The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Secret of Chimneys (1925)

Secret of ChimneysIn which we meet chancer and adventurer Anthony Cade, who helps Scotland Yard solve the mysteries of identifying both jewel thief “King Victor” and a royal assassin. It’s a thoroughly jolly jaunt, and Anthony Cade certainly experiences almost everything one can experience within the space of 218 pages. Naturally you can safely read this article and I won’t give anything away regarding whodunit. Promise!

Blitz HotelOnce again Christie travelled further afield for her next adventure. Picking up from where The Man in the Brown Suit left off, and using her recently acquired familiarity with southern Africa, we first meet Mr Cade and his pal Jimmy McGrath on the streets of Bulawayo, which in itself constitutes Coincidence Number One of several. But unlike that earlier book, which starts in England and ends in Africa, this one works the other way round, and it’s not long before Cade, impersonating McGrath, is staying at the Blitz (yes, not the Ritz) Hotel and snooping around the great and the good of British Governmental society. Christie continues to tease us by denying us (again) the return of Hercule Poirot. Instead, Cade himself dons the mantle of amateur sleuth and works alongside Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard. Battle would reappear in four more books over the next twenty years; Mr Cade, for reasons that are self-evident when you reach the end of this book, doesn’t. A shame, perhaps, because Cade is a much more entertaining character in comparison with stolid old Battle.

Abney HallChristie dedicated the book to “my nephew, in memory of an inscription at Compton Castle and a day at the zoo”. The nephew in question was James Watts, who would become Conservative MP for Manchester Moss Side in the 1959 election – only to die two years later at the age of 57. My guess is that the zoo was Paignton Zoo, which had only opened in 1923. But most commentators don’t believe that Compton Castle is the basis for Chimneys – that honour goes to Abney Hall in Cheadle, owned by Christie’s brother in law, James, the father of the aforementioned nephew. Certainly grand country mansions like Abney Hall feature throughout Christie’s career, from Styles, through Chimneys to The Mousetrap’s Monkswell Manor. Chimneys of course, is the Caterham family seat, and the previous Lord Caterham was at one point Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Today the Foreign Secretary lives at Chevening House in Kent – but that tradition only began in the 1960s. So we can’t associate Chevening with Chimneys, alliterative though it would have been.

Koh-I-NoorEveryone knows about the Koh-i-noor diamond. It’s currently set in the Queen Mother’s crown, on display at the Tower of London. It came into the possession of the Royal Family after the British conquest of the Punjab in 1849. Unsurprisingly, the governments of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran have all laid claim to ownership of the jewel – but the Queen’s not budging on this one. In Chimneys, Jimmy recollects that Count Stylptitch announced that “he knew where the Koh-i-noor was”, implying that it was not, actually, at the Tower of London (in those days it was set in Queen Mary’s crown) – and indeed, it is revealed that King Victor has stolen the Koh-i-… “”Hush Battle!” George glanced suspiciously round him. “I beg of you, mention no names. Much better not. If you must speak of it, call it the K.”” So Christie is nicely playing with reality here by pretending that the K has been stolen – when we presume it hadn’t.

Chateau de BreteuilThe book also features a nice mix of real locations and pretend ones. As mentioned earlier, Chimneys is probably based on Abney Hall, but does not exist itself per se. The local police are based at Market Basing, which doesn’t exist but in your mind’s eye you cross Market Harborough with Basingstoke, and you get a well-to-do market town. As an aside, The Market Basing Mystery is a short story featuring Hercule Poirot and Inspector Japp (but not Battle) that was first published in The Sketch in May 1925, subsequently part of the collection The Under Dog and other Stories that was published in 1929. Virginia Revel’s home address is listed as 487 Pont Street, London; in real life Pont Street exists, a fashionable street not far from Harrod’s – but the numbers don’t go up that high. Anthony Cade discovers that Mlle Brun’s reference came from the Chateau de Breteuil, and so goes to meet Mme de Breteuil to confirm it. Fascinatingly, the Chateau exists, and the family of the Marquis de Breteuil still live there today. It was where the Entente Cordiale first had its origins, and back in 1912, the Prince of Wales – later to be Duke of Windsor – stayed there for four months to learn French. So there’s a huge slice of reality in this (admittedly minor) aspect to the book. No wonder Anthony found nothing wrong with Mlle Brun’s reference. When Cade goes on the run to Langly Road Dover, the mysterious address on the mysterious piece of torn paper, I don’t know how he finds the house because the road itself doesn’t exist.

