Rating: 3.5 out of five
Year of Publication: 1929
Motive for Murder: Wealth (A Secret Formula)
Plot: ‘Inconsiderate, that’s what I call it,’ says Lord Caterham. He repeats the adjective in retrospective to his daughter, Bundle. ‘I don’t see why you’re so frightfully sensitive about it. After all, people must die somewhere,’ she responds. ‘They needn’t die in my house,’ her father remarks.
After two years abroad, they have come back to Chimneys to find that a young man died from sleeping pill overdose in Bundle’s room. The Brents’s stately home had been rented to a steel magnate, Sir Oswald Coote, who then invited seven people for a weekend party.
Bundle’s curiousity is aroused when she later discovers a letter written by the deceased, which omits the suggestion of his having committed a suicide. Further on, she runs over a man while speeding in her car – or so she thought. ‘Seven Dials…tell…Jimmy Thesiger…’ says Ronny Devereux before his last breath. Seven Dials, where did I come across it before? She says in her head. Interestingly, the second dead man was also present at Sir Oswald’s party.
Are the deaths of the two young men related? She tells her father the latter occurence, which reminds him about the warning letters George Lomax, a senior politician who lives in an adjoining estate, has received from ‘Seven Dials.’ They are related to a party he will be having the following week. Bundle decides she must go, for Jimmy Thesiger will be among the guests.
Yet what happens in the party is more than the young woman has bargained for; a secret formula, another incident, sleeping enemies and a secret admirer.
For readers who have been acquainted with the Brents, Bill Eversleigh and Superintendent Battle in The Secret of Chimneys, they might be familiar with Lord Caterham’s above remark. The book is not the sequel of its predecessor but the flourishing of Bundle as a character. Gone is Virginia Trevel, for four years later Lord Caterham’s eldest daughter has grown to be a smart woman with the same indomitable spirit of Prudence Crowley’s and Anne Beddingfield’s.
Amidst the meteoric rise of Hercule Poirot, the emerging power of these fearless female protagonists are most interesting. First and foremost, their individual ‘adventure’ begins by accident, having happened ‘on the spot’ or ‘in the thick of it.’
Next, if Poirot’s case lacks its political touch, it is espionage and conspiracy for Christie’s heroines. A young woman with her naivety and a thirst of adventure involved in a ‘manly’ affair is quite a breakthrough plot for a rising crime writer over eighty years ago; a make or break, so to speak. As a matter of fact, through the heroine the notion for a feminine approach in solving a crime was cultivated. In other way, Christie seemed to take a calculated risk presenting Tuppence in her second novel as an esteemed partner of Tommy Beresford. Such was paid off, for the appearance of a palaenthologist daughter (Beddingfield) and a Lord’s daughter follow.
Furthermore, if it is ‘little grey cells’ and logical approach for Poirot, it is dinner and dancing for Bundle and a fake interest in politics. Head versus heart, although in a nutshell the principle is the same: sniff and follow the trail (and they’ll get somewhere).
As for Bundle, the fact that her background is distinctive from the archdeacon’s daughter (Crowley) and a prominent scientist’s (Beddingfield) is another Christie’s effort of breaking the mould of stereotypes. In the twenties, it is unheard of for an upper class woman to be embroiled in an ‘unlady-like’ matter. For readers who follow the Downtown Abbey Series, remember Dowager Countess of Grantham ‘s response to her cousin’s middle daughter, Lady Edith Crawley, after she broke the news of having accepted an offer to write a column in the newspaper? Well, Bundle goes as far as driving a car is concerned. Nonetheless, both ‘Ladies’ (in its true sense) uses their assigned status to access the worlds that used to be shut for women. Hence, Bundle’s success to persuade her aunt Marcia to let her in Lomax’s party.
Just as Virginia Trevel and Anthony Cade, Bundle is partnered with Jimmy Thesiger and Lorraine Wade. Christie’s repeating character’s name ‘Jimmy,’ ie. Jimmy McGrath in The Secret of Chimneys, is fascinating. Is he a friend or foe? Thesiger and Wade are both strangers to Bundle; Thesiger is apparently a friend to the two murder victims and Wade is one of the deceased men’s stepsister. In the reading, I wondered why it was not Bill Eversleigh, of whom Bundle had known, who became her partner.
