#50 – They Came to Baghdad

Victoria Jones, newly redundant as a result of her employer hearing her unflattering impersonation of his wife, meets Edward and promptly falls in love. He is about to return to Baghdad and she determines that she will follow him. Aided by her penchant for story-telling she is hired as a companion for a one-way trip to Iraq and as a result gets involved in a far-reaching conspiracy that is trying to achieve something that I have already forgotten.

And that is the overall problem, it is completely forgettable. I know I have read it before but remembered nothing about it and I can’t imagine that I will remember anything from this re-read. There a few nice touches, including a neat way of escaping from a locked room.

However this is definitely the worst of the thrillers that I have re-read so far and one for the completist only.

Signs of the Times

The story is set in 1950 and Baghdad is still in the “sterling area”. Up until 1954 Britain maintained military bases in Iraq.

Captain Crosbie refers to “Dear Uncle Joe” meaning Joseph Stalin, leader of the USSR from 1924 to 1953.

Mr Morganthal says “They got the Shah of Persia last year, didn’t they? They got Bernadotte in Palestine.” An assassination attempt was made on Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919-1981), the last Shah of Iran, in 1948 but although five shots were fired from a range of three metres, he was unharmed apart from a graze to the cheek. Folke Bernadotte (1895-1948) was a Swedish diplomat and the UN mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948-49. He was assassinated by Lehi a.k.a. The Stern Gang, a Zionist paramilitary organisation.

Edward invites Victoria to come and have a sausage at the SPO in Tottenham Court Road – no sniggering at the back – but I can’t find what SPO stands for.

Edward had served in the RAF and won a DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) for “an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy”.

The rhyme beginning “Jumbo said to Alice I love you” was written to protest against the sale of Jumbo the elephant by London Zoo to P. T. Barnum in 1882.

An unknown man uses the codename “Sanders of the River” after the 1911 short-story collection by Edgar Wallace.

Victoria wonders whether she can make use of UNESCO to get to Baghdad. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation was formed in 1946 and followed on from the League of Nations’ International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation. Its first director was Julian Huxley, brother of “Brave New World” author Aldous.

“The Thief of Baghdad” was showing at the local cinema. Presumably the 1940 version starring Conrad Veidt, best known as Major Strasser in “Casablanca”.

Victoria flies with BOAC. The British Overseas Airways Corporation was created in 1939 following the merger of Imperial Airways and British Airways. In 1974 it merged with British European Airways thus going full circle and becoming British Airways again.

Sir Rupert wonders if Rice’s illness is a case of Scheele’s Green. This is a pigment containing arsenic which may have been the cause of Napoleon’s death as his wallpaper was green and in the damp climate of St Helena may have proved fatal.

Victoria compares herself to the Saracen maid who knew only her lover’s name “Gilbert” and “England”. This is based on the legend of Gilbert Beckett, father of Thomas à Becket, and the Fair Saracen, who followed him home from the Crusades knowing only the words “Gilbert” and “London”.

Mrs Cardew Trench quotes “A primrose by the river’s brim” which is by William Wordsworth.

The lines “When you were a King in Babylon and I was a Christian slave” are a paraphrase from “Or Ever the Knightly Years…” by William Ernest Henley. He was one-legged poet and the inspiration for Long John Silver in “Treasure Island”. His daughter called J. M. Barrie her “fwendy-wendy” which lead to the creation of Wendy in “Peter Pan”.

Someone refers to “the cleverest swindle since the time of Horatio Bottomley”. Bottomley was a ambitious businessman and fraudster, who sailed close to the wind a number of times before being convicted in 1922 for stealing funds from his Victory Bonds Club.






















The King is Dead (1952) by Ellery Queen

Ellery and Richard Queen are visited by two gunmen and their boss, Abel Bendigo, who asks them to come with him. They protest that they have other commitments  – although Abel knows that Ellery is “four issues ahead with the editorial work on Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine“- but their objections are ultimately overcome by a letter from no less than the President of the United States!

Abel wishes them to investigate the threatening letters that his brother “King” Kane Bendigo has recently received and so they accompany him to King’s private island base, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. This centre of operations feels very much like a Bond villain’s lair, although his first adventure did not appear until the next year.

