The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie – Book Review

An early thriller that turned out to be much more enjoyable than I initially expected. It’s a silly romp with a far-fetched plot that requires a healthy suspension of disbelief, but you get a sense that it was written with tongue firmly in cheek.

The Secret of Chimneys is one of the Christies that somehow escaped my teenage obsession with Dame Agatha’s books, and I can’t lie, at first I was disappointed to discover that it was one of her thrillers rather than a murder mystery – a 300-page thriller, no less. I took the novel with me as a holiday read, and the last thing you want on your holiday is a tedious chore of a book.

The premise didn’t really inspire me with confidence. Anthony Cade, an international adventurer currently working as a tour guide in Bulawayo, runs into an old friend who offers him a handsome reward for what seems to be a straightforward double errand. He is to deliver a manuscript of potentially explosive memoirs, written by a recently deceased Count Stylptitch of the fictional Balkan country Herzoslovakia, to the London publishers who are happy to part with a whopping thousand pounds. The other errand is rather more altruistic in nature: returning a bundle of love letters to an Englishwoman who seems to have been a victim of blackmail.

It turns out that both the manuscript and the letters are in high demand by the various parties, and as soon as Anthony is off the boat in England he’s embroiled in a crazy busy plot involving (deep breath):

  • A political intrigue and restoration of the monarchy in troubled Herzoslovakia, with the newly discovered oil reserves a battleground between the British and American interests
  • Comrades of the Red Hand, a violent anti-monarchy Herzoslovakian organisation populated entirely with foreign stereotypes (the novel is quite heavy on the unflattering foreign stereotypes overall)
  • A stolen diamond of fabulous worth
  • Police representatives from England, France and the United States
  • Secret identities galore
  • A French criminal mastermind named King Victor
  • An unscrupulous Italian waiter who steals the blackmailing letters only to end up dead in mysterious circumstances
  • Virginia Revel, a beautiful young widow of charm and intelligence
  • Multiple bullet-ridden corpses

…and finally, Chimneys, a stately English country home and a popular spot for hosting diplomatic gatherings, to the dismay of the current owner Lord Caterham who has no stomach for politics and would just rather sell the damn place to the state. Improbably, all of these messy strands do tie up together in the end – in a pulpy and ridiculous manner that has little to do with real life, maybe, but at that point you just go along with the spirit of the book.

Though initially sceptical, I was quickly won over by the novel’s lightheartedness and humour, which is often reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse at his sparkling best. Much of the comedy is mined from the interactions between the upper class characters, such as the long-suffering Lord Caterham and his overbearing politician friend George Lomax. There are also cheeky passages such as this:

The car passed in through the park gates of Chimneys. Descriptions of that historic place can be found in any guidebook. It is also No 3 in Historic Homes of England, price 21s. On Thursday, coaches come over from Middlingham and view those portions of it which are open to the public. In view of all these facilities, to describe Chimneys would be superfluous.

At first I wondered if Anthony Cade was going to be the kind of insufferable hero who is just perfect and good at everything, and sure enough, he’s your classic adventurer who is handsome, smart, self-assured, irresistible to the ladies and handy with a snarky one-liner. He is however tempered by the presence of one of Christie’s regulars, Superintendent Battle, who makes his first appearance here and mostly hangs on the edges of the story, quietly observing everything around him and keeping up the best poker face in the world. Cade and Battle are evenly matched and their dynamic is fun to follow, with the two men often circling each other warily despite the instinctive sense of liking and respect.

Quick-witted and savvy Virginia Revel is likewise a match for Cade and their inevitable romance is handled better than in most Christie novels. In fact some of their dialogue wouldn’t be out of place in a classic 1940s screwball comedy.

Apparently the novel was re-invented for the small screen as a Miss Marple mystery, which my brain quickly gave up trying to imagine; some serious butchery must have taken place.

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