It is worth looking at the dynamics between minor characters concerning the class issue. The variable perceptions of class are woven together in some chapters to show such division in English society that arguably is still a rife nowadays. Christie as a ‘cook’ mixes the ingredients well and adds a pinch of salt here and there. On the one hand, there the reluctant Lord Caterham, who sees himself quite unsuitable for pursuing life as a peer. On the other, George Lomax and Lady Marcia Caterham as the haughty aristocrats; while on the other spectrum is the self-made millionare Sir Oswald Coote and Lady Coote. And yet, there is Macdonald the gardener, Chimneys’s housekeeper and a faithful Alfred (the ex-footman), who either challenges the expectations about their class or succumb to the demands of the other class. Bundle comes in the midst of it, having to juggle her balls so as to achieve her aims.
Despite those above-mentioned issues, I am most intrigued with the usage of some words in the book, ie. ‘woman’ and ‘lady.’ In British English, ‘Ladies’ for a women’s rest room and ‘Lady’ as in Bundle’s title do not bear the same weight compared to its use as an adjective, ie. a ‘lady friend.’
On a part of a chapter, Bundle was having a dinner with Bill Eversleigh. When he talked at length about Babe St. Maur, it is evident that Bundle’s is not in favour with his rambling about the actress, one of his lady friends. Later, as she was listening to her aunt Marcia describing a Mrs. Macatta, a female Member of Parliament, the aunt’s tone of voice sounded her high appreciation towards the female politician. ‘A most estimable woman with a brilliant brain. I may say that as a general rule I do not hold with women standing for Parliament. They can make their influence felt in a more womanly fashion,’ says Marcia Caterham.
Those might be small points for some readers, yet I wonder whether Christie did put the difference forward deliberately, owing to her Victorian upbringing. Moreover, the actress was described as a beauty whilst the aunt as ‘majestic in proportion’ and had a prominent personality. Needless to say, their contrast are apparent and later on in the book Bundle had to adjust her opinion about that ‘lady friend,’ for her success having transformed to a different persona.
What I least like is the ending, for two reasons. Firstly, as the whole “Seven Dials” affair is revealed, the focus shifts from Bundle to two male minor characters (guess who!). There is a plausible reason behind that, yet I do not think it is justified. Secondly, the twist of Bundle being invited to join ‘Seven Dials’ and her decision to marry one of the ‘dials’. The twist and the holy matrimony themselves are wonderful and I appreciate Christie’s stand on this matter. Nevertheless, as the latter ending recurs in her other books as well – such is the case to Tuppence’s and Anne’s – I just wonder if a marriage is truly a woman’s path. Besides, it is a shame that there is no further adventure for Mr. and Mrs. Eversleigh.
To sum up, The Seven Dials Mystery is Christie’s celebration to women’s brain and beauty.
– The day before Gerald Wade’s death a prank is planned to wake him up. Eight clocks are then bought and set to go off one after another starting from six am the next day
– Jimmy Thesiger notices later (after Wade was found dead)that the clocks have been moved and the seven of them are arranged neatly in a row on the mantelpiece
– The missing clock, the eighth one, is found in the garden of Chimneys’s
– Gerald Wade allegedly is in Germany between 1915 and 1918
– Alfred, the ex-footman, is paid a hundred pounds to leave Chimneys for The Seven Dials Club
– Bundle, with Alfred’s help, manages to slip into The Seven Dials meeting
– Lorraine Wade, Gerald’s stepsister, turns up at Chimneys in the small hours
– Jimmy Thesiger is shot following his account of having had a quarrel with a mysterious man on the grounds of Chimneys’s
– Sergeant Battle is No. 7.
– George Lomax proposes Bundle.
