The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Seven Dials Mystery (1929)

Seven Dials MysteryIn which we pay a return visit to the grand country mansion of Chimneys and get re-acquainted with “Bundle” Brent, that typical Christie bold adventuress who, with her friends, helps to expose the activities of the secret “Seven Dials” society, uncover the identity of its head, the mysterious No. 7, and in so doing discovers a murderer. As usual, you can read at ease, I promise I won’t reveal those secret identities if you haven’t read it yet!

detectiveIn her autobiography, Christie described this book as one of her “light-hearted thriller types”, saying it was easy to write as it didn’t require too much plotting or planning. I have to say, I think it shows; as I found re-reading this book much more of a bind than a pleasure. I found it really hard work, leaving it to one side for days and days with no interest in picking it back up. It’s not a question of the characters, I just found the plot immensely tedious. Interestingly, it wasn’t particularly well received critically at the time; in particular, the New York Times Book Review was very damning: “She has held out information which the reader should have had, and, not content with scattering false clues with a lavish hand, she has carefully avoided leaving any clues pointing to the real criminal. Worst of all, the solution itself is utterly preposterous. This book is far below the standard set by Agatha Christie’s earlier stories.”

dancingThe book is described as a sequel to The Secret of Chimneys and re-introduces us to our heroine Bundle, her slightly eccentric father Lord Caterham, our trusty police officer Superintendent Battle, Under-Secretary for State for Foreign Affairs George Lomax and his assistant Bill, and the ever-reliable butler Tredwell. The good superintendent will come back to solve three more mysteries before his time is out; the other characters never return to Christie-land. The tone of the book is once more that of jolly trendy young things making the most of their 1920s opportunities, dancing to the wireless, driving recklessly, getting their man to buy them guns, that sort of thing. Christie does reflect that world extremely convincingly and you can just see in your mind’s eye those rather vacuous characters having the time of their lives, with authority figures like Battle trying to keep them on the straight and narrow with affectionate indulgence. There’s not a lot of character development for the six “return” characters; you don’t learn much more about them than what you would have gathered in The Secret of Chimneys. However, for me, where this book falls down is its general lack of plot. I’m not surprised that I couldn’t remember much about it before re-reading it – there isn’t that much to remember.

libraryIt’s also very unevenly written. There are a few genuinely exciting, page-turning scenes which completely grip your imagination and you really enjoy the ride – for example the sequence where Jimmy, Bill, Bundle and Loraine split up and the narrative follows each of them in turn; then they all come back together again in the library, having experienced gunshots, police presence, creaking floorboards and door handles silently turning. But there are some other sequences that, when you look back you realise do have relevance to the crime and its solution, but are extraordinarily boring to read: an example of that is the interminable conversations with Lord Caterham (who really is very dull in this book) and Bundle about left-handed golf-playing. Nevertheless, the proof of the pudding, etc, tells its own story. There are some good red herrings littered everywhere, and I suspected two different people of being the murderer at different stages of the book and I was wrong on both counts – and the revelation of the identity of the murderer – and indeed of No 7 – is a very good surprise indeed. It just feels like it takes ages to get there!

secretLike her previous book, The Mystery of the Blue Train, there is no narrator to guide us through the investigations, but Christie’s own voice comes through occasionally with some slightly wry asides about the way the story is unfolding: “Now it may be said at once that in the foregoing conversation each one of the three participants had, as it were, held something in reserve. That “Nobody tells everything” is a very true motto. It may be questioned, for instance, if Loraine Wade was perfectly sincere in the account of the motives which had led her to seek out Jimmy Thesiger. In the same way, Jimmy Thesiger himself had various ideas and plans connected with the forthcoming party at George Lomax’s which he had no intention of revealing to – say, Bundle. And Bundle herself had a fully-fledged plan which she proposed to put into immediate execution and which she had said nothing whatever about.“ There is also a scene where two people are locked away in a room and it is revealed that they have fallen in love. Christie deals with that situation very nicely: “There is no need to describe in detail the conversation of the next ten minutes. It consisted mainly of repetitions.”

alarm clockWhen one of the clocks goes missing, at the scene of the first crime, was anyone else expecting them to continue going missing, in the style of And Then There Were None? This book precedes the latter by ten years, but you often catch Christie trying ideas out that she re-uses to greater effect later in her career. This, however, wasn’t one of them.

