I enjoyed reading about Victoria and her over-the-top antics which ultimately save the Western world from tearing itself apart (it was set at the beginning of the Cold War). The book I think just reaches the level of pot roast, adding flavor to the canon and is well worth reading. However it is not quite as brilliant as The Man In The Brown Suit, whose spunky narrator followed a similar adventurous path. I think it just reached the pot roast level due mainly to the fact I don’t see this particular book as being very plausible, entertaining yes, plausible no. But don’t go on just my opinion check out both of them yourself and tell me what you think!
The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things....
Do you remember the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? Not the Johnny Depp version, but the classic Gene Wilder edition? (If you don’t you should watch the classic version tout suite!) Right now I am hoping you remember the bit where Wonka is expounding on his great idea for nursery room walls, lick-able wallpaper! Where all the fruits, including snozzberries, taste like the real deal. Since then the practical side of my brain has been trying to figure out how to engineer similar wallpaper which wouldn’t turn into a slobbery, disgusting mess over repeated lickings. However I can congratulate Christie in making me rethink this scene in a sinister light since my reading of They Came To Baghdad.
To understand why this movie scene might contain more menacing connotations, and why I can thank Agatha Christie for altering my perception of an innocent film, we need a bit of background. "Scheele’s Green" - ever heard of the stuff? Well neither had I until I read a passage in They Came To Baghdad which mentioned it, “That reminds me, what’s Scheele’s Green?..It’s something in the chemical line.” (pg. 85). Curious about what they were speaking of I looked it up.
Evidently, back in 1775 people were fed up with the green pigments available at the time; they faded and turned awful colors over time (plus they weren’t very bright). Enter a man called Carl Wilhelm Scheele who solved the inherent problems with the color and produced a nice vibrant green. It was called Scheele’s Green (Obviously. Later this pigment was refined & altered slightly and named Paris Green but they were essentially the same animal). The thing is the main ingredient is rather dodgy: arsenic.
This particular pigment had a wide range of uses - dyes, paints, intestinal antiseptic, insecticide and rat poison. I mean what could possible go wrong with using the same compound to dye your dress and kill bugs? Plenty. Over time, people begun gathering empirical data, such as those who wore green clothing seemed to get sick more often. Or when the green paint started getting damp and moldy the people living in those rooms seemed to get sick (and sometimes die) far more readily than people who lived in non-green rooms. We now know that the mold is what caused the issue here; it altered the chemical structure of the green compound and emitted a poisonous fume which slowly weakened (and killed) people. Which is the basis of one theory on Napoleon’s death, since no leader bent on world domination can die without generating at least one conspiracy theory. This one states that while in exile on St. Helena, Napoleon had a favorite room in his home, The Green Room. The Green Room of course was pained Paris Green, and when Napoleon became ill, he spent more and more time indoors and breathing in these poisonous vapors. While his death is official listed as being caused by cancer, some scientists point out that arsenic is also a carcinogen and again could have hastened his death.
However the most common way Sheele’s or Paris Green ended up in a home was through wallpaper. It was all the rage in the UK to have its vibrant color adorn your walls. And you guessed it, the wallpaper had the same problem as the paint when it became damp and started to mold; it emitted a poisonous gas which harmed all those who used the room. Even if you kept the wall paper from molding, if you fancied papering your sitting room with green flocked wallpaper, the dust generated from the flocking was just as deadly when inhaled (since you were breathing arsenic powder).
So now think back to Willy Wonka’s wallpaper with the knowledge that the greens used for the leaves, grapes and apples may have contained a toxic agent to produce its bright colors. The pigment’s use in paint was only banned in the 1960’s (not sure when the dye was banned). So if Wonka had stockpiled dye which used Scheele’s or Paris green and didn’t pay attention to the outside world very much, he may have inadvertently been poisoning his guests... So this is how Christie bent my perception of a childhood classic through a passing comment made in They Came To Baghdad! And I can’t decide if that’s good or bad.
“Strangely enough, your capacity to think up a convincing lie quickly is one of your qualifications for the job.” (pg. 131) I suppose each job has its own unique standards!
“Ages ago Ales, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African Amusement...anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled...” (pg.1),
I am sure you see what Walter Abish was doing in this quote from his experimental book, Alphabetical Africa. He’s not trying to drive his readers batty (or at least I don’t think so), he was demonstrating the literary device of alliteration in a rather extreme way. Each chapter (well the first 26) used a singular letter of the alphabet to begin each word in the chapter, so every word in chapter one started with an A, 2 was B and so on, following the rigid structure of the English alphabetical order.
What does a crazy book written in 1974 have in common with They Came To Baghdad? One idle conversation in a park,
"Victoria Jones,” said Edward, trying it over on his tongue. He shook his head. “They don’t go together.”
“You’re quite right,” said Victoria with feeling. “If I were Jenny it would be rather nice -- Jenny Jones...” (pg. 17)
Victoria wished for her name to be alliterative, to roll off the tongue in a pleasing manner. While Victoria was doomed to disappointment, a few of Christie other character’s were awarded with this distinctive pattern; Miss Marple, Parker Pyne and Tommy & Tuppence.
When I started looking into alliteration I found myself in a similar situation to Victoria when she was thinking of Edward and Baghdad, “...when one has had one’s attention suddenly focused on a particular name or subject, everything seemed to have suddenly conspired to force the thought...onto her attention.” (pg. 34). Just like Victoria and Baghdad, my mind began recognizing the sheer number of repeated rhythms (I got tired of typing alliteration) which I read/hear everyday.
While I was reading this book The Agents of Shield came out on dvd and my husband I started catching up on the show. While watching it, I started to remember just how many names used alliteration in the Marvel universe (or comic books in general) Melinda May, Pepper Potts, Bruce Banner, Silver Surfer, Fantastic Four or Guardians of the Galaxy; I could go on but we don’t have the time. The reason? Legend states Stan Lee, the creator many of the characters for Marvel has a poor memory and used alliteration to remember the names of the heroes/villains he was writing about.
I shrugged this off this coincidence and moved on, a simple memory device no big deal at one point or another I have used a similar method of remembering stuff for work or school. No worries. So while I was waiting for Monday Night Football to start a few days later, I started watching the news and once again was bombarded with alliterative terms, Baby Boomers, mysterious murder, or sagging stocks. Flipping the channel to ESPN wasn’t much better with Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills, San Antonio Spurs, and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Fortunately the football game came on and my cheering commenced and alliteration was shoved out of my mind.
Then I was talking with Fran the other day and I completely misquoted Alice In Wonderland, and Fran rattled off an entire passage in seconds which was impressive. So I decided to dust off my copy and read a bit, to refresh my poor memory. However before I could read Alice and her adventures I decided to read The Jabberwocky and was stunned at how Lewis Carroll used alliteration to enhance the menace of his Jabberwocky, “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!/ The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!/ Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun / The frumious Bandersnatch!”. If you read the entire poem Carroll does a great job of using alliteration to create an atmosphere of malevolence around this creature.
So what started as a passing fancy of Christie’s character, wishing her name had a dash more panache turned into several weeks of fascination and distraction for me. Wondering just where alliteration was going to creep up next! (Yeah I don’t get obsessive over books at all...)
Cheating: My husband is getting a bit nervous that I might win. And recently he’s started asking me to fill out these pesky passport forms...SO I can’t buckle now!