Cast of Characters:
Countess Anna Radzky (of Herloszovakia, George Lomax’s guest at Wyvern Abbey)
Alfred (the ex-second footman at Chimneys)
Superintendent Battle (of Scotland Yard)
Clement Edward Alistair Brent (a.k.a. Lord Caterham)
Lady Eileen Brent (a.k.a. Bundle, Lord Caterham’s eldest daughter)
Honorable George Lomax ( a senior politician who owns Wyvern Abbey, an adjoining estate to Chimneys)
Gerald Wade (Bill, Jimmy and Ronny’s friend; Lorraine’s stepbrother)
Mrs. Howell (the housekeeper at Chimneys)
Jimmy Thesiger (Bill, Gerry and Ronny’s friend)
Lorraine Wade (Gerald’s stepsister)
Lady Marcia, Marchiones of Caterham (Lord Caterham’s sister-in-law)
Sir Oswald Coote (a steel magnate)
Ronald Devereux (Jimmy and Bill’s friend, Bill’s colleague at FCO)
Rupert Bateman (a.k.a. Pongo, Sir Oswald’s secretary)
Terence O’Rourke (Sir Stanley Dinby’s secretary)
Tredwell (The butler at Chimneys)
William Eversleigh (a.k.a. Bill Eversleigh, George Lomax’s secretary at FCO)
The Most Fascinating Character: Lord Caterham
He takes the title of Marquis of Caterham after the demise of his brother Henry eight years before. In The Secret of Chimneys, he is described as ‘a small gentleman, shabbily dressed, and entirely unlike the popular conception of a marquis. He had faded blue eyes, a thin melancholy nose and a vague but corteous manner.’
George Lomax lives near him and it is a pain for the former Clement Brent to have been realised of the importance of Chimneys and its playing part in the history. To be truthful, Lomax might remind him of her late brother, the ex-Secretary State of Foreign Affairs, for his constant reminder of keeping traditions of the upper class. In all occasions Lord Clement will avoid Lomax at all cost and puts the pain to do so in the hands of his capable butler Tredwell. Naturally, he blames Lomax for the death of Prince Michael Obolovich of Herzoslovakia at Chimneys earlier, whilst simply remarks another death of a young man as ‘inconsiderate.’
More importantly, Lord Clement bears the traits of Prince Albert. For Queen Elizabeth’s father, a shy personality due to his stammer, became King George VI following the abdication of his brother Edward VIII in 1936. Just as Lord Clement, the new king seemed to be unsure about shouldering the responsibility of the continuing the House of Windsor in the precarious political situations in Europe. Yet he changed after 2nd September 1939.
When the murderer of the Czech Prince is caught, Lord Clement then decides to go abroad (see the right box).
Yet, as ‘history’ repeats in Chimneys, he begins to accept his fate and faces Lomax with the wits and dry humour readers did not come across before. Imagine his face when Lomax dares propose his beloved daughter towards the end of the book!
I have grown to like this man, for his thinking that life might have been more interesting as a ‘nobody.’ He is bothered by his status, although the wealth that comes with it is a comfort; his having three daughters to marry. Similarly, King George VI had two daughters and the pressures he felt to ‘perform’ accordingly, particularly to reassure the nation in his seminal speech on the onset of the war, resonates with Lord Caterham’s ordeal.
If anything, both of them are the opposite to their extrovert elder brothers and their being in their shadow.
Anyone still fancy to be a Lord or being second in line to the throne?
Bill Eversleigh (to Bundle):
‘’Well, as I was telling you, Babe’s pretty smart. You’ve got to be nowadays. She can put it over on most theatrical people. If you want to live, be high-handed, that’s what Babe says. And mind you, she’s the goods all right. She can act – it’s marvellous how that girl can act….’
Jimmy Thesiger (to Bundle and Lorraine Wade):
‘Listen you two. Gerry Wade was at the Foreign Office. He appeared to be the same sort of amiable idiot – excuse the term, but you know what I mean- as Bill Eversliegh and Ronny Devereux. A purely ornamental excrescence. But in reality he was something quite different. I think Gerry Wade was the real thing. Our Secret Service is supposed to be the best in the world. I think Gerry Wade was pretty high up in the service. And that explains everything! I remember saying idly hat last evening at Chimneys that Gerry couldn’t be quite such an ass as he made himself out to be.’
(to Bundle – after observing The Seven Dials meeting):
‘Eberhard was a Johnny who’d got some patent process he applied to sell. I can’t put the thing properly because I haven’t got the scientific knowledge- but I know the result was that it became so toughened that a wire was as strong as a steel bar had previously been. Eberhard had to do with aeroplanes and his idea was that the weight would be so enormously reduced that flying would be practically revolutioned – the cost of it, I mean. I believe he offered his invention to the German Government, and they turned it down, pointed out some undeniable flaw in it – but they did it rather hastily. He set to work and circumvented the difficulty, whatever it was, but he’d been offended by their attitude and swore they shouldn’t have his ewe lamb. I always thought the whole thing was probably bunkum, but now – it looks differently.’