Monday, 10 August 2009

The Secret of Chimneys (1925)

The Plot: Much to the alarm of Lord Caterham, the family seat of Chimneys finds itself the centre of an international conspiracy, with dead royalty, stolen treasure, and master criminals wandering the grounds.

James: 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 "Bundle" Brent, twinkling adventuress Mrs Revel and international rogue Tony 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.

And yes - if you're planning on reading just one Christie, please let it be this.


  1. You obviously had great fun with this, and it indeed a ripping yarn, but for me it's a very un-Christie Christie - more of an adventure romp than a detective story.

    This one gets off to a surprisingly exotic start, as the book’s protagonist and all-round man of mystery Anthony Cade bumps into an old pal in Bulawayo. There’s a very clear sense of the far-flung British Empire and the wide open spaces available to an adventurous English gentleman, not taken with the idea of regular work. The casual racism’s back again, with remarks like “Any name’s good enough for a dago” and the assumption that blackmail is to be expected from them – “let me point out to you that dagos will be dagos”.

    Accepting his friend’s commission to take a package to England, Cade is thrown into a story full of mysterious manuscripts, secret societies and Balkan aristocracy, and before long we’re squarely back in familiar Christie country house territory. However, Chimneys belongs to a rather more elevated circle than the solid county gentry of Styles Court (“Mysterious Affair at Styles”). The terminally vague Marquis of Caterham and his Bright Young Thing daughter Eileen “Bundle” Brent would be very much at home in Blandings Castle, as would their bore of a civil servant neighbour, George Lomax.

    Murder comes to call at Chimneys in short order, as does Cade, but no-one appears to be remotely shaken or stirred by the death of a fellow house guest; it’s all just a terrible bore that means asking everyone to stay on till after the inquest. The superbly stolid Superintendant Battle arrives to investigate, helped (and indeed often hindered) by amateur detective work from Bundle, Cade and the decent but dim Bill Eversleigh.

    Although there are clue and red herrings aplenty, we’re more interested in the fate of the throne of Herzoslovakia, Count Stiplych’s memoirs and all the intrigue that goes with it than who really shot the shadowy man who’s been shot. This is much closer to the “Prisoner of Zenda” than a standard police procedural and by the closing chapters, the revelation of the murderer is almost a side issue compared to Cade’s real identity and the future of the Balkan crown.

  2. I love this book and frequently reread it. I also take added pleasure from guessing which real life people were parodied by the amazing characters- Chimneys being Chequers, after all...