Notes On The Secret of Chimneys

Rating: Four out of five

Year of Publication: 1925

Motive for Murder: Wealth

Plot: Anthony Cade takes an offer to bring a manuscript of Count Stylptitch’s memoir to a publisher in London. He is also trusted with love letters signed by ‘Virginia Revel.’ The only key as to whom she might be is the word ‘Chimneys’ in one of the letters.

Things go smoothly in his voyage from South Africa up to his arrival in the British capital. Within forty-eight hours he is encountered with three peculiar men; two want him die for the memoir’s sake. He deduces then it is worth much more than the messenger fee. To his dismay, one of the men manages to have stolen the valuable letters.

Chimneys – the country home of Marquis of Caterham. A murder scene,by the way.

Meanwhile, Clement Brent must bend to George Lomax’s wish for a shooting party at the stately home he has inherited upon the death of his brother – Chimneys. When one of the distinguished guests. Prince Michael of Herzoslovakia, is shot dead, Brent, now the Marquis of Caterham, is dumbfounded. Moreover, Cade turns up the next morning to explain his presence on the Chimneys’s grounds on the night of the murder.

What has a memoir of a Count’s to do with the assassination of Prince Michael? What is the secret of Chimneys? And what is the future for Herzoslovakia?

Highlights:

A conflict in a small Balkan country causes the chase of a memoir and the unravelling of a mysterious  affair at Chimneys. The similar theme might jog readers’s memory to Christie’s later book in which a political upheaval in a rich Middle East country brings about three murders in a girls’ boarding school (Cat Among The Pigeons, 1959). Only at that time, in the twenties, Christie’s chief interest still revolves around the shifting powers in Europe after the First World War. Also, she neither met Max Mallowan nor travelled to Baghdad.

First and foremost, the focal point of the book is centred on the male protagonist, Anthony Cade. The story flows as he becomes embroiled in the sought-after memoir and disposing a body. If the plot was a puzzle, it would be joining pieces of a man with many facets and talents (see more in The Most  Fascinating Character).

His sidekick is a ‘very charming lady,’ Virginia Revel, a young widow of an FCO officer, whose late husband once was stationed in the British Embassy in the imaginary Herzoslovakia. She is George Lomax’s cousin and is depicted as follows: ‘She was just twenty-seven. She was tall and of an exquisite slimness – indeed, a poem might have been written to her slimness, it was so exquisitely proportioned…’ Need I say further?

It goes without saying that she has got a brain, too.  In terms of political interest she is similar to Bundle’s aunt, Marchioness of Caterham, minus the aunt’s haughtiness (more about Marcia Caterham in Notes On The Seven Dials Mystery). Revel’s skill in persuasion and networking is second to none and therefore Lomax approaches her to deploy ‘feminine way’ in persuading Anthony Cadell, which at the time was still known as Jimmy McGrath. In a nutshell, he was to delay handing in the Count’s manuscript.

The chapter in which Lomax remarks on women’s informal influence in politics is worth looking at. His viewpoints were sexist. Yet, like it or not, somehow his is justified.

When Cade and Revel meet, it is the strange circumstance they are in that starts to set the wheel in motion. Both are smart enough not to lay all their cards on the table. Then an heir to Herzoslovakia’s throne, Prince Nicholas, whose movement is unknown, beguiles everyone (see Clues). Coupled with the warning about the presence of a French Jewel thief, King Victor, the motive behind Prince Michael’s assassination is at least unmasked.

Quite a few red herrings in the subplots are dropped along the way. At any rate it makes the book a page turner, for it is tricky to realise what comes after. Superintendent Battle, the cool Scotland Yard officer, keeps thing in check while Cade is nosing about Lord Caterham’s new governess and Hiram Fish, an American guest at Chimneys. One of the twists is when Cade finds the revolver used to shoot the prince in Isaacstein’s suitcase. Meanwhile, the tall man, whom he met on the night of the murder and apparently stayed at the same inn where he was, turns out to be M. Lemoine from the French police in his hunt of King Victor.

The twists and revelations are a  good jolly ride and delightful to my mind.  Particularly is the thought of having been able to travel under an assumed identity, owing to the blurred passport photograph and lack of checking on the Immigration’s  part. No electronic bio-passport and surveillance gadgets required for catching a murderer. Rather, it is to do with a pair of healthy eyes, quick thinking and good imagination!

What is more, I admire Christie’s planning for the next book. As readers might notice, Bundle Brent is the successor of Virginia Trevel; not as pretty as the widow, but the same agile mind and aptness. In The Seven Dials Mystery Bundle will flourish and plays substantial part in solving the murder case with Bill Eversleigh.

Lastly, I have two minds about the blossoming romance between Cade and Trevel. Having read Christie’s novels in the twenties – apart from The Murder On The Links(1923)- it is usually the case of ‘happily ever after’ in the ending. Not that I object a touch of romance, yet isn’t there any more interesting ending than a marriage in sight? Or has such been influenced by the authoress’ divorce in 1928?

What do you think?

 

The Twists:

-A dead body of Giuseppe’s is found in Virginia Revel’s Mayfair home

-The clerk at the Union Castle company mistakens Bill Eversleigh’s pronunciation of ‘Granath’ as ‘Carnfrae’ and hence the misunderstanding as to the date when ‘Granath Castle’ is docked in Southampton.

