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The Secret of Chimneys

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Agatha Christie Reader review:

"This is PG Wodehouse's James Bond novel. Possibly the most rewarding book ever written, this is a giddy whirl of crown princes, foreign locations, hotels, sinister assassins, secret passages, dead foreigners, impassive detectives and blundering young things.

Let's quickly turn to the marvellously dry Superintendent Battle, who is basically Jeeves:

"Detective stories are mostly bunkum... but they amuse people... and they're useful, sometimes."

The entire cast are beautifully depicted - this is a leap on from The Mysterious Affair At Styles. The story has a firm centre with implacable Battle, plucky gal Lady Eileen "Bundle" Brent, twinkling adventuress Virginia Revel and international rogue Anthony Cade. But beyond that are a wonderfully-depicted collection of baffled gentry and bumbling foreigners.

The Well-To-Do English get both barrels from Christie, especially stuffed shirt politico George Lomax (forever on the point of a fine speech) and his assistant, the lovelorn dimwit Bill Eversleigh. A lot of Christie's casual racism actually emanates from these kind of people - the thoughtless and the pompous, who are conviced the world is off to rack-and-ruin all thanks to Johnny Foreigner. These are lazy, arrogant, wasteful people who deserve everything that's coming to them, yet somehow avoid it.

The true class of the book rests with Lord Caterham and his daughter - the Lord too wisely indolent to care, and dear Bundle crammed full of pluck and stamina and shrewd character judgment.

It is people like this who can take one look at Anthony Cade and decide that, for all his outward roguery, he's got a heart of gold and deserves a stiff cocktail. Cade may be devious and cunning, but he's a good egg - and it's a measure of all the other characters in this book how they react to him. Women adore him, both the wily Battle and the eccentric Baron Lollipop are impressed by him, and there's something about him that turns quiet waiters into cat burglars.

Cade is Christie's first Action Hero. He's full of thoughtful vim in a story where every other man is reserved. Even Supintendent Battle is practically asleep, leaving all leaping to the quasi-comical Surete Expert. Compare Cade's rugged candour to Poirot, and the contrast is remarkable - this is a man with brains and more than two gears.

His only match in the story are the gals, who are all spirited things, quite prepared, if absolutely necessary, to marry a dimwit if it's for the good of their country. But they'd rather do something ripping. Constantly coming over as much smarter than the men, they're all about quick thinking and fast cars and fun. It's what helps makes the book so giddy and clever. How perfectly screaming, as Bundle would say.

In contrast, Inspector Battle is a splendidly self-effacing non-entity. Like Jeeves he is classily classless. He's always there to say just the right thing, or offer a discrete word. His purpose is to save the day, with the minimum of fuss, and then to quietly disappear, the proprieties observed.

The foreigners are mostly there for fun and misdirection. "Talking to foreigners always makes me so thirsty" sighs Lord Caterham at one point. They may carry guns or knives, but they're always the butt of a cheap joke - with their silly names (Mr Hiram Fish), their conversational inelegance, and even their smoky rooms full of sinister plots. It's all good clean fun, and the portraits are pure Wodehouse - grandly-done sketches rather than calculated racism.

This isn't to say that the book gets off without the occasional wince. A comical Baron at one point remarks "Something wrong I knew there would be... He has married a black woman in Africa!" which is regrettable pidgin, to say the least. But, I suppose, it fits with the times.

Christie is actually at her most blistering when she looks at the English lower-middle-classes. Here's her description of daytrippers to Chimneys:

"Bert, the humorist of the party, nudges his girl and says 'Eh! Gladys, they've got two pennyworth of pictures here right enough.' And then they go and look at more pictures and yawn and shuffle their feet and wish it was time to go home."

She's also at her bleakest (understandably) when describing Public Transport: "My belief in the brotherhood of man died the day I arrived in London last week, when I observed people standing in a Tube train resolutely refuse to move up and make room."

As a sentiment it seems to sit oddly in what looks like such a creamy froth of a book - but then, when you step back, you realise this is a dark subversion of Wodehouse: If these upper class fools really are running the country, then who is to save us? That this book manages to offer its own, quietly subversive solution is the real Secret of Chimneys."

SPOILERS

Seven years previously, the Balkan state of Herzoslovakia had one of its periodic revolutions that resulted in the death and bodily mutilation of its monarch, King Nicholas IV and his wife Queen Varaga. The latter personage was the cause of the uprising, as she was formerly a dancer at the Folies Bergère called Angèle Mory. This woman had been bribed by a Herzoslovakian revolutionary organisation called the "Comrades of the Red Hand" to lure the King into a trap when he visited Paris but instead she double-crossed them, seduced Nicholas and subsequently married him. The populace did not like their Queen coming from such common and dubious stock, hence the uprising and the establishment of a republic which has been in force ever since.