Threatening letters continue to appear, specifying the exact time at which King is to be killed and lo, it comes to pass at the very hour predicted King is shot – but by an empty gun and through two solid walls!

Ellery goes all Hercule Poirot in investigating the psychology of the Bendigo family – which gave me a laugh out loud moment – to understand Who is responsible and from that point he is able to understand the How.

I appreciated the How but it does demonstrate that Queen père et fils have made remarkably little progress in one particular area of detection since the beginning of the series.

This book comes in at number 11 on Ed Hoch’s list of The Top 15 Impossible Crimes and coincidentally is number 11 from the list that I have read. I have Carter Dickson’s “The Judas Window” and “He Wouldn’t Kill Patience” – numbers 5 and 13 – on my TBR pile which just leaves “Too Many Magicians” by Randall Garrett and “Invisible Green” by John Sladek to find.











Death and the Visiting Firemen (1958) by H. R. F. Keating

I read almost all of Keating’s Inspector Ghote mysteries as a teenager and so became aware of this intriguingly titled book and finally bought it on the strength of the title alone, knowing nothing else about it.

Foster P. Schlemberger, president of the American Institution for the Investigation of Incendiarism Incorporated, and some of his members have arrived in England for a joint convention with the Fire Prevention Society.

For reasons that are still unclear to me, George Hamyadis has arranged an old-fashioned coach tour for Schlemberger from Southampton to London, and has hired a number of people to make this happen: Major Mortenson and Joe Dagg, coaching experts (practical), Mr Smithers, coaching expert (theoretical), and actors Richard Wemyss, Kristen Kett, and Daisy Miller. John Fremitt, president of the FPS, and Dagg’s young son Peter make up the party.

When plans for a staged highway robbery, complete with antique pistols, are revealed, the reader is not surprised that death ensues.

Up to the murder, the book is a good as there are a number of possibilities of what could happen, but unfortunately the most obvious is chosen and from then on there is a lot of staying up late to catch people doing stuff but letting them get away and finding documents but not reading them etc and just being uncooperative with the police for no real reason.

The solution relies on a wonderfully subtle clue, but one that deserves a better book than this – perhaps even this if it had been condensed into a novella or even a short story.

So based on a single data point I can conclude that you shouldn’t judge a book on its title!

One final word – I love the cover design, and whilst you can’t beat the simplicity of the original green Penguins, it is a whole lot better than the photographic images they eventually moved onto as seen below with “A Puzzle for Fools”.

What Else I’ve Been Reading Recently

Cat of Many Tails (1949) by Ellery Queen

A serial killer nicknamed The Cat has strangled five New Yorkers in the space of eleven weeks. At this point the case is handed over to Inspector Richard Queen and so, reluctantly, Ellery returns from his self-imposed retirement to track down a killer who hides in the shadows.

The midpoint reveal is excellent and gives a very good reason for one of the patterns that Ellery has already identified. From that point the hunter becomes the hunted and the nerves of all involved, including the reader, are stretched to breaking point: can The Cat be caught and neutered or will they successfully pounce again?

This makes reference to another serial killer novel, Agatha Christie’s “The ABC Murders” so make sure you read that first. It also follows on directly from the events of “Ten Days’ Wonder”, so unlike The Nationality Object Mystery novels which don’t need to be read in order, it does pay to read from “Calamity Town” onwards chronologically, excluding “There Was an Old Woman”.

Brad at Ahsweetmystery has a lot of love for this one so do check out his take here.

A Puzzle for Fools (1936) by Patrick Quentin

Since returning to GAD fiction, I have been meaning to get hold of some PQ, but this was recently accelerated by the announcement that Curt Evans would be speaking on them at this summer’s Bodies from the Library conference and so I ordered the six “Puzzle” titles of which this is the first.

Peter Duluth has checked himself into the Lenz Sanatorium in order to stop drinking. One night he hears a voice warning that there will be murder. Doctor Lenz, the director of the facility, takes his report seriously as he is aware of a general unrest around the place and asks Peter, as someone whose mind, unlike his fellow patients, is basically healthy to investigate.

The mental hospital setting is well done, with its lack of privacy and lack of trust, both of Peter’s fellow patients and the staff. I found this an enjoyable read and if I had read it more carefully and not got an incorrect mental picture of the murderer I may have had more chance of solving it. I look forward to reading the next in the series.