1920s partyWhat marks this book apart from Mrs Christie’s previous offerings is its constant sheer light-heartedness. It’s a very flippant book; the tone is light comedy throughout. Even Christie herself admits it’s money for old rope: “Detective stories are mostly bunkum,” said Battle unemotionally. “But they amuse people.” Tongue in cheek, Christie couldn’t be bothered to provide a description of Chimneys house herself: “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.” Butlers bring tea and cakes amongst the corpses of the murder victims. Characters like Bundle, with lines like: “mother got tired of having nothing but girls and died” might make you think of PG Wodehouse. Plot escapades where a character sneezes and almost alerts the bad guys to the presence of the good guys at the Council Chamber at Chimneys bring to mind something out of one of Mr Ben Travers’ Aldwych farces. Conversations such as “I say Virginia, I do love you so awfully – “ “Not this morning, Bill. I’m not strong enough. Anyway, I’ve always told you the best people don’t propose before lunch” could easily be dropped into Noel Coward’s Private Lives or something similar. Caterham is portrayed as an old buffoon, Cade as a dashing hero, Lemoine as an over-excitable Frenchman, the King’s valet Boris as a hammy actor and Baron Lolopretjzyl insists on ending each sentence with a verb in the best Germanic tradition so that he comes across as Yoda’s long lost cousin; laughing at foreigners it is. Cade’s pet name for him of Baron Lollipop is pure Wodehouse/Travers.

AssassinIt’s also incredibly patronising. The whole story centres on the little known and purely fictional Balkan state of Herzoslovakia. The name is clearly a portmanteau of two other eastern European countries, and it’s designed to represent some kind of Ruritanian backwater, out of which clever English people can take the Mickey. We’ve already seen how characters like the Baron and Boris are figures of fun. Herzoslovakians are described by Lomax as “most uncivilized people – a race of brigands”. Cade gives us a very dismissive description of the country: “Principal rivers, unknown. Principal mountains, also unknown, but fairly numerous. Capital, Ekarest. Population, chiefly brigands. Hobby, assassinating kings and having revolutions”. Cade and McGrath are also merciless with their use of the word “dago”. I guess in 1925 it didn’t have the same racist overtone it does today, but following their conversations with the word littered in almost every sentence makes for extremely uncomfortable reading: “just pulled the dago out of the river”; “any name’s good enough for a dago”; “dagos will be dagos”.

PassportThe character of Herman Isaacstein provides opportunities for some playful yet distinctly anti-Semitic name-calling, with Caterham referring to him Ikey Hermanstein, and even Bundle calling him “Fat Iky”. Part of Caterham’s comic persona is his distrust of foreigners and unwillingness to mix: “I don’t get on with Canadians, never did – especially those that have lived much in Africa!” Constable Johnson is disappointed that the murder victim at Chimneys wasn’t a decent Englishman. ““I’m sorry it were a foreigner” said Johnson, with some regret. It made the murder seem less real. Foreigners, Johnson felt, were liable to be shot” – an interesting take on blame the victim. And this patronising and insulting tone isn’t just reserved for “foreigners”. Women too, are seen as very much second-class citizens in the eyes of Lomax: “it has occurred to me… that a woman might be very useful here. Told enough and not too much, you understand. A woman could handle the whole thing delicately and with tact – put the position before him, as it were, without getting his back up. Not that I approve of women in politics – St Stephen’s is ruined, absolutely ruined, nowadays. But woman in her own sphere can do wonders. Look at Henry’s wife and what she did for him. Marcia was magnificent, unique a perfect political hostess.”

Royal Prince CrownAnother verbal trick that works well in this book, and happily doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable, is the 1920s small talk, and in particular its gift for fine understatement. When Battle informs Cade that the gentleman who was murdered was a royal personage, Cade simply replies: “that must be deuced awkward”. The understatement really emphasises the sense of the ridiculous. Here, Virginia is trying to find someone to ask advice as she sits at home with a murdered man. ““Oh damn!” cried Virginia, jamming down the receiver. It was horrible to be shut up with a dead body and to have no one to speak to.” Even Battle succumbs to this style, as he explains why the equerry, Captain Andrassy, did not come to Chimneys with the Prince: ”it’s perfectly simple. He stayed in town to make arrangements with a certain lady, on behalf of Prince Michael, for next weekend. The Baron rather frowned on such things, thinking them injudicious at the present stage of affairs, so His Highness had to go about them in a hole-and-corner manner. He was, if I may say so, inclined to be a rather – er – dissipated young man.”

memoirsWhen you have stories like this that are almost a century old, I think it’s interesting to convert any financial values mentioned to what they would be worth today – it gives you a better understanding of the size of rewards, or blackmails and so on. There are only a couple of instances of this in the book, but the £1000 that Jimmy would receive for the safe delivery of Count Stylptitch’s memoirs is worth about £42,500 today – that’s a pretty good reward. When Virginia allows herself to be blackmailed just to see what it feels like, she pays over £40 – and that’s the equivalent today of £1,700. That’s a pretty hefty petty cash tin she’s got.