Now the people of Herzoslovakia wish to restore the monarchy and offer the vacant crown to the exiled Prince Michael Obolovitch, a distant relation of the murdered King. The British government are acting as powerbrokers to the restoration in return for which they want oil concessions in the state. The head of the syndicate who is financing the deal, Herman Isaacstein, is to meet Prince Michael at the English country house of Chimneys whose reluctant owner, the ninth Marquis of Caterham, is bullied into hosting the get-together by George Lomax, a foreign office minister. A difficulty has arisen though: a Count Stylptitch, twice Prime Minister of Herzoslovakia and in exile in Paris since the revolution, died two months previously and his memoirs—believed to contain many indiscreet references to the Herzoslovakia monarchy—were smuggled to Bulawayo and the care of a gold prospector living there called Jimmy McGrath who four years ago saved the Count's life when he was being attacked in Paris. As part of his will, the Count has asked the trusted Mr McGrath to safely deliver in person the manuscript of his memoirs to a firm of London publishers on or before 13 October in return for one thousand pounds and McGrath is due to arrive in London the next day.

What Lomax doesn't know is that McGrath's gold prospecting is about to bear fruit in Bulawayo and he is loath to leave Africa. Meeting Anthony Cade, an old friend and a similar adventurer to himself, one day in that city, he asked Anthony to impersonate him and deliver the manuscript for a quarter share of the thousand pounds. McGrath had another task which he wanted Anthony to carry out: he came into the possession of a set of letters from an Englishwoman called Virginia Revel to her lover, a Captain O'Neill, which have been used to blackmail Mrs Revel and which McGrath wanted to be returned to her, thus saving her from further embarrassment. Anthony agreed to deliver both sets of documents.

Arriving in London, Anthony checks into the Blitz hotel where several attempts by fair means and foul are made to obtain the manuscript. The final one is at night when one of the hotel waiters, Giuseppe, enters Anthony's room. He wakes and the two men fight but Giuseppe gets away, not with the manuscript but with Virginia Revel's letters. The next day Giuseppe visits that lady and blackmails her with one of the letters. She gives him forty pounds but doesn't reveal to the man that she has no idea who the letters came from—although in her name, she is not their author. She expresses her puzzlement to George Lomax who has asked her to also be one of the house party at Chimneys—as the widow of a former diplomat to Herzoslovakia she will be just the person to charm Prince Michael. Anthony completes his task for Jimmy McGrath when a Mr Holmes of the publishers collects the manuscript from him and hands him the cheque for the agreed amount. He also receives, in the name of McGrath, a government invitation to the meeting at Chimneys where it is hoped he will be persuaded not to hand over the manuscript at all. Anthony decides to travel under his own name, stay at the village inn outside the house and investigate matters. Before that he visits the Pont Street home of Virginia Revel where that lady has returned after a tennis match to find the dead body of Giuseppe in her study. On him is a scrap of paper with "Chimneys 11.45 Thursday" written on it. Anthony finds out about Virginia's invitation to that house and deduces that their unknown opponents are attempting to stop her travelling there. To outwit them he will dispose of the body (in a trunk in the left luggage department of Paddington Station) and follow Virginia to Chimneys—she instinctively trusts this "Ex-Eton and Oxford" man.

At the appointed time on the Thursday night a murder is committed at Chimneys on the eve of the concessions meeting. Travelling under the pseudonym of "Count Stanislaus" the murdered man is none other than Prince Michael Obolovitch. George Lomax insists that Inspector Battle of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate. Footprints are spotted in the grass leading to and from the open window to the council chamber where the body was found and the police’s suspicions are immediately drawn to the arrival of a stranger at the village inn the night before, Anthony Cade. Further investigations are confounded though when the self-confident Anthony suddenly appears at the house and introduces himself; moreover he tells Battle and the police all of the events to date, judiciously omitting the story of Virginia's letters and the later murder and concealment of Giuseppe. He further reveals to them that he did indeed come to Chimneys the previous night and manages to convince the investigators that he was lured there on a pretext and they set him up for the crime. Anthony though is in for a shock though when he is shown the body of Prince Michael: it is Mr Holmes who collected the manuscript from Anthony at the Blitz Hotel.

Aside from Isaacstein and Virginia Revel (who vouches for Anthony) a third visitor to the house is Hiram P. Fish who is there to inspect Lord Caterham's collection of first editions; his other hobby is criminology and he takes a close interest in events in the house.

