The Agatha Christie Challenge – Towards Zero (1944)

Towards ZeroIn which tennis star Nevile Strange takes his new wife Kay to stay with his late guardian’s widow, Lady Tressilian, when his first wife, Audrey, is also visiting. Tempers flare, old flames are kindled, and old scores are settled. After one apparently accidental death and another that’s definitely murder, Superintendent Battle, together with his nephew Inspector Leach, questions the suspects and gets to the bottom of what actually happened. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

robert gravesThe book is dedicated “To Robert Graves. Dear Robert, since you are kind enough to say you like my stories, I venture to dedicate this book to you. All I ask is that you should sternly restrain your critical faculties (doubtless, sharpened by your recent excesses in that line!) when reading it. This is a story for your pleasure and not a candidate for Mr. Graves’ literary pillory! Your friend, Agatha Christie.” Robert Graves was, of course, a famous and successful writer, who created works such as Goodbye to All That, I Claudius, and Claudius the God. I’m not sure what the recent excesses that Christie refers to in this dedication are. They were clearly good friends anyway! Towards Zero was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly in three parts in May 1944, under the title Come and Be Hanged! The book was first published in the US in June 1944 under its usual title of Towards Zero by Dodd, Mead and Company, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club in one month later.

zeroI remember reading this book as a youngster and being frustrated that there wasn’t a nice juicy murder for me to get my teeth into right from the start. In fact, you have to wait till just over halfway through the book before anyone dies. I confess, that was my immature reaction to the book. Today, I can see that its charm and power come from all the trails that it creates in the run up to the murder taking place. Not only are you trying to identify possible motives for murder, you’re also working out who the likely victims might be as well as who is likely to have done the deed. It gets you thinking and operating your own little grey cells, even though Hercule Poirot isn’t present to supervise you – although Superintendent Battle, on this final occasion that we have dealings with him, remembers the old man at one point and gets some sleuthing inspiration from him.

old family solicitorIt’s narrated in the third person but still has quite a complicated structure. We start off with a brief prologue, dated November 19th, where old Mr Treves discusses an unrelated legal case with his colleagues and points out what he sees is a fault with crime fiction: “they begin in the wrong place! They begin with the murder. But the murder is the end. The story begins long before that – years before sometimes – with all the causes and events that bring certain people to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day […] all converging towards a given spot […] Zero Hour.” And that is the structure of this book, gathering those threads together that lead their way towards a crime being committed.

cliff edgeThe next part of the book, “Open the Door and Here are the People” introduces us to the rest of the cast of the story, in the sequence in which their involvement begins – and with each section dated, in chronological order. Thus, on January 11th, we meet Angus MacWhirter, having failed at an attempt at suicide, trying to work out how to piece his life together – as well as hiding from the law as suicide was illegal in those days. A little later we see him get a job, but then MacWhirter then disappears from the narrative for 110 pages, because he has no active role in the lead up to the crime. February 14th sees a nameless hand write a plan; presumably the murderer working out the deviousness of their plot. Come March, and Superintendent Battle hits our radar, with a domestic problem of his daughter in school. Nice to know that Battle has a family life, I don’t think that’s something that was ever addressed before. No information is wasted in this very tight book, and Battle’s experience with his daughter does play a part in his detection in due course.

women-arguingOn April 19th we see Nevile and Kay together for the first time and form a strong opinion on how they spend their daily life together. In May we meet to Audrey, and Thomas Royde, whose late brother was in love with Audrey before she married Nevile; and we become reacquainted with Mr Treves, planning to visit Lady Tressilian. By the time August comes around, we’ve met all the dramatis personae and nothing can change the eventual outcome. By this gradual introduction of characters, plots and relationships, you can see how the separate threads of this story merge together; unusual for Christie, and it keeps your attention throughout.

PoliceAs I mentioned earlier, Towards Zero marks the point where Agatha Christie and Superintendent Battle part company; and Christie takes the opportunity to fill in some gaps where it comes to Battle, his life and personality. Up till now we’ve only ever seen him as the totally solid, slightly slow, playing-by-the-book, highly traditional character. Christie has thrown out a few clues in his previous cases about his character, but nothing much. From The Secret of Chimneys: “Detective stories are mostly bunkum,” said Battle unemotionally. “But they amuse people.” From Cards on the Table, talking to Miss Burgess: “I don’t want to say anything against your sex but there’s no doubt that a woman, when she’s rattled, is apt to lash out with her tongue a bit”. Now in Towards Zero, Battle seems to have much more space to be himself. He’s very much a mentor to his nephew, Inspector Leach, who is almost pathetically grateful to his uncle for any help: “You’ll give me a hand, won’t you, Uncle, over this? First case of this kind I’ve had.”

