Taking a clue from Agatha Christie

The Gazette (Montreal)
October 30, 2004 Saturday
Final Edition

Taking a clue from Agatha Christie: Writer inspires andrew Eames to
take a trip on Orient Express

by PAUL CARBRAY, The Gazette

The 8:55 to Baghdad

Andrew Eames, Bantam Press, 401 pages, $37.95

In 1928, Agatha Christie, recovering from a failed marriage and already
a well-known mystery writer, decided to take a holiday.

Not for her the usual English vacation in Blackpool, Torquay or the
south of France. Instead, Christie travelled on the Orient Express to
Istanbul, then on to Baghdad, where she set out on a tour of Iraq.

Certainly not the vacation spot that the usual traveller in 2004 would
choose. Even in comparatively benign 1928, when Iraq was under a
British mandate, it was hardly a hot destination.

Nonetheless, Christie, a 30something single mother, travelled there,
and her journey had a happy ending. It was in Iraq that Christie met
archeologist Max Mallowan on a dig at the ancient site of Ur. The two
married and lived, from all accounts, happily ever after.

Andrew Eames, an English journalist, was unaware of Christie’s journey
until he travelled to Aleppo, Syria, where he wanted to visit the souk,
the city’s ancient covered market.

“I’d heard that the longest roofed market in the world was still a
scene out of Aladdin or Indiana Jones, and I wanted to see it for
myself,” he says.

In Aleppo, Eames stayed at a well-known hotel run by an Armenian, Armen
Masloumian. While chatting, Masloumian tells Eames about the famous
people who have stayed in the hotel, including Lawrence of Arabia,
Theodore Roosevelt, Kemal Ataturk (the founder of modern Turkey) and,
of course, Agatha Christie.

Later, at dinner with the owner and his mother, Sally, “a cool
septuagenarian with an unwavering gaze,” Eames returns to the subject
of the hotel’s famous guests, and Christie is mentioned.

Probably researching her mystery novel Murder on the Orient Express,
Eames suggests.

“Mrs. Masloumian quickly set me right. ‘No,’ she said, ‘she used to
come here to do her shopping. And to get her hair done. From Nineveh.
With Max.’ ”

Nineveh? Max? Eames, unaware of Christie’s story, is intrigued and
begins to investigate. Soon, he is hooked by the idea of the author of
the quintessentially English drawing-room mystery travelling to the
exotic Middle East, and decides to trace the path of Christie’s

It’s late 2002 when Eames sets out on his trip, and war clouds are
gathering over Iraq. Nonetheless, he boards a train from the London
suburb of Sunningdale, “not because I knew for sure that Agatha had
travelled on it back in 1928, but because it got me to Victoria (train
station in London) in plenty of time for a train I knew for sure she

That train is the reconstituted – and considerably less glamorous –
Orient Express.

Eames soon learns that in 2002, “there are few journeys which are far
more complex and difficult than they were 75 years ago, but to travel
from London to Baghdad, by train, is one of them.”

But part of the romance of travel is not in arriving, but in getting
there, and that’s true of Eames’s book.

For much of the journey, through Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and
on to Turkey, Eames meets some fascinating locals and delves lightly
into their history.

Wisely, Eames doesn’t overdo the Christie quest while on his travels,
but concentrates on the cities and countries along the way and the
people he meets.

It is only on arrival in Aleppo, where he revisits the steely-eyed Mrs.
Masloumian, that he picks up the Christie story again.

Then it’s on to Iraq, where he arrives at the border at the same time
as the United Nations weapons inspectors. He travels with a disparate
group on a bus tour, who provide comic fodder and speculations about
what would prompt seemingly ordinary people, many of them pensioners,
to travel to a country on the brink of war.

Surprisingly, Eames is welcomed by Iraqis and brings his Christie tale
to a close by visiting the archeological sites she and Mallowan visited
for several decades.