By Agatha Christie
I was first intrigued to read a spy adventure novel by Agatha Christie, rather than her more usual English murder mysteries, but it also turned out to be a disconcertingly timely read. Published in 1951, it is all very Cold War, with tensions running high between the United States and the Soviet Union, with a planned global summit in Baghdad in an attempt to ease those tensions and prevent a third world war so soon after the second. It’s been a very odd week to read a book with such similarities and equal disparities to current events! (The Iraq of 1951 is also strangely discordant, since it is both through Christie’s blatantly prejudiced eyes, though she in fact loved the country herself, and before many of the subsequent wars that tanked its economy and culture.)
For all the overarching motivation of preventing war between America and Russia, it is really a story of England and Iraq, with the many English expats converging on Baghdad for a madcap variety of reasons. The whole plot has Christie’s classic clues and twists, but has enough screwball comedy to it that I’m very disappointed that no one has adapted it to film yet. Our main protagonist, Victoria, is a mediocre typist recently fired in London, who impulsively follows an attractive young man to Baghdad. She is more gutsy than intelligent (thus her initial poor decision making), but to the detriment of all the espionage around her, she is unexpectedly observant and also a somewhat compulsive liar. Christie’s mastery really shines in the final denouement, when all the smallest clues, including some that I had chalked up to minor writing flaws, came together very quickly in a very satisfactory way.
A very minor spoiler, the central conflict is explained to Victoria midway through the book, and hit me like a flash of familiarity:
“Enormous sums of money seem to be going completely out of circulation…All over the world a great demand for diamonds and other precious stones has arisen. They change hands a dozen or more times until finally they disappear and cannot be traced.”
And, “In the past two years, twenty-eight promising young scientists of various nationalities have quietly faded out of their background. The same thing has happened with constructional engineers, with aviators, with electricians and many other skilled trades. These disappearances have this in common: those concerned are all young, all ambitious, and all without close ties.”
I thought for a minute that Agatha Christie had actually published a narrative rebuttal to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, if she hadn’t preceded it by six years. It does make me wonder if this sort of illuminati-type secession of talents was a widespread cultural conspiracy at the time, which Rand then built on in her argument in favor of such a thing.