suspiciousBattle controls the investigation with a fair hand and an open mind. But Christie is keen to point out that Battle is actually full of his own little prejudices, and whilst Inspector Leach is introducing themselves to the wider Strange family, Battle is silently judging them all from his own preconceptions: “his view of them might have surprised them had they known it. It was a sternly biased view. No matter what the law pretends as to regarding people as innocent until they are proved guilty, Superintendent Battle always regarded everyone connected with a murder case as a potential murderer […] These were Superintendent Battle’s thoughts: Suppose that’s Miss Aldin. Cool customer – competent woman, I should say. Won’t catch her off her guard easily. Man next to her is a dark horse – got a groggy arm – poker face – got an inferiority complex as likely as not. That’s one of these wives, I suppose – she’s scared to death – yes, she’s scared all right. Funny about that coffee cup. That’s Strange, I’ve seen him before somewhere. He’s got the jitters all right – nerves shot to pieces. Red-headed girl’s a tartar- devil of a temper. Brains as well as temper, though.”

PoirotBattle can’t place why he can’t stop thinking of Poirot, although he suspects it must be something to do with the psychology of the case. Leach considers Poirot to be a “comic little guy”, but Battle’s having none of that. “Comic my foot […] about as dangerous as a black mamba and a she-leopard! […] Keep a murderer talking – that’s one of his lines. Says everyone is bound to speak what’s true sooner or later – because in the end it’s easier than telling lies. And so they make some little slip they don’t think matters – and that’s when you get them.” In fact, Poirot comes into Battle’s head because of a very revealing instance of non-symmetry; following that through gives Battle a big clue as to whodunit and how.

juan les pinsRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. In this book, the majority of places are certainly made up. The book’s setting of Saltcreek, opposite Easterhead, not far from Saltington, is purely fictional. There is a Saltcreek – but it’s in Australia; there is also a River Tern, but this is a tributary of the River Severn and so never meets the sea. St. Loo is mentioned; this is the setting for Peril at End House, but it doesn’t exist – although I have read commentators who equate St Loo with Torquay. However, Hindhead, of course, where Nevile Strange lives, does exist, in Surrey; as does Juan les Pins, on the French Riviera, where Kay and Ted Latimer had met on holiday when they were young. “I see they’ve detained a man in the Kentish Town trunk case” says Mary Aldin. Kentish Town, of course, does exist, but I don’t think it’s ever seen a “trunk case”.

hanging-judgeThere are just a couple of other interesting references in the book; Mr Treves conducts a conversation about child murderers, never an easy subject, but one that inevitably stirs strong emotions. There weren’t any famous cases of child murders in the UK around the time that Christie wrote this book, but it may well be she was in part exploring the way for one of her later books where a child, indeed, is shown to be the murderer. Looking forward to re-reading that one in due course!

elegant handwritingOne lengthy section of the book is entitled “A fine Italian hand”. This phrase has often been used to describe the change of handwriting in parts of Europe away from the Gothic script of the 17th century and before. As a figure of speech, it implies a skill in a distinct field. So when Kay tells Battle that Nevile “quite honestly thinks it was his idea, but I’ve seen Audrey’s fine Italian hand behind it from the first” she means Audrey has skilfully manipulated the situation to come about.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to convert any significant sums of money mentioned in the Christie books to what they would be worth today, in order to gain a greater understanding of quite how large or small they are – it’s not always so easy to assess otherwise. The only meaningful sums of money in this book relate to the amount of money that Nevile and Audrey might inherit. There’s £100,000 washing about in the late Sir Matthew’s trust – that was a tidy sum in 1944, and converts to the even tidier £3.1 million today.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Towards Zero:

Publication Details: 1944. Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in April 1973, price 30p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a dead, decaying fish on some rocks in the middle of a beach, whilst a coil of rope lies nearby. The rope is key to the crime; the dead fish, I feel, is mere window-dressing.

How many pages until the first death: 89. The structure of this book is that everything hurtles towards zero hour. Don’t worry that there hasn’t been a murder yet, just wallow in all the developing possibilities.

Funny lines out of context:

“Rather late, wasn’t it, to go off to Easterhead Bay?” “Oh, it’s a gay spot – they keep it up till all hours.”

