A sorta-sequel to The Secret of Chimneys, this high-spirited thriller is equally enjoyable, and showcases Dame Agatha’s criminally underrated sense of humour.
Somehow I completely missed out on these two early novels back in the days, and it’s fair to say that they were the pleasant surprise of this re-readathon. Christie’s writing can often be funny, but I don’t think she ever got as deliberately comical and Wodehousian as she did with these loosely connected mysteries. For this reason, they do feel like unique standalones in her oeuvre.
Though the grand estate of Chimneys doesn’t feature as much in this book, it’s where the story kicks off, with a practical joke that turns into tragedy. A bunch of mischievous young people staying at the house decide to surprise their friend, an amiable but vacuous young man called Gerry Wade, notorious for sleeping in late. Eight alarm clocks are purchased and put into Gerry’s room, set to go off one after another in the early hours. Enough noise to wake up the dead… unless you really are dead, as Gerry is discovered to be the next morning. While his friends are in shock, they can’t fail to notice a strange detail: seven alarm clocks arranged on the mantelshelf in a neat row, with the eighth clock tossed out of the window.
Several characters from The Secret of Chimneys return here, including the indolent Lord Caterham and quietly thoughtful Superintendent Battle, but it’s Lord Caterham’s eldest daughter Eileen, nicknamed Bundle, who’s back in the big way, continuing Christie’s tradition of plucky and adventurous heroines. She really comes into her own as the leader of young upper-class amateur sleuths, who pit their wits against a sinister secret society of masked individuals planning robbery during an upcoming party. Teaming up with Bundle is Bill, another recurring character who still secretly pines for Bundle; Loraine Wade, Gerry’s stepsister; and Gerry’s friend Jimmy who has since lost yet another friend, also a likely victim of the Seven Dials society.
The quartet of daring young detectives gives the novel a distinctly youthful energy, and despite the murders and a life-and-death moments, the overwhelming mood is that of light, jaunty, fast-paced fun. Along the ride, the identity of the mysterious leader of Seven Dials becomes the chief mystery to solve, and I have to give Christie her due, the final reveal had me utterly flabbergasted and gasping whaaaat out loud. I suspect that the final explanation of it all made some readers furious, but though it’s admittedly silly, the novel gets away with it since there’s never a suggestion that you should be taking it too seriously to begin with. In a way, Christie does a clever job of turning the expected international spy thriller tropes against the reader.
As mentioned already, Christie’s sly and shrewd sense of humour truly shines here, especially when she chooses to make fun of the English aristocracy. The banter between Bundle, a bundle of energy if there ever was one, and her father who makes avoiding trouble, responsibility and any kind of work into a full-time job, is delightful. George Lomax, Lord Caterham’s pompous and overbearing friend, is back for some further lampooning, and there’s a minor character, a girl nicknamed Socks, with a habit of describing everything as “subtle”. She reminded me of characters from teen comedies with that one absurd quirk that turns into a running joke.
My personal favourite comic creation is Lady Coote, the wife of self-made Sir Oswald, who’s not all that happy about her husband’s rise to fame and fortune and misses her old lower middle-class life, where she could still comfortably chat with the domestic staff. The dynamic between Lady Coote and the disdainful servants at Chimneys is hilarious and well-observed.
Curiously, the book ends with a big tease of further detective adventures, but Christie must have decided that she experimented with this style of light and humorous thriller enough, and left it there.