Rating: 3.5 out of five
Year of Publication: 1951
Motive for Murder: Evidence
Plot: Victoria Jones’s mimicking her boss’s wife goes a little bit too far and she is to resign with immediate effect. In need of money and a thirst of adventure, a chance meeting with a man in the park brings about her taking up a role as a company for an American woman heading for Baghdad.
What begins as the young woman’s infatuation to a man turns to be a mixing-up in the murder of a British agent at a hotel in the country. As a witness, she is a target. Yet, her life is still worth its while until the highly confidential information can be retraced from her.
In the meantime, Richard Baker is on his way to Kuwait. In Basrah, he bumped into an old school friend dressed as an Arab with a strange manner. Little did Baker realise afterwards that the piece of folded paper put into his pocket was the half-part of the information sought by the ‘Arab’’s enemies. Nor does he know that his life is in danger already.
With an impending international conference on peace is due in a few days’ time in the capital, the Intelligence would need the evidence concerning a multi-national organisation, of which with money and power has an agenda to retain conflicts between America and Rusia.
Who did the man Baker meet? Can Edward, the reason of Jones’s presence in Iraq, help?
The Cold War might have been a difficult time as the division between two opposing ideologies of the ‘Iron Curtain ‘East and the ‘Freedom’ West had grown rapidly. To Christie’s mind, however, the changing of the political map had not only been fascinating but opened up a new kind of ‘game’ in the world of crime of hers. After the Great War, the political upheavals mostly affected Europe; after the Second World War the impacts were much bigger like ripples of waves that gather its force and push many countries to decide their leaning either to the West or the East.
Furthermore, this is the book written prior to Korea War (1950-1953) and therefore there is a touch of hope on Christie’s part for the world peace. Nonetheless, like many of her generation, Victoria Jones is oblivious to current affairs and instead attracted to a Prince Charming and decides to follow him to Baghdad – despite the fact that she then just knows his first name. Of course in the fifties subtlety is still regarded as of vital; to reach the man she has to find her own ways there. Her meeting with the unassuming old Mr. Dakin and a dead body in her hotel room alter her views about the world. Awakened by a proper lecture, Jones is made to understand that money goes side by side with politics and a human’s life costs less than the Intelligence obtained (see Clues). It is captured in a chapter, which is lengthy but not stuffy, in depth but using plain English. I suppose there had been a message Christie had aimed at that time to have done such; she might have believed the importance to educate her readers, particularly women for not detaching their minds from current affairs. Personally I feel that she had wanted women to see politics as their territory, too.
It is intriguing how those issues give way to a different facet of a seemingly carefree shorthand typist. Jones’s character might resemble her predecessors Anne Beddingfield (see Notes The Man In The Brown Suit), Tuppence Beresford and Bundle (see Notes On The Secret of Chimneys and Notes On The Seven Dials Mystery). Jones in ‘the thick of it’; being an accidental agent recruited on the spot, her abduction, her getting away from her captors and more importantly her concluding the affair. With a sprinkle of romance and naivety Jones grows up to be a woman and finds her soul mate in the end.
Sounds so Christie’s? Yes and No. No, because of the more open approach to men by women; that Jones going to an unknown territory entirely on account of a man is quite a progressive move for the era. Compared to Bundle’s jealousy to the lady friends of Jimmy Eversleigh’s, Jones’s determination to find her man would have been unheard of in the late twenties.
The setting is another interesting thing. Iraq might have been chosen owing to the country’s association with Christie’s meeting her second husband Max Mallowan there when she went for the first time in 1928. Her fond memories are reflected in the plot; that Jones goes to Baghdad as a ‘nurse’ to an American woman who has broken her leg. Likewise, Christie had an accident in Athens on her way back to England and the young archaeologist who was much younger than her had agreed to accompany her to England. In the story Jones is rescued by Richard Baker, a young archaeologist as she has lost her way on the desert after her lucky escape from the captors.
All the same it is not a straightforward romance between Baker and Jones. Anne Scheele comes to scene first; a secretary to an oil magnate with a wealth of access to information and influential figures in finance and politics. The Intelligence keeps an eye on her, as well as another party. Her movement is followed closely until she disappears after visiting her ill sister in a nursing home. Is it purely a luck that her appearance is similar to Jones? And who is she working for? Yet it is only the Mastermind who knows how Scheele looks life in flesh.
Like a puppet master the Mastermind remains in the shadow while his puppets act and play their part, masking their identities to others. Mr. Dakin, Sir Rupert Crofton Lee and Anne Scheele are not who people think they are and therefore there lie the twists. Coupled with Christie’s similes in the narrations, it is not easy to pin down the double-meaning words and sentences of the characters until the end. Is it the words of a dying man to be believed? How about a note of recommendation dated back eighteen months before? Or what lays beneath a quote of a Shakespeare’s poem?
What I am fascinated about is the dynamics between Mr. Dakin and Jones. He is frank and almost totally honesty about the situation. And they grow trust rapidly. I believe that Jones’s naivety and her somehow seeking a father figure to the other are plausible. Yet, I am not convinced that the reality would be the same. More importantly, wouldn’t it be a risk, having laid bare most facts to a ‘raw agent’ such as Jones. Anyhow, perhaps Mr. Dakin is an exception.