Memorable characters:

This book is textured with a number of memorable characters. Camilla, Lady Tressilian, is a grande dame of the old tradition, who enjoys ill health and its trappings. You can just imagine her demanding an audience in her boudoir with anyone she wishes to beam kindly on; and ignoring anyone she wants to put the boot in. Mr Treves is also a well-rounded character; intelligent, experienced, not afraid of upsetting people even at his grand old age; “a little malice […] adds a certain savour to life” he says at one point to Lady Tressilian. But it’s the warring factions of Kay and Audrey Strange that really sit high in your memory once the book is over; Kay, with her hot-headed over-reactions, and Audrey with her infuriating calmness.

Christie the Poison expert:

No particular references to poison in this book. Just not that kind of book!

Class/social issues of the time:

The role of women is once more shown to be precarious, particularly amongst the older characters. Lady Tressilian snobbishly looks down on Kay as being arriviste and with “no background, no roots.” “”Her mother was notorious on the Riviera. What a bringing up for the girl. Nothing but Hotel life – and that mother! Then she meets Nevile on the tennis courts, makes a dead set at him and never rests until she gets him to leave his wife – of whom he was extremely fond – and go off with her! I blame her entirely for the whole thing!” Mary smiled faintly. Lady Tressilian had the old-fashioned characteristic of always blaming the woman and being indulgent toward the man in the case.”

On another occasion, Lady Tressilian is singing the praises of her companion Mary Aldin, and, spoken as a compliment, exclaims: “she has really a first-class brain – a man’s brain.” Christie felt very comfortable with these traditional old anti-feminist viewpoints. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons she never felt comfortable writing about divorce, because it enabled a woman to go her own way and make her own decisions in life, instead of being meekly dictated to. Of course, manners and etiquette regarding divorce were in their relatively early stages. Lady Tressilian has her own views about how it should be conducted: “if husbands and wives have to advertise their difficulties in public and have recourse to divorce, then they might at least part decently. The new wife and the old wife making friends is quite disgusting in my mind. Nobody has any standards nowadays!”

There’s a lovely example of how the times they are a-changin’. In a world where people divorce and the class system is challenged, a few old habits still die hard. Mr Treves, newly arrived from a different area, is to come to dinner at Lady Tressilian’s. In preparation for this visit, he brings a letter of introduction from a mutual acquaintance. Perfectly charming. I don’t think that practice has survived into the 21st century!

There’s normally a reference or two in a Christie novel to either xenophobia or racism. I could only see one such reference in Towards Zero – when “unsympathetic old colonels were wont to say” of Ted Latimer, “touch of the Dago”.

Another more unusual social issue, that I don’t think Christie had addressed before, is that of suicide. With the character of Angus MacWhirter having attempted suicide before the book starts, but having survived it, he is faced “with the prospect of being hauled up in a police court for the crime of trying to take his own life. Curse it, it was his own life, wasn’t it?” Suicide ceased to be a criminal act in England and Wales in 1961. Interestingly, today we would consider that most people who attempt suicide have poor mental health when they do so. MacWhirter, though, proclaims that “he’d never been saner! And to commit suicide was the most logical and sensible thing that could be done by a man in his position.”

The nurse attending MacWhirter holds no sympathy for him other than her nurselike duty of getting him well again. Her phrases: “we know what’s best for you”, “it’s wrong”, “haven’t you got any relations?” “but you’ve got friends, surely?” and “you won’t kill yourself now […] they never do”, are all reactions that help the person who didn’t try to take their life, rather than the person who did. Today, they’d all be rather inadvisable things to say to someone considering suicide.

Classic denouement: Pretty much! All the suspects are gathered, and it looks very much like one person is clearly the murderer until a last-minute twist turns our attention to someone else. Christie allows Battle to finish his swansong with a bang!

Happy ending? Largely. There’s a slight element of disappointment that the murderer is only brought to justice on the grounds of causing one death, rather than two, or possibly even three. However, apart from that, there’s an engagement between one couple and the suggestion of a second with another.

Did the story ring true? On the whole, yes. The murderer was unlucky that there was, basically, an eye-witness to a major part of the crime set-up, which, had that not been the case, might never have come to light.

Overall satisfaction rating: My memory of reading this book in the past suggested that I wouldn’t be giving this more than about 6/10. But, on this re-read, I have no hesitation in giving it a 10/10, because the tension grows so deliciously.

Death Comes as the EndThanks for reading my blog of Towards Zero 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 is Death Comes As The End, where Christie transports us back 4,000 years to ancient Egypt. I remember this as being one of my all-time favourite Christies, and I can’t wait to get cracking on it. As usual, 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!

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!