One-Minute Book Reviews

November 11, 2007

A Prayer Said by an Army Chaplain to Soldiers Leaving on a Fateful Mission in Iraq — Veterans’ Day Quote of the Day (Ramon Pena via Martha Raddatz in ‘The Long Road Home’)

On the day known as “Black Sunday,” Iraqi militants ambushed an American platoon escorting an Iraqi sewage truck in the Sadr City section of Baghdad. Convoys sent to rescue the stranded soldiers repeatedly came under attack, and the firefight left eight Americans dead and more than 60 wounded.

Martha Raddatz, an ABC News correspondent, tells the poignant story of that disastrous 2004 battle and its effect on the soldiers’ kin in her recent The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family (Putnam, $24.95). In the opening scene Captain Ramon Pena, an Army chaplain, looks at the body of a 24-year-old soldier who died in the battle, his face covered by his T-shirt and camouflage top, and remembers the prayer he recited to the members of a rescue convoy an hour before:

“Lord, protect us. Give us the angels you have promised and bring peace to these soldiers as they go out. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Comment by Janice Harayda:

Many of the most moving scenes in military history or fiction involve the words said to soldiers who may soon die in battle. Some of the finest of these include King Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) and Cornelius Ryan’s account in The Longest Day of the invasion of Normandy, when loudspeakers on British ships broadcast over and over to men going ashore: “Remember Dunkirk! Remember Coventry! God bless you all.” What other messages deserve to be included in this category?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 26, 2007

Agatha Christie’s Iraq Novel, ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’

“The dirt and the mess in Baghdad you wouldn’t believe – and not romantic at all like you’d think from the Arabian Nights! Of course, it’s pretty just on the river, but the town itself is just awful – and no proper shops at all.”
— From a letter by the nurse Amy Leatheran in Murder in Mesopotamia

Murder in Mesopotamia: A Hercule Poirot Mystery. By Agatha Christie. Black Dog & Leventhal, 284 pp., $12.

By Janice Harayda

Agatha Christie once cleaned ancient relics with cold cream while accompanying her second husband, an archaeologist, on a dig at Nineveh. The technique, she said, was excellent for “coaxing dirt out of crevices” without harming the artifacts.

Christie made that comment in her autobiography. But she also drew on her travels in Iraq for Murder in Mesopotamia, which involves the death of the wife of an archaeologist who is leading a dig at a site a day and a half’s journey from Baghdad. No one has any idea who might have killed the lovely Louise Leidner until the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot – who happens to be in the region — turns up at the house where the crew is staying and begins asking questions.

You could argue that the story that follows has all the faults for which critics have derided Christie – shallow characterizations, a surfeit of clues and so many plot twists that the ending seems to come out of the blue because the evidence points to everybody and nobody. But Christie’s defects were the flip side of her virtues. You tear through her novels because she has removed everything that would slow the pace or tempt you to linger, including psychological depth and ravishing descriptive passages. Amy Leatheran, the nurse who narrates Murder in Mesopotamia, warns:

“I think I’d better make it clear up front that there isn’t going to be any local color in this story. I don’t know anything about archaeology and I don’t know that I very much want to.”

That’s more of a boast than a fact, but Christie does give you a kind of Cliffs Notes to her physical and psychological landscape. Leatheran expected something grand from an Assyrian palace: “But would you believe it, there was nothing to see but mud! Dirty mud walls about two feet high – and that’s all there was to it.” Christie’s characterizations of people are just as skimpy and, at times, stereotypical. They spring from a view of “human nature” – a recurring phrase — that is more cynical than is fashionable in our age of “positive psychology.” A character in Murder in Mesopotamia says: “They seemed like a happy family – which is really surprising when one considers what human nature is!” That spirit is no less apparent in books that about Christie’s other detective, Miss Jane Marple.

But Christie’s observations about character can be surprisingly modern and astute. Poirot grounds his search for Louise Leidner’s killer in his belief that “the state of mind of a community is always directly due to the influence of the man at the top.” If this is an oversimplification, it is one that has become a pillar of 21st-century corporate management. And it helps to explain why Christie’s novels still appeal more than two decades after her death in 1976.

The plots may be far-fetched. But Christie’s novels reflect in simplified a form a sharp understanding of, if not human nature, human beings. Like Murder in Mesopotamia, they often have settings that provide a glamour or drama lacking in everyday life. No one who has read them can doubt the sincerity of a comment Christie makes in Agatha Christie: An Autobiography: “I always thought life exciting and I still do.”

Best line: A character says it wouldn’t be safe to tell any man the truth about his wife. He adds: “Funnily enough, I’d trust most women with the truth about their husbands. Women can accept the fact that a man is a rotter, a swindler, a drug-taker, a confirmed liar, and a general swine without batting an eyelash and without its impairing their affection for the brute in the least! Women are wonderful realists.”

Worst line: A doctor says that Amy Leatheran is “a woman of 35 of erect, confident bearing.” Leatheran describes herself as 32. It’s unclear whether the discrepancy is a mistake or meant to suggest that one character was unreliable witness.

Published: 1936 (first edition) www.agathachristie.com

Furthermore: The Black Dog & Leventhal imprint of Workman www.workman.com publishes attractive hardcover editions of Christie’s mysteries in an easy-on-the-eyes font at the unusually reasonable price of $12 per book. The titles in its series include Murder on the Orient Express, Murder at the Vicarage, The ABC Murders, A Murder Is Announced and A Caribbean Mystery.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 25, 2007

Defending Agatha Christie — Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

Critics have scorned Agatha Christie for more than a half century — no one more famously than Edmund Wilson, who alluded to the title of one of her best-known mysteries in his 1945 essay in The New Yorker, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”

Tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will have a modest defense of Agatha Christie www.agathachristie.com and a reconsideration of her Murder in Mesopotamia, about an archaeological dig near Baghdad that captures the interest of the detective Hercule Poirot.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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