– Virginia Revel is the only person invited to Chimneys, who knows the face of Prince Michael Obolovitch

-Boris Anchoukoff installs himself as Anthony Cade’s valet on the death of Prince Michael Obolovitch

-Madame Brun, the Governess for Lord Caterham’s younger daughters, is Angele Mory, a third-rate French actress

-King Victor is present at Chimneys on the night of the assassination

Cast of Characters:

Anthony Cade

Inspector Badgworthy (of Market Basing police)

Superintendent Battle (of Scotland Yard)

Boris Anchoukoff (Prince Michael’s valet)

Clement Edward Alistair Brent (Marquis of Caterham)

Lady Eileen Brent (a.k.a. Bundle, Lord Caterham’s daughter)

Hon. George Lomax (a.k.a. Codders, a senior figure at the Foreign Office, Bill’s superior)

Herman Isaacstein (a financier, a representative of all-British syndicate)

Hiram Fish (an American who is among the guest list for the party at Chimneys)

James McGrath (a.k.a. Jimmy, a Canadian friend of Anthony’s)

Constable Johnson (of Market Basing police)

M. Lemoine (of Surete, French Police)

Baron Lolopretjzyl (of Loyalist Party of Herzoslovakia)

Colonel Melrose (Chief Constable of Market Basing police)

Prince Michael Obolovitch (Herzoslovakia)

Tredwell (the butler at Chimneys)

Virginia Revel (the widow of Tim Revel, Lomax’s cousin)

William Eversleigh (a.k.a. Bill, George Lomax’s ‘errand boy’)

The Most Fascinating Character: Anthony Cade

It seems to be the obvious choice, his being the male protagonist, yet it is the mystery of his,  which personally attracts me. To begin with, he sails to England under the name of Jimmy McGrath. Second of all, his whereabouts before meeting McGrath in South Africa is untraceable. Thirdly, exit McGrath and enter Anthony Cade at Chimneys. Is Cade his real name, anyhow?

So far he is a most complicated character of Christie’s I have come to know. How was he acquainted with Jimmy Grath in the first place? Furthermore, Cade’s knowledge of the history of Chimneys and his either an Etonian or a Harrovian. Can he be a boastful person for dreaming himself as a president of Herzoslovakia or a genuine piece, a true English gentleman? (see Clues).

After Dr. James Sheppard (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), Cade is one of the few personae readers might feel so unsure about. Or rather, Cade is perhaps what Christie had in mind when writing the seminal novel.

Halfway through he carries out his role as a messenger splendidly and then manages to win Lord Caterham’s heart. Also,he is a different man after his gallant act to Virginia Revel before heading for Chimneys. Christie’s craft in revealing layers on his identity is a testimony to her brilliant imagination. She leaves readers to guess whether Cade is a villain of the piece or a real hero. Nonetheless, how much does he realise actually about Count Stylptitch’s memoir before taking the calculated risk to bring it to London?

What I like most from him is his being the far-from-perfect protagonist. He was put in variable situations where he would make mistakes in either judgment or words. For instance, his giving the manuscript to the representative of the publisher without checking, having believed that a Mr. Holmes is a genuine person. At Chimneys, he is in for a great surprise after he sees the dead body of Prince Michael’s.  For he has passed him as the other man.

As regard to Virginia Revel, it is evident that he is quite besotted to the woman. His ‘courageous act’ proves that and in a way he is as adamant as Dr. Peter Lord in Sad Cypress (1940) and Colin Lamb in The Clocks (1963). Because of her the purpose of his going to England takes a different turn in a matter of weeks. A fool in love? Be that as it may, it only makes Cade merely a human.

Clues:

Anthony Cade (to Jimmy McGrath):

‘…But shall I tell you, James, where I propose to go with my two hundred and fifty pounds?’

‘South America?’

‘No, my lad, Herzoslovakia. I shall stand with the republic, I think. Very probably I shall end up as a president.’

‘Why not announce yourself as the principal Obolovitch and be a king whilst you’re about it?’

‘No, Jimmy, Kings are for life. Presidents only take on the job for four years or so. It would quite amuse me to govern a kingdom like Herzoslovakia for four years.’

George Lomax (to Virginia Revel):

‘My dear Virginia, matters are likely to be a little strained shortly in a certain Central European Nation. It is important, for reasons which are immaterial, that this – Mr – er-Mcgrath should be brought to realize that the restoring of the monarchy in Herzoslovakia is imperative to the peace of Europe.’

Conversations between George Lomax, Herman Isaacstein and Superintendent Battle:

‘Ah!’ said Battle. ‘And who is Prince Nicholas?’

‘A first cousin of Prince Michael’s’

‘Ah!’ said Battle. ‘I should like to hear all about Prince Nicholas, especially where he is at present.’

‘Nothing much is known of him,’ said Lomax. ‘As a young man, he was most peculiar in his ideas, consorted with Socialists and Republicans, and acted in a way highly unbecoming to his position. He was sent down from Oxford, I believe, for some wild escapade. There was a rumour of his death two years later in the Congo, but it was only a rumour. He turned up a few months ago when news of the royalist reaction got about.’

‘Indeed?’ said Battle. ‘Where did he turn up?’

‘In America.’

‘America!’

Battle turned to Isaacstein with one laconic word:

‘Oil?’

The financier nodded.

‘He represented that if the Herzoslovakians chose a King, they would prefer him to Prince Michael as being more in sympathy with modern enlightened ideas, and he drew attention to his early democratic views and his sympathy with Republican ideals. In return for financial support, he was prepared to grant concessions, to a certain group of American financiers.’

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