At any rate ‘the war’ Christie ‘proposed’ in the plot did occur. I wonder how she might have felt reading about what had occurred between North and South Korea. Surely it was not her fault but a warning – or better: her advice- had been given, particularly after the 1947 war between Israelis and Palestinians. I am just glad she did not see the tiresome Iraq-Iran War (1980 – 1988) because it would have very much broken her heart .
-Henry Carmichael passes half of the information to Richard Baker and the other to Victoria Jones
-Sir Rupert Crofton Lee kills Henry Carmichael
-Victoria Jones remembers that Sir Rupert has a small ‘boil’, ie. a distinguished mark on the back of his neck
-Anne Scheele disappears after she visits her sister in a nursing home in London
-Victoria Jones is kidnapped after a picnic with Edward at the ruins of Babylon
-Victoria Jones’s appearance resembles Anne Scheele
Cast of Characters:
Anne Scheele (the secretary to Mr. Morghantal, a magnate in oil business)
Mrs. Cardew Trench (of whom Victoria meets in Tio Hotel)
Catherine (a Syrian who works at the Olive Branch)
The Clipps (who hires Victoria as a companion for Mrs. Clipps to Baghdad)
Captain Crosbie (of British Council)
Dakin (works in an international oil company in Baghdad)
Edward (the secretary to Dr. Rathbone)
Gerard Clayton (British Consul in Basra)
Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton Clipp (the US citizens, of whom the wife is the one Victoria accompanies)
Henry Carmichael (a British agent on the run for crucial information he holds)
Lionel Shrivenham (of British Embassy in Iraq)
Marcus Tio (the proprietor of Tio Hotel in Baghdad)
Dr Rathbone (Edward’s boss, Director of the Olive Branch)
Richard Baker (British archaeologist who digs outside Basra, Henry’s school friend)
Sir Rupert Crofton Lee (the great traveller, of whom Victoria is on the same plane to Baghdad)
Victoria Jones (the protagonist)
The Most Fascinating Character: Marcus Tio
The proprietor of the Tio Hotel is involved in the case because of the dead body of Henry Carmichael, the British Agent who died from stabbing in Victoria Jones’s room. Without asking and doing as he was told, Carmichael’s body is then disposed. He carries on about his business as usual afterwards.
As an entrepreneur, Tio seems to know well how to run the business. Superficially he is a jolly personality; to his guests his jokes are rather silly and his mannerism is gay and bubbly. At heart he is a terribly serious man. It is not by chance that the premises has become a meeting point for influential figures in British politics in Baghdad and the venue for an international peace conference. For his discreetness appears to be the key and moreover he is willing to play part for the sake of protecting his clients’ interests.
There is not much about his background and what makes him decide to run such a hotel. Was he one of Mr. Dakin’s recruit? Nor is his relationship with Mr. Dakin. I wonder to what extent is his knowledge about Dr. Rathbone and the Olive Branch.
Readers, what nationality is he, do you think?
He remembered how the Arab had clutched him when he stumbled. A man with deft fingers might have slipped this into his pocket without his being aware of it.
He unfolded the paper. It was dirty and seemed to have been folded and refolded many times.
In six line of rather crabbed handwriting, Major John Wilberforce recommended one Ahmed Mohammed as an industrious and willing worker, able to drive a lorry and minor repairs and strictly honest – it was, in fact, the usual type of chit or recommendation given in the East. It was dated eighteen months back, which again is not unusual as these chits are hoarded carefully by their possessors.
The young man lay just as she had left him. But now his face was a queer greyish colour and his eyes were closed. Then, with a sharp catch in her breath, Victoria noticed something else – a bright red stain seeping through on to the blanket.
‘Oh, no,’ said Victoria, almost as though pleading with someone. ‘Oh, no- no!’
And as though in recognition of that plea the wounded man opened his eyes. He stared at her, stared as though from very far away at some object he was not quite certain of seeing.
His lips parted – the sound was so faint that Victoria scarcely heard. She bent down. ‘What?’
She heard this time. With difficulty – great difficulty, the young man said two words. Whether she heard them correctly or not Victoria did not know. They seemed to her quite nonsensical and without meaning. What he said was, ‘Lucifer….Basrah…’
Dr. Rathbone to Victoria Jones:
‘Why did you come and work here, Victoria? Because of Edward?’
Victoria flushed angrily.
‘of course not,’ she said indignantly. She was much annoyed.
Dr. Rathbone nodded his head.
‘Edward has his way to make. It will be many many years before he is in a position to be any of use to you. I should give up thinking of Edward if I were you. And, as I say, there are good positions to be obtained at present, with a good salary and prospects – and which will bring you amongst your own kind.’
‘But I really am keen on the Olive Branch, Dr. Rathbone.’
He shrugged his shoulders then and she left him, but she could feel his eyes in the centre of her spine as she left the room.