Out of Sunningdale
Solving the mysteries of Agatha Christie's Iraq.
Jan 16, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 17 • By THOMAS SWICK
The 8:55 to Baghdad
THE DILEMMA FACING TRAVEL WRITERS--how do you write about the world when practically every place has been visited, if not written about, already?--is producing interesting responses.
Many travel books have become more analytical, in an attempt to penetrate the well-photographed façade (Pico Iyer leads this charge); while others have become more domestic, looking not at the places we visit but at the places we inhabit (think Jonathan Raban). And a number of writers, still infused with old-fashioned wanderlust, have enthusiastically set off, not to blaze new trails but to plod in the footsteps of those who have gone before. If you can't beat 'em, trace 'em. In Travels with a Tangerine, Tim Mackintosh-Smith replicated the journey from Tangiers to Constantinople of the great medieval explorer Ibn Battutah, and in A Sweet and Glorious Land, John Keahey traveled around southern Italy in search of George Gissing.
Though not a travel writer, Bernard-Henri Levy recently traversed the United States, shirt unbuttoned to the wind, with Alexis de Tocqueville by his side. Welcome the follow-up travel book.
And now at your local bookstore we find The 8:55 to Baghdad: From London to Iraq on the Trail of Agatha Christie by the English travel writer Andrew Eames. Eames's dearly departed companion for the journey seems at first glance an unlikely choice. (Not Gertrude Bell? Not Freya Stark?) Yet on a visit to Aleppo to visit the famous souk--"the longest roofed market in the world"--Eames was invited to tea by the proprietor of his hotel, and heard the man's mother say that the famous mystery writer came to Aleppo "to do her shopping. And to get her hair done. From Nineveh. With Max."
Max, Eames subsequently learns, was Christie's second husband, an archaeologist whom she had met in Ur, and with whom she "spent thirty winter seasons living in testing conditions 3,000 miles from home, in a land of Kurds, Armenians and Palestinians, doling out laxatives to help the sheikh's wives with their constipation." Eames decides to travel to Iraq just as she had, by train from London.
Actually, he sets out on the eponymous 8:55 from Sunningdale, the commuter town where Agatha spent the last four unhappy years of her 14-year marriage to Archie Christie. Arriving at Victoria Station, and boarding the restored Venice-Simplon Orient Express, Eames interlaces the story of the bestselling author with that of the international train, and makes the very reasonable claim that the latter's survival, albeit in a truncated and high-end form, is partly due to the former's most famous novel. The saving power of murder.
As the journey proceeds, the reader feels triply blessed, getting two learned and lively tales tacked on, always gracefully, to the vivid account of an epic railway journey and its own co-mingling of countries, characters, scenery, arcane knowledge, political history, literary digressions, archaeological asides--that rich gallimaufry that caused Evelyn Waugh to claim that he preferred "all but the very worst travel books to all but the very best novels."
The 8:55 to Baghdad is one of the better ones, and it really hits its stride in the former Yugoslavia. In Slovenia Eames digs up a retired reporter who interviewed Christie on one of her visits to Lake Bohinj, and he tells us that, having been translated into 112 languages, she falls between the Bible and Shakespeare. In Zagreb he finds the history-obsessed Croats "like a tribe of Latin teachers, well-meaning, socially unsure of themselves and a little off-fashion, and very expert in a subject which was largely irrelevant to today's world."
Further down the line he talks to people who give credence to the cliché that Serbs are interested only in making love and war; then meets a young woman in Belgrade who spends her evenings with her father watching fishing programs on the Discovery Channel. "Because," she tells him, "it's incredibly peaceful."
And for anyone nostalgic for the days when the sun never set on the British Empire, Eames introduces Stephane Lambert, an English real estate agent doing a brisk business on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast selling homes to his countrymen who can't afford Tuscany or the Costa del Sol. Under the Balkan Sun.
When not meeting memorable characters, Eames turns his attention to his surroundings, with felicitous results. Istanbul's ferries are like "an extended family" with "short, fat and pompous uncles" and "long, elegant and languid aunts." The skyline of Damascus is studded with "the occasional set of egg-box domes rippling in the waves of heat."