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Yes, this is that Agatha Christie.

A memoir of several years spent with her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, excavating in Syria entre deux guerres. It's not meant to be about archaeology, really, although they did some very important work; it's about trying to wrangle several hundred people and massive quantities of supplies into some semblance of a dig while dependent on sparse train lines, no roads, and communications by letter. (I particularly enjoy the way that whenever they go to the post office the postmaster, who is literate in Arabic but not other languages, has a bin for letters addressed in languages he does not speak and keeps trying to give the entire bin to anyone who comes in and asks for something that ought to be in it. They keep speculating about who all these people are whose mail they are declining, and hoping said people do the same for them.)

This is one of those books that is a fast, funny, intelligent read marred drastically by having been published in 1946 by a person who has not thought at all about the race and class issues built into the way she expects things in Syria to go for her as an English gentlewoman. Which is to say it has not, in some aspects, aged remotely pleasantly. If one uses the rubric of good for its time, normal for its time, bad for its time, I am afraid it is on the normal-trending-to-bad part of that spectrum.

Still, I think I now know where Elizabeth Peters got her model for the Amelia Peabody books. Agatha Christie was a person of great aplomb and a way of laughing at herself (and other people, when called for: there is the friend of hers who had pajamas specially designed to cover every inch of his body but his eyes, nose, and mouth, to keep off the mosquitoes, and kept saying he was going to be the only one not to get malaria, and of course the second he got them buckled and zipped on for the first time he realized there was a mouse inside his waistband; apparently no one could get anywhere near him to assist, since everyone had collapsed in fits of hysterical giggling). She appears to have been able to write mystery novels in a room actually containing people reconstructing pottery, a feat of concentration beyond my ability to comprehend.

So, the bits that do not have one gritting one's teeth are very pleasant, and as a record of a mindset and a way of doing things and of how archaeology used to work, it is continuously interesting. But there is a lot of teeth-gritting.

She did write a very nice poem for the front of the book, which I am going to include here in full as it is too enjoyable not to, and certainly is not the sort of thing that would be excerpted anywhere. Also, it's a fun example of the geek love poem, a genre that has a long history.

with apologies to Lewis Carroll )


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