Seven DialsThere are a few locations in this book, and, unusually for Christie, they are quite specifically identified. The title itself gives rise to the Seven Dials area of London, described, amusingly, as a “rather slummy district of London”. Perhaps this is one of the best examples of how an area can be smartened up over the years. This is how the Seven Dials website describes the location: “the intriguing network of seven atmospheric streets that link Covent Garden to Soho. Always buzzy, packed with independent boutiques, international fashion labels, heritage brands, beauty salons, men’s grooming specialists, traditional pubs, cool cocktail bars, cafés, restaurants, theatres and smart hotels; historic Seven Dials is modern London’s most original shopping and lifestyle destination.” How times have changed. Christie’s Seven Dials club is located at 14 Hunstanton Street; however, I’m sorry to say, there’s no such street. There is however a genuine Seven Dials Club, based at 42 Earlham Street. Jimmy Thesiger lives at 103 Jermyn Street – a very fine and respectable address indeed. And there really is a 103! It’s the London home of that fine shirtmaker T. M. Lewin. However, when Christie wrote the book, I think Lewin’s were based at 18 Jermyn Street. Sir Oswald and Lady Coote move to “the Duke of Alton’s place, Letherbury”. No such title, I’m afraid, although there was a Marquis of Alton in the late 17th century (the Alton in question being the Staffordshire village now best known for Alton Towers). Letherbury itself appears to be a complete invention of Christie’s.

rachel-mourningThere are always a few unusual references and words in a Christie book that make me think twice and delve into their meanings – and this book is no exception. On the very first page, Christie introduces us to Lady Coote. “An artist looking for a model for “Rachel mourning for her children” would have hailed Lady Coote a delight.” Rachel? Mourning for her children? I guessed this was a Bible story of which I was unaware but I had to go check. Of course – married to Jacob. Jeremiah 31:15 is your friend.

Hispano““Father,” said Bundle […], “I’m going up to town in the Hispano. I can’t stand the monotony down here any longer.”” I wasn’t sure what a Hispano was, so I checked. The Hispano-Suiza company was a Spanish manufacturer of luxury cars, founded in 1904, defunct in 1968. At the time of this book, the company was enjoying a good position in the luxury car market. Once the Spanish Civil War kicked in, the company was forced to be part of the war effort, and after 1950 worked almost exclusively in the aerospace industry.

gimletI thought it was fascinating that at the time of writing this book, Christie called alarm clocks “alarum clocks”. I reckon this must have been a pretty archaic use of the term even in the 1920s. When Bundle first visits the Seven Dials Club she asks Alfred for a gimlet. “You must have a gimlet – perhaps you’ve got an auger as well”. I’ve never been into DIY much, but, in case you didn’t know, a gimlet is one of those little tools that looks like a screwdriver but has a screw-type ending rather than the angular flat edge ending. An auger is a bigger version. In one of Christie’s duller passages, Lady Coote reminisces about some old wallpaper she admired. “Satin stripes, you know, not moiré”. I’ve never heard of moiré – but it’s when you superimpose a line pattern on top of another. How clever of Lady Coote.

PoundUnusually for Christie, this isn’t a book where large sums of money are being mentioned, either in the form of the value of expensive jewellery, or property or blackmail sums. I always like to translate money values into what they’re worth today to get a better understanding of the amounts involved. But there are only a couple of instances, both involving Alfred. Bundle offers him £10 to scarper from the Seven Dials Club and avoid getting involved with the police; which happens to be exactly one tenth of the sum he was offered by Mosgorovsky (£100) in order to leave Chimneys and work at the Seven Dials. That tenner today is worth £444 – that’s some generosity in Bundle’s purse, for sure. And £4440 isn’t a bad sum for a footman to be poached to another employer. No wonder he did it.

I think it’s now time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Seven Dials Mystery:

Publication Details: 1929. My copy is a Fontana paperback, 4th impression published in September 1967, priced 3/6. The atmospheric cover picture is by an uncredited artist and depicts a gloved hand wielding a pistol in a most menacing manner, with somewhat ethereal alarm clocks serving as the background. And yes, the artist did get the most important detail about the gloved hand right!

How many pages until the first death: 15. That’s just about perfect. No hanging around, and it keeps you locked into the story – at least for a while.

Funny lines out of context: I liked these extracts for their pithiness and ability to amuse:

“She had reckoned without the predominant trait of a good head gardener, which is to oppose any and every suggestion made to him.”

(Lady Coote playing bridge) “She was very fond of her husband, but she had no intention of allowing him to cheat her out of ten shillings.” (That’s £20 today!)

“Mrs Howell […] was full of pitying ejaculations”.

”I went to Harrods and bought a pistol.”

Memorable characters:
Jimmy Thesiger is quite a lovable rogue in many respects, with his constantly cheeky repartee with authority figures; he was probably seen as quite a fascinating young cove in those days. The characterisation of Lady Coote starts well, but then she fades.

Christie the Poison expert:
The first victim dies from an overdose of chloral, just as in The Secret Adversary. Please feel free to read more about chloral in that blog post!