St StephensChristie often uses words, phrases and references that were obviously fully understandable back in the day but have not kept pace with time. When Anthony remembers the first occasion he met Jimmy, he describes rescuing him from cannibals, saying it was a “very nice little shindy”. Shindy? Well, replace it with the more modern “shindig” and you have your meaning. Lomax’s observation that “St Stephen’s is ruined” mentioned a little earlier I believe must refer to St. Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster. In a harkback to the Kilmorden Castle of The Man in the Brown Suit, Anthony’s arrival back in England is confused by Bill when he checks the itinerary of the Carnfrae Castle instead of the Granarth Castle. All these liners are fictitious, but the Union Castle line, which ran them, was certainly real, and only ceased trading in 1977.

Evening DressVirginia asks her maid to pack her “new Cailleux evening dress”. I think this is a made-up fashion designer. There was a model by the name of Barbara Cailleux but she was active in the 1950s and so it can’t refer to her. However, if you know more, please let me know! Cade in conversation with Battle, reflecting on the open middle window, says “either he was killed by someone in the house and that someone unlatched the window after I had gone to make it look like an outside job – incidentally with me as Little Willie…” Julius in The Secret Adversary uses the same name for his gun. Not quite sure of the reference here, but Little Willie was the name given to the first tank prototype constructed in 1915. However, if you think Cade is referring to anything else, again please let me know! I was amused at Cade’s use of the phrase all will be gas and gaiters, primarily because it reminded me of that great 1960s comedy series, but it did make me wonder where the phrase came from. It’s the invention of Charles Dickens, in Nicholas Nickleby. A nameless old gentleman who is courting Miss La Creevy uses it to suggest that everything will be wonderful.

PanhardBundle’s two young sisters who are looked after by Mlle Brun are named Dulcie and Daisy, “like the song, you know. I dare say they’d have called the next one Dorothy May”. This refers to a song written by A L Harris, entitled “Three Green Bonnets”, published in 1901 and made famous by none other than Dame Nellie Melba. “”You modern young people seem to have such unpleasant ideas about love-making,” said Lord Caterham plaintively. “It comes from reading The Sheik,” said Bundle. “Desert love. Throw her about, etc. “ “What is The Sheik?” asked Lord Caterham simply. “Is it a poem?” Bundle looked at him with commiserating pity.” The Sheik, of course, was the archetypal desert romance novel written by Edith Maude Hull and published in 1919. It was the source for the famous film starring Rudolph Valentino. Bundle, as a modern woman, is happy to get behind the wheel of the Panhard – and clearly is a reckless driver. I confess I hadn’t heard of Panhards before. Rene Panhard was a pioneer of the motor car industry in France, his first vehicle being sold in 1890. They look rather nice, as you can see in this photograph.

WorstedCan anyone help me with the phrase: “I retire worsted”? Cade says it to Lemoine when he’s baffled. And Bundle says to Virginia, “I hate that man with his prim little black beard and his eyeglasses…. I hope Anthony does snoo him. I’d love to see him dancing with rage.” Snoo doesn’t appear in my OED and possible definitions of it on Urban Dictionary all seem unlikely. Any ideas? And to explain the reference to King Victor’s Bertillon measurements, I refer you to my blog about The Murder on the Links.

La France roseThere are a couple of significant passages in the book where characters are visiting the Rose Garden. The reader doesn’t realise the significance until much later in the book. I wondered, when reading this passage, whether the types of rose mentioned exist in real life: Madame Abel Chatenay, Frau Carl Drusky, La France, and Richmond. Well yes they do! Madame Abel Chatenay is a pink, climbing hybrid tea rose introduced in 1917. Frau Carl Drusky is less easy to trace but it does get a mention in an old newspaper article about a “Penrith Garden” from 1915 (that’s Penrith, New South Wales.) La France was introduced way back in 1867. The Richmond rose, though, I cannot trace – unless any keen rose growers out there know different!

