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.’

Notes On The Seven Dials Mystery

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.

The changing of the map of Europe after the First World War and periods of political turbulences in some of the countries are of Christie’s interest.

 

Highlights:

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.

Cherryl Campbell as Bundle Brent in 1981’s adaptation into a television series.

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.

‘Ladies’ sign for women’s rest room.

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 Twists:

–          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).

John Gielgud (1904-2000) as Lord Caterham.
And when it’ all over:‘Bundle, is that car of yours in order?’ ‘Yes, Why?’ ‘Then take me up to towns immediately. I’m going abroad at once – today.’ ‘But, Father-‘ ‘Don’t argue with me, Bundle. George Lomax told me when he arrived this morning that he was anxious to have a few words privately with me on a matter of the utmost delicacy. He added that the King of Timbuctoo was arriving in London shortly. I won’t go through that again, Bundle, do you hear? Not for fifty George Lomaxes! If Chimneys is so valuable to the nation, let the nation buy it. Otherwise I shall see it to a syndicate and they can turn it into a hotel.’

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?

Clues:

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.’