Martin, Andrew - 'The Baghdad Railway Club'
THE BAGHDAD RAILWAY CLUB is a historical thriller, set in 1917 in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), the eighth book in the Jim Stringer series. After being invalided home from the trenches of WW1 France, Captain Stringer has a chance meeting with Lieutenant Colonel Shepherd at the Railway Club in London. The urbane Shepherd seems to be surprisingly sympathetic to the Turks given the current political situation. Shepherd is so impressed by Stringer and his railway knowledge that a few months later he requests that Stringer be sent out to Baghdad to work for him, to assist him in continuing work on the Berlin-Baghdad railway following the fall of Baghdad to the British. The War Office finds it very convenient indeed to send Stringer out to Baghdad; Stringer's background as an investigator makes him the ideal person to discreetly investigate allegations of treachery made against Shepherd with regard to his conduct during the fall of Baghdad.
Stringer soon finds his work cut out for him in Baghdad - his main source of information about Shepherd is a Captain Boyd, a witness to the supposed treachery. But Boyd is murdered before Stringer can meet with him. As Stringer has been saddled with a cumbersome cipher code and limited assistance from London, he can only surmise what Boyd might have reported to him. Stringer also finds the heat and his lack of knowledge of Arabic alienating and distracting. He has to rely on the limited knowledge of his batman, Jarvis, to find his way about the city and even to find out which local drinking water is safe. Stringer's railway duties are also perilous; he has to help Shepherd undertake a risky journey to Samarrah as part of their war work. The city of Baghdad itself has increasing dangers to the British soldiers from local insurgents.
The characterisation and evocation of environment in this book is very well done indeed. The plotting is slightly slow and languorous, possibly reflecting Jim's struggles to cope in the heat and dangerous environment. Andrew Martin gives a realistic view of a how an intelligent working class man promoted to an officer's role might function in the class-bound British army, where divisions between ranks are strictly adhered to e.g. an officer would never be seen to drink socially with a private, and a batman would only attend the eponymous Baghdad Railway Club to help serve the food, rather than as a guest. Jim's sense of alienation in terms of both class and climate as he operates in the officers' messes and nooks and crannies of Baghdad is nicely drawn.
Overall this is a sensitively written and engaging novel, that can be read without familiarity with earlier novels in the series, though I suspect that due to the wartime setting the railway theme plays a less prominent part than in the earlier novels in the series. Whilst the parallels between the First World War occupation of Mesopotamia and the current situation in Iraq can easily be seen, this never felt overly obtrusive to me.
Laura Root, England