Monday, 17 August 2009

The Seven Dials Mystery (1929)

Plot: A man is found dead surrounded by seven alarm clocks. Lady Bundle Brent hunts down a sinister international conspiracy.

James: The sequel to The Secret of Chimneys may not be quite the same perfect trifle, but it's doing some interesting things. There are still the Bright Young Things, but they're in it up to their necks. In the first few pages they start dropping dead, and soon it is plucky Lady Bundle Brent against the world, with only a clutch of wise friends aiding her in her mission to stay one step ahead of the machinations of the Club of Seven Dials.

Yet another deft blend of country house murder mystery with John Buchan and PG Wodehouse, this book finds time to fold in an Arnolod Bennett pop at the ex-bicycle salesman Sir Oswald Coote and his wife who just can't handle the servant problem - unlike the capable Bundle and her father, the foggy Lord Caterham. There's also a bit more restrained racism, such as when one character protests at an alias "Short of being described as Rothschild I don't mind" and there's much puzzling of the ways foreigners spell their names - but there's little to trouble the horses.

This is archly self-aware. Bundle frequently says about the sinister Seven Dials things like "They're the sort of crowd I always imagined... only existed in books" - and, as the book ticks on, the sinister club of masked adventurers seems both more menacing and more bizarre, with the theories about who these sinsister schemers could be seeming more and more improbable.

It all leads to a denouement that is both baffling and remarkable. There's no "You may be wondering why I called you here today" scene - instead, the twist is so good we hear "Get a chair for her! It's all been a bit of a shock, I can see." And then... well, what happens next is quite remarkable.

If we are cheated of the "Damn your meddling, Poirot!" unveiling, there's still a lot of unmasking, as Christie explains to us, tactfully and carefully how thoroughly she has deceived us for a couple of hundred pages. It's not unusual to arrive at the end of a Christie mystery with no idea of the villain(s), to have missed most of the clues, and to be pleasantly thrilled at our own stupidity. But this is rather like the Birmingham ferris wheel that gave a merry narration of the Paris skyline. While Christie does not lie to us, we arrive at the end having been constantly misinformed and misdirected, but having had a thoroughly pleasant journey - and with an odd yearning to go round again just to make sure.

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