Class/social issues of the time:

What kind of life is valued in this book? For all that she’s a go-ahead, go-getting girl, Bundle is very much a traditionalist and, although she rails at boredom, what she really wants is the old-fashioned, stick-in-the-mud world of her father, where tradition beats plumbing. “”That’s a fine place of yours, Chimneys, “ remarked the great man. “I’m glad you liked it”, said Bundle meekly. “Wants new plumbing,” said Sir Oswald. “Bring it up to date, you know.” He ruminated for a minute or two. “I’m taking the Duke of Alton’s place. Three years. Just while I’m looking round for a place of my own. Your father couldn’t sell if he wanted to, I suppose?” Bundle felt her breath taken away. She had a nightmare vision of England with innumerable Cootes in innumerable counterparts of Chimneys – all, be it understood, with an entirely new system of plumbing installed.”

Aside from that, Christie’s is, as we have seen in previous books, a sexist world; and there’s plenty of evidence of that in this book. There are endless references to discussions between Jimmy and Bill to the effect that “the girls have done their bit” and are to stay behind whilst the men do the risky business. Interestingly though, Bundle and Loraine show no signs of wishing to obey by staying in and washing their hair whilst the men have adventures. Bill Eversleigh reports that George Lomax “doesn’t really believe in women standing for Parliament”; and in her brief appearance in the book, Bundle’s Aunt Marcia gives her appraisal of Mrs Macatta: “A most estimable woman with a brilliant brain. I may say that as a general rule I do not hold with women standing for Parliament. They can make their influence felt in a more womanly fashion.”

It’s also a xenophobic, if not racist world, as the following insights bear out. Here’s some antisemitism: Bill is telling Bundle about the beautiful actress Babe St Maur…: “”I wonder how she got that name?” said Bundle sarcastically. Bill replied literally. “She got it out of Who’s Who. Opened it and jabbed her finger down on a page without looking. Pretty nifty, eh? Her real name’s Goldschmidt or Abrameier – something quite impossible.” “Oh, quite”, agreed Bundle.” And here’s some anti German sentiment: Bundle tries to find out about John, the new footman, from Tredwell the butler. “”What’s his name, Tredwell?” “Bower, my lady”. […] Apparently he was the perfect servant, well trained, with an expressionless face. He had, perhaps, a more soldierly bearing than most footmen and there was something a little odd about the shape of the back of his head. […] “Tredell, how is the name Bower spelt?” “B-A-U-E-R, my lady”. “That’s not an English name.” “I believe he is of Swiss extraction, my lady.” “Oh! That’s all, Tredwell, thank you.” Swiss extraction? No. German! That martial carriage, that flat back of the head. And he had come to Chimneys a fortnight before Gerry Wade’s death.” I guess we must accept that we are in 1929 and tensions are building.

As usual, the class system is very much at large in Christie’s world. Pompous politician George feels it is incumbent on him and his ilk to preserve England’s traditions – the traditional view of life that Bundle has a soft spot for, as shown earlier: “In these days of changed and unsettled conditions […] when family life is at a premium – all the old standards falling! It becomes our class to set an example to show that we, at least, are unaffected by modern conditions. They call us the Die Hards – I am proud of the term […] There are things that should die hard – dignity, beauty, modesty, the sanctity of family life, filial respect – who dies if these shall live?” At the other end of the scale, when Bill considers if Bundle has a future in politics he sees it in terms of having to “kiss dirty babies in Bermondsey”. I expect the Mayfair babies aren’t dirty.

Classic denouement: No. It’s quite brief and it takes place in retrospect, with the guilty party already having been arrested, so you never get to see their reaction to the long arm of the law and if they try to wriggle out of it, which is a little disappointing. Nevertheless, the identity of the murderer is only one of number of good surprises, so that’s a mitigating factor.

Happy ending? Yes! Two of the major younger characters find love and you just know they’re going to settle down to a happy ever after.

Did the story ring true? If you believe that the criminal mastermind behind this case could genuinely carry off all the subterfuge and misleading behaviour that it would require, then there’s no reason not to believe the whole thing. There is, however, a lot of coincidence, perhaps most significantly the fact that Bundle was driving past at the very moment that the second victim is discovered.

Overall satisfaction rating: 5/10. It’s not all bad by any means – with some exciting passages, a good surprise ending and some enjoyable characterisation. It’s just a bit boring. Interesting that Christie never sought to revisit Chimneys for any future books.

Partners in CrimeThanks for reading my blog of The Seven Dials Mystery and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we are still in 1929, but going back to the short story genre as we catch up with Tommy and Tuppence as private investigators in Partners in Crime. If I remember rightly, this is a very entertaining read! As always, 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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