''The 8:55 to Baghdad: From London to Iraq on the Trail of Agatha Christie"
By Andrew Eames
Overlook, 401 pp., illustrated, $24.95
This is the stuff of great travel writing. With an intriguing theme and compelling details, its inquiring narrator takes us along on an epic adventure to places most of us will never see and into the hearts and minds of people we will never know.
Andrew Eames's hook is a 1928 journey by Agatha Christie. The mystery novelist, then 38 and already a famous face both in and out of England, had seen her dream life among the gated homes of a sedate English suburb crumble. Freshly divorced from her beloved Archie Christie, and with their daughter in boarding school, she set off alone to Iraq, not an easy trip for a solo woman in those days, even though it was a British protectorate and a promising new destination due to recent archeological finds and Thomas Cook's bargain train fares.
For veteran travel writer Eames, Christie's journey itself had the makings of a mystery, ''not of a whodunit, but a whydunit, and how." He sets off to walk the streets she wandered, gaze on the sights she saw, ride the trains she rode, sleep in the rooms she inhabited, and understand what she experienced, despite the obvious dangers of heading into the land of Saddam Hussein in late 2002, as the United States and Britain were preparing to invade.
At the outset, Eames knew little about Agatha Christie, certainly not that Arabic editions of her works are available by the shelf-full in places like Damascus.
''Most of all," he writes, ''I had no idea that this doyenne of the drawing-room mystery had first travelled out to Iraq, alone, by train, as a thirty-something single mother. And that thereafter, she'd spent thirty winter seasons living in testing conditions 3,000 miles from home, in a land of Kurds, Armenians, and Palestinians."
It was a far cry from neat, safe Sunningdale, where Eames comically skulks around at the start of his trip to get a feel for the life Christie had left behind.
People devoted to trains will find much to appreciate in Eames's explanations of the golden age of train travel and its deprecated forms today. He seeks out the Taurus Express, which chugs away in the opening scene of Christie's ''Murder on the Orient Express," and he goes into great detail about the Orient Express itself -- once ''the Magic Carpet to the East," then reduced to a couple of luxury cars, then revived, in large part due to the hoopla of the 1974 film version of Agatha's great train mystery.
Christie's trail is the book's main thread, but Eames detours often for other points of interest. From London, we arrive in Trieste, on Italy's Adriatic coast, where he tells us how this now-overlooked port city once dominated the Mediterranean Sea trade. In Zagreb, where there's no evidence that Christie ''did much more than look out of the window," Eames lingers for awhile, chatting with the locals about the conflicts between Serbs and Croats.
Likewise, he ventures beneath the skin of the many cultures he crosses along the route, through Eastern Europe and Turkey and Syria. He is always chatting up the locals, whether fellow passengers, businessmen and tea-shop owners, or community leaders, and while some of these conversations veer into areas of dubious interest, his fine descriptive writing and relentless onward pulse make the book a genuine page-turner.
Arriving at long last and somewhat nervously in Iraq, he must resort to a guided bus tour for Westerners in order to reach the areas where Christie spent so much of her later life. These turn out to be the dig areas around Nineveh and Ur, where she accompanied her second husband, Max Mallowan, on his archeological expeditions. ''Even when living in the desert, sleeping in tents . . .," he writes, ''she still dressed for dinner, had Stilton cheese and chocolate imported from London . . ."
In his final chapters, Eames also takes the temperature of the Iraqis during this run-up to the war, reporting on a group of friendly teenagers jostling to have their pictures taken with an American, but also older Iraqis fearful of being seen talking to a foreigner. All in all, it's an unusual view of prewar Iraq -- and a real-world bonus to this fine travelogue.
''The 8:55 to Baghdad" is a book for Christie fans, for train buffs, and for anybody who likes a good story of traveling in remote and unusual places.
Contact Stephen H. Morgan at email@example.com.