Review: The 8.55 to Baghdad by Andrew Eames

Genre: Travel
Area covered: Train journey (by stages) from London to Baghdad, with stops in Italy, various Balkan states, Turkey, Syria and various cities and archaeological sites in Iraq.
Published in: 2004

This is an enjoyable read about setting out on a journey with the slimmest of excuses, in this case visiting places Agatha Christie travelled to and through when she set out to make a new life for herself after her divorce from her first husband, and to go to the places where she lived in with her second husband, an archaeologist who spent his working life digging up ancient cities in Iraq.

Eames visited various places which one would have travelled through on a train journey between England and Iraq in 1928, which is when Agatha Christie first made the trip aboard the Orient Express, following her traumatic divorce from her first husband. Once the trip could have been made in a few stages (for example directly, without disembarking, from Paris all the way to Istanbul), but was in fact much more difficult to do when Eames did it in 2003 (and probably impossible today).

While the premise – to visit places Agatha Christie visited on her first trip to Iraq and on subsequent trips and places where she lived in Iraq while on archaeological digs with husband Max Mallowan – is slight, I must say to Eames’ credit that wherever he went, he tried to dig up connections with Christie and to see things she saw or might have seen (once even putting himself in grave danger to do so). He includes interesting facts about her life whenever it is warranted, but doesn’t try to tell her life story in any detail. He made several stops that were probably longer than hers, and writes interestingly about people he met and places he visited, especially when he is examining political tensions, nationalistic attitudes and apparent national characteristics. He doesn’t try to analyse Christie beyond speculating about her mental state during her first trip to Iraq, and reaches no conclusions about her, but that’s fine, as it is clear that she is the excuse rather than the reason for the journey.

The book is well written, in a simile-rich style that frequently brings a smile to one's face, and I enjoyed it, especially after Eames stopped using blatant stereotypes to describe people, something that annoyed me in the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express chapters. The final chapters were especially interesting and even thrilling at some points. They cover a journey through Iraq on the eve of the 2003 invasion, with a tour group made up of characters just as varied and colourful as the cast of one of Christie’s whodunnits. He even suggests that some of them may have been spies. All in all, a very enjoyable travelogue, covering some places I haven’t read much about before. 4 stars.

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