Another early Christie novel that I’ve never read before, this one is a fun and lighthearted romp about a slightly hapless but endearing young duo of amateur sleuths.
Somehow I almost completely missed out on the “light romp” phase of Dame Agatha’s career, which so far has been delightful to discover on my re-readathon. Though it’s more of a conventional murder mystery than a thriller, this book is very close in spirit to The Seven Dials Mystery, sharing the same sense of youthful energy, humour, and some silliness that you just have to roll along with.
The story begins with a round of golf in Marchbolt, Wales. After an erratic slice, Bobby Jones, fourth son of the local vicar, is retrieving the ball when he comes across a man who appears to have fallen over the cliff. As he waits by the body while his friend is getting the police, Bobby hears the man’s last dying words: Why didn’t they ask Evans? Two more things of note happen: Bobby accidentally discovers a photo of a hauntingly beautiful young woman in the dead man’s pocket, and yet another stranger on the scene with the fanciful name Bassington-ffrench graciously offers Bobby to look after the body.
Bobby’s friend, Lady Frances Derwent a.k.a. Frankie, remarks idly on how much more exciting it would be if the mystery man was pushed off the cliff. Bobby doesn’t think much of it until, upon Frankie’s urging, he dutifully tells the family of the deceased about the cryptic last words. Soon after, very strange things start to happen to Bobby: first a sudden job offer in Buenos Aires and then a morphia poisoning that he miraculously survives. It seems that more went on that day at the cliff than a simple accident, and so Bobby and Frankie decide to play sleuths and track down the most obvious suspect, Mr Bassington-ffrench.
There follows a very busy narrative that involves family drama, country house mystery, another murder, drugs, light romance and a sinister sanatorium straight out of a gothic novel. So much goes on in fact that I completely forgot about the initial mystery of Evans, which has a whole different extensive backstory that requires digging up. Despite this abundance of incidents and information, the story manages to flow smoothly, without unravelling. You’re clearly not supposed to take it all too seriously, which comes in handy in the finale, when the book turns into a thriller with daring escapes and improbable disguises that an author can just get away with on a page.
The novel owes much of its success to Bobby and Frankie, who as a duo I much preferred to Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Christie does an interesting thing here by throwing in a significant class difference between our protagonists, which complicates their dynamic. Before they get thrown into an adventure together, there’s an understanding that Bobby and Frankie don’t quite fit into each other’s worlds, despite their mutual fondness and good memories of playing together as children at Frankie’s family castle. Her glittering title opens the doors and avenues that otherwise would never have opened for Bobby.
I managed to guess a significant portion of the mystery, but when it came to the identity of the ultimate baddie, I was misled just as much as our detective duo. I did wish for more scenes between Bobby and his disapproving vicar father, who share a hilarious set piece early on in the book that once again demonstrates Christie’s superb comical flair.