Dame Agatha Christie was a highly prolific authoress. In addition to her cozy mysteries featuring M. Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, she also wrote plenty of other mysteries and a number of books that could be classified more as thrillers or spy fiction. These tend not to be regarded as her best work on the whole, but they’re usually pretty entertaining at least. One of the best, for my money, is The Secret of Chimneys.
Something that isn’t mentioned too often is that fact that Dame Agatha actually had her own little shared detective universe. Poirot and Miss Marple never met, unfortunately, though supporting cast members occasionally crisscrossed between their respective series, and locations get referenced back and forth. Other members of Dame Christie’s core cast, however, did cross paths fairly often, with Cards on the Table serving as her big cross-over event, bringing Hercule Poirot into contact with Ariadne Oliver (mystery novelist and gleefully unflattering self-portrait of the authoress who debuted in the ‘Parker Pyne’ stories), Superintendent Battle (wooden Scotland Yard detective who played a supporting role in several novels), and Colonel Race (MI5 veteran and secret service attache with a few books of his own).
Anyway, The Secret of Chimneys is Superintendent Battle’s debut. It’s a spy / mystery / romance / comedy with a spectacularly complicated plot involving a). a stolen diamond, b). a murder in a famous English country house (the ‘Chimneys’ of the title), c). the memoirs of an eastern European diplomat, d). political intrigue in a small Balkan state, and e). compromising letters from a British gentlewoman. Those are just the main threads. There’s also a thieving Italian waiter, a secret Communist brotherhood that no one is really afraid of, a love story, and a character who ends up christened ‘Baron Lollypop.’
Needless to say, it’s a very fun read. It’s as if Dame Agatha just threw everything that could go to make up a thriller into the blender, hit ‘frappe’, and added a dose of her own dry sense of humor.
Set up: Anthony Cade is a ne’er-do-well adventurer in Africa who takes a job from a fellow fortune-hunter, Jimmy McGrath: to deliver the memoirs of the notorious Count Stylptitch to an English publisher. The count had been knee-deep in European politics and the powers that be fear what he might reveal, so several different factions will do anything to prevent their publication. At the same time, McGrath also asks him to convey a packet of compromising letters that he’s acquired to their original owner, Mrs. Virginia Revile, whom he suspects of being blackmailed and wishes to help.
In England, pompous politician George Lomax arranges to host a political meeting to discuss the future of the small nation of Herzoslovakia under the guise of a house party at Chimneys (quite against the will of Lord Caterham, the house’s owner). He also hopes to forestall the publication of the memoirs to avoid a possible scandal.
Through a series of events, Cade joins forces with Virginia (who denies having anything to do with the letters, but ends up with an inconvenient dead body in her house) and they all end up at Chimneys, where one of the guests has just been found shot dead (no, it’s not the same dead body. A different one).
And I haven’t even gotten to the lost diamond.
As you can see, it’s pretty much all the things you think you want in a thriller like this: the dashing hero who is always in over his head but always smoothly in charge of the situation. The beautiful, witty heroine who requires rescuing by the hero. The cunning police detective who alternately aids and pursues the hero. Political intrigue involving the fate of nations. Exotic villains. Buried treasure. Secret passages. Master thieves. Kings and nobles. Fanatically loyal servants. Imperturbable butlers. Fist-fights and stealthy investigations in the dead of night. All the usual accouterments, except this being Dame Agatha it’s all done with a higher level of self-awareness than it might otherwise have been.
It’s filled out with her usually colorful cast of characters: in addition to the main trio of Anthony, Virginia, and Battle, there’s the aforementioned George Lomax, an amusing caricature of the pompous blowhard MP; Lord Caterham, the harassed owner of the house who only wants to be left alone, but can’t help being polite to everyone who shows up; his daughter, a bright young thing possessed of the delightful nickname ‘Bundle’, a cheerfully irreverent manner, and a tendency to scare any passengers to death with her driving (she later starred in her own adventure, The Seven Dials Mystery); Bill Eversleigh, Lomax’s young secretary, who is hopelessly in love with Virginia (emphasis on ‘hopeless’) and ends up the butt of many of the jokes; Mr. Isaacstein, the financial giant involved in the political deal underway; Mr. Fish, an American correspondent of Caterham’s who seems simply bemused by the whole thing; and Monsieur Lemoine, a French detective on the trail of a notorious jewel thief.
I can’t describe too much what goes on without spoilers, but suffice to say, I enjoy the book a lot. Among the highlights include the really clever way that Anthony covers up a murder at one point (the aforementioned rescue), Battle’s stolidly rational investigations and the polite chess match between the two of them as Battle tries to trip Anthony up and the fortune hunter evades him, and Lord Caterham’s perpetual state of resigned harassment at having his home turned into the site of all this madness (one particularly funny scene involves him absentmindedly trying to have breakfast following the murder). Lord Caterham’s easily my favorite character, by the way. There’s also a brief, amusing intrusion by a cypher expert who complains about how easy the code under consideration is and objects that lunch is a bad habit.
The conclusion is also pretty fun, though I think the solution to the murder is probably the least interesting thing about the story. (The resolution to the memoirs plot, though, is downright hilarious).
Personally, of course, I love the interwar upper-class-English setting and the aristocratic milieu. It’s one of those books that just hits a solid note with me all around.
That said, I suppose your mileage may vary. It’s not nearly as brilliant as some of Dame Agatha’s other works, and Anthony’s a much more conventional protagonist than Poirot or Miss Marple, though he’s certainly likable as the dashingly-noble rogue (he actually reminds me a bit of Lord Peter Whimsey, Dorothy Sayer’s sleuth, though not nearly as substantial). I’ll admit, I’ve taken cues from him for some of my own heroes. Likewise the romance is fairly standard; not bad, but pretty basic. Nothing at all like as charged as the one in, say, Murder is Easy (also featuring Battle).
I suppose that kind of sums up the book; it’s a complicated, entertaining, if somewhat standard thriller full of all the stuff you want in a thriller and performed by a veteran hand applying a light, semi-comedic touch. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll probably like this book. If you prefer your mysteries to be more of a puzzle, with all the pieces laid out for you to tease your brain on, you’ll probably be disappointed. This is a comfortable, fun romp kind of book more than a logic puzzle kind (Dame Agatha, of course, could do both at once, but this leans heavily to the former). Me, I enjoy the heck out of it; it’s easily my favorite of Dame Agatha’s ‘spy thriller’ novels that I’ve read.
If any the above sounds like fun, I recommend you pick it up and see for yourself.