David and UriahAnd once again Christie shames me for my lack of Bible knowledge. Virginia says of the time that Prince Michael wanted to marry her – although she was already married – that “he had a sort of David and Uriah scheme all made out”. Not David Copperfield and Uriah Heep, but Uriah the Hittite, married to Bathsheba, whom King David fancied something rotten and impregnated, so he murdered him. Chapter 11 of the Second Book of Samuel has all the details.

And now I give you my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Secret of Chimneys:

Publication Details: 1925. My copy is a Pan paperback, published in 1956, priced 2/-. I rather like its colourful and melodramatic cover!

How many pages until the first death: 56; and then the second death comes ten pages later. Although both are relevant to the story, much more is made of the second death than the first!

Funny lines out of context:
“McGrath poured out his own drink, tossed it off with a practised hand and mixed a second one.”
“It was the waiter, Giuseppe. In his right hand gleamed a long thing knife. He hurled himself straight upon Anthony, who was by now fully conscious of his own danger. He was unarmed and Giuseppe was evidently thoroughly at home with his own weapon.”
“You’re a man in a thousand, Battle. Either you have taken an extraordinary fancy to me or else you’re extraordinarily deep”.

Memorable characters:
Plenty. This is where the book scores well. Anthony Cade is a wise cracking chap, matey with his mates, charming with the girls; risk-taking, heroic, noble and thoroughly aspirational. And there’s a surprise up his sleeve kept for the end of the book which makes him even more extraordinary. Virginia Revel is also a very spirited, daring character and the two spark off each other very well. I also liked the ploddingly decent Bill, and Boris the bodyguard/servant is as camp as a row of tents. Bundle is full of 1920s spirit, and Lord Caterham an amusingly lean and slippered pantaloon.

Christie the Poison expert:
Still on vacation. This book is all to do with gunshots.

Class/social issues of the time:

The main background to the book is the political stability of the fictitious Herzoslovakia. On the one hand you have the threatening behaviour of members of the Comrades of the Red Hand and on the other you have the British government supporting the reinstatement of the monarchy under Prince Michael Obolovitch. With all the monarchists seen as thoroughly decent, if occasionally eccentric, and all the republicans as lunatic criminal obsessives, it’s not hard to see where Christie’s sympathy lie.

Christie also reveals her belief in that old adage that people may be socialists in their youth, but once they grow up a bit, they see sense. That’s how she characterises Cade: “it was rather pleasant to be back in London again. Everything was changed of course. There had been a little restaurant there – just past Blackfriars Bridge – where he had dined fairly often, in company with other earnest lads. He had been a Socialist then, and worn a flowing red tie. Young – very young.” Bundle is emphatically a socialist – at least according to her father.

Foreigners/Race Relations – A massive amount of anti-foreigner material as I outlined earlier, that can actually make you feel extremely uncomfortable reading it, even though you know that in the day it wasn’t considered anywhere like as offensive as it comes across today. No race or country seems to go without criticism. Towards the end there is a brief conversation between two characters that feels very uncomfortable today: “Merciful God in heaven! He has married a black woman in Africa!” “Come, come, it’s not so bad as all that…she’s white enough – white all through, bless her.”

Classic denouement: Yes – you see Cade going about hither and thither, inviting people to join him at Chimneys later that evening and you know that it’s going to result in a classic showdown. What appears to be one crime is cunningly broken down into two parts, which adds to the excitement and protraction of revealing all the relevant secrets. I couldn’t remember the story nor whodunit when I first started to read; but about sixty pages before the end there was a scene that prompted me to make a guess as to the identity of King Victor – and I was right. However, there’s a wonderful build-up in the denouement where, right before the end, you have a sudden doubt and think that just maybe it could be someone else. Then you find out you were right all along. It’s a beautifully written scene.

Happy ending? Yes – if more than a trifle far-fetched. One couple get married just before the end of the book, and although that’s all jolly good for them, other people are left behind probably feeling slightly heartbroken.

Did the story ring true? It is far-fetched, and generally preposterous, but, on reflection I reckon it could all just about happen.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. It is a very exciting read, and with some great characterisation, and full of twisty turns in the plot. I would have scored it higher had it not been for the fact that a) I did guess the identity of King Victor and b) the anti-foreigner remarks that litter the book really make you squirm at times.

Thanks for reading my blog of The Secret of Chimneys and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment – but don’t tell us whodunit! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge it’s 1926, and it’s a biggie – for many, her masterpiece – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with Hercule Poirot – I’ve missed the old chap over the last couple of books! I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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