THE BOOK Fontana 1980 pp192
Tom Adams’ cover is based on a simple sketch found in one of Agatha Christie’s notebooks. He has added one of his insects (which feature on many of his cover paintings), some drops of blood and a spider’s web entangling the name of one of the main characters in the story. Strangely, this well-known cover appears in neither of his books ‘Agatha Christie Cover Story’ or ‘Tom Adams Uncovered’, so maybe he didn’t like it much.
Down on her luck and out of work, having talked herself out of a job by impersonating her boss in front of her work-mates, young Victoria Jones meets Edward, seemingly her dream man, in a London park. He tells her he is about to take up a position in Baghdad, and a smitten Victoria determines by hook or crook to follow him. She finds work as companion to an American travelling there, passing herself off as the niece of Pauncefoot Jones, an archaeologist on a dig at a local Tell. Once there, she meets up with Edward and he finds her a job in a local mission, The Olive Branch.
Within no time, Victoria finds herself harbouring a dying man in her hotel room, and is then herself kidnapped. Once she has escaped, Victoria realises that she will be needing to put her capacity to tell stories and impersonate others to the ultimate test …
There are two groups of characters in this story.
On the one hand, Agatha Christie gives us members of British Intelligence in the Middle East and their adversaries. The latter includes a group-bent-on- world-domination that is preparing to disrupt a Baghdad peace conference between the super-powers of the time (the US and USSR), thereby provoking them into global conflict.
These individual characters are essentially cardboard cutouts that could have been lifted directly from Swigatha’s world-domination thrillers of the 1920s, and which are also slotted into later books such as Passenger to Frankfurt and Destination Unknown: stiff upper lip Colonel Race types ranged against self-proclaimed supermen and women happy to slaughter millions to achieve their goals.
On the other hand, we have the members of the dig at the Tell, whom Victoria joins after her escape. Unsurprisingly, given the author’s increasing interest and participation in the subject, the archaeological party and their Arab workers and assistants are drawn with great affection and humour.
Victoria Jones herself is but the latest in a line of plucky, resourceful, unencumbered young women happy to embark on dangerous solo adventures, a line that began with Anne Beddingfeld in The Man in the Brown Suit in 1924. I think that, wittingly or unwittingly, that Agatha Christie put a great deal of her (idealised) self into these characters, so by the end of the book it is no great surprise from which group of protagonists Victoria will be choosing her future mate.
ATTITUDES AND QUOTES
At the time this book was written, Britain’s Mandates in Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq, Jordan and Syria maintained its dominant position in the area, which explains its policing role in both this book and others set there, such as Appointment with Death and Murder in Mesopotamia.
Captain Crosbie came out of the Bank with the pleased air of a man who has cashed a cheque and discovered that there is just a little more in his account than he thought there was. Captain Crosbie often looked pleased with himself. He was that kind of man … nothing remarkable about him. There are heaps of Crosbies in the East.
A mere five years after the end of the Second World War, people were convinced that another was on the way:1
‘I know everyone says there’s going to be another war sooner or later,’ said Victoria.
‘Exactly,’ said Dakin. ‘And why does everyone say so, Victoria?’
She frowned. ‘Why, because Russia – the Communists – America -‘ she stopped.
‘You see,’ said Dakin. ‘Those aren’t your own opinions or words …’
Here Victoria has her eyes opened to a different culture en route to the Exhibition House at the dig:
‘Arabs find our Western impatience for doing things quickly extraordinarily hard to understand, and our habit of coming straight to the point in conversation strikes them as extremely ill-mannered. You should always sit around and offer general observations for about an hour – or if you prefer it you need not speak at all.’
‘Rather odd if we did that in offices in London. One would waste a lot of time.’
‘Yes, but we’re back at the question: What is time? And what is waste?’
The bent-on-world-domination theme, last encountered in The Big Four in 1927, comes back with a vengeance:
There must be total war – total destruction. And then – the new Heaven and the new Earth. The small chosen band of higher beings, the scientists, the agricultural experts, the administrators – the young men like Edward – the young Siegfrieds of the New World. All young, all believing in their destiny as Supermen. When destruction had run its course, they would step in and take over.
This soon-to-be-repeated plot makes one wonder what use Agatha Christie might have made of the companies in Silicon Valley today, and the attempts at mass brainwashing by the protagonists of cyber warfare that they have facilitated.
Finally, Victoria compares her crush on Edward with earlier adolescent ones for two interestingly-juxtaposed heartthrobs of the 1940s:
It had been the same feeling that she had experienced some years earlier for Humphrey Bogart, and later for the Duke of Edinburgh. It had been glamour.
SWIGATHA RATING 5/10
As with most of Agatha Christie’s writing, this story is a very easy and enjoyable read, especially the parts set in the dig and those describing the Arab communities, but the story does not hang together like usual and the end feels very rushed. Even after a second reading, I still have no idea what happened to Edward, one of its main protagonists.
I think that both this story and Destination Unknown struggled for air because of the sheer volume of work that the author was taking on at the time they were being written (1950-53). in addition to five other (pretty good) works of detective fiction and one romance written as ‘Mary Westmacott’, she was becoming increasingly involved in works for the stage, adapting The Hollow (first performed in 1951), The Mousetrap (1952) and Witness for the Prosecution (1953).
WHERE IT LED
To Destination Unknown, three years later! Many of the notes and ideas rejected for this story re-emerged for the later one, and the characters and organisations involved seem just to be slightly different versions of each other.2
The ‘Young Siegfried’ theme re-appears, in spades, in Passenger to Frankfurt.
None so far.
1 During the year the book came out, the US and USSR engaged in Korea in the first of a series of proxy wars that would continue elsewhere in Asia, Africa, Central and Southern America throughout the following 30 years. But they have never (so far) declared war on each other.
2 For more information about the preparation of the two books, read John Curran’s analysis of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.