Two strands of investigation take place in the house: the official one and Anthony's own. The police are interested in who benefits from Prince Michael's death and are told that his successor for the vacant throne is Prince Nicholas, a somewhat dissolute young man who has not been seen for several years in his wanderings around the globe. Anthony meanwhile is interested in the occupant of a room whose light he saw briefly go on and off when he heard the shot at the time of the murder and "Bundle" Brent, Lord Caterham’s eldest daughter, tells him that is the room of Mademoiselle Brun, the French governess to her two young sisters, who has been with them only two months from her previous position in a Château in Dinard. There is a further French connection with the matter when Anthony finds a bearded stranger with a French accent near the boathouse in the grounds who claims to be lost while on a walk from his stay at the village inn.

Matters are further complicated by news that the master jewel thief, King Victor, has been released from jail in France and might be in the area. His connection with the case is that Angèle Mory, in her days before becoming Nicholas IV’s consort, was an accomplice of King Victor's and there is every reason to suppose that she was involved, while Queen, with the most audacious theft King Victor ever committed: the theft of the Koh-i-Noor diamond from the Tower of London (a paste copy being substituted and the public not being informed of the event). Queen Varaga was a guest at Chimneys at the time and it is believed she hid the jewel somewhere in the house and now, seven years after her death, King Victor has come to get it back.

Anthony meets Mademoiselle Brun and his suspicions of her are allayed when he sees the plain middle-aged woman; nevertheless he gets permission to go to Dinard to follow up on her references. While he is away there is a midnight break-in at Chimneys when Virginia and Bill Eversleigh, one of George Lomax's staff from the Foreign Office, surprise a shadowy intruder who is searching the council chamber. Virginia and Bill's attempts to apprehend the man are foiled by Mr. Fish who mistakes them for the intruder; the real one gets away through an open window.

Anthony returns from France—Mademoiselle Brun has proven to be above suspicion—and learns of the break-in. He realises that another attempt might be made and he joins Virginia and Bill that night when they successfully apprehend the bearded French stranger, only for Battle to reveal that it is Monsieur Lemoine of the Sûreté. This officer had been keeping watch on the house and had again seen movement in the council chamber. His "apprehension" by Anthony and his friends has again meant the suspect has got away. Lemoine is on the trail, with Scotland Yard, of the Koh-i-Noor and he tells them that Angèle Mory sent coded letters to King Victor using the aliases of "Captain O’Neill" and "Virginia Revel" (who Mory knew from her husband's posting to the British Embassy in Herzoslovakia) and it is these that have been mistaken as the blackmailing letters. These were stolen from King Victor and found their way to Africa and, eventually, Jimmy McGrath. Anthony is non-plussed though when the letters, stolen from his Blitz hotel room, reappear mysteriously on his dressing-table at Chimneys. Battle's theory is that they have been returned as King Victor has been unable to decode them and, knowing that the council chamber is now heavily watched, is letting the authorities decode the message and find the jewel which he will then take at his convenience. He and Lomax decide to take the bait and employ an expert codebreaker, Professor Wynwood, who deduces that the coded message is "Richmond seven straight eight left three right". Bundle equates this to an old passage behind a Holbein painting but the trail proves fruitless.

After several preparations Anthony reveals to the assembled people at Chimneys that the "Richmond" reference in the code was to a valuable book on the life of the Earl of Richmond in the library. This revelation though is a trap for the murderer of Prince Michael: Mademoiselle Brun, in reality the supposedly dead Queen Varaga (whose "body" seven years ago was a substitution, mutilated beyond recognition). This time she really is killed in a struggle over a revolver with Boris Anchoukoff, Prince Michael's loyal valet, in the library as she tries to retrieve the jewel. Anthony realises that the real Mademoiselle Brun might well have been kidnapped on the passage from Dinard and that the murder of Giuseppe in Virginia's house was an attempt to stop that lady going to Chimneys where she would be the only person who could recognise the former Queen. There was one other person there though who also knew her—Prince Michael—and when he found her searching the council chamber, she shot him. Anthony reveals another substitution when he produces the real Monsieur Lemoine who had been held in a house in Dover, whose address slipped out of the impostor's pocket and that impostor is none other than King Victor. The man tries to get away but is stopped by Mr. Fish, in reality an American agent.

Anthony has several final surprises. The memoirs he gave to "Mr Holmes" were false: he gives the real memoirs (which have no incriminating anecdotes after all) to Jimmy to deliver to the publishers to get his one thousand pounds. The "Richmond" clue refers not to a painting or book but to the rose bed in the grounds. Anthony is the missing Prince Nicholas (who even King Victor impersonated in the United States) and he has just married Virginia, who will be his Queen.

The missing diamond is subsequently recovered in the rose bed as predicted.

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