Always check your chimneys for rogue Dick Van Dykes.

Always check your chimneys for rogue Dick Van Dykes.

“Gentleman Joe!”

I write these words from Stratford-upon-Avon; not my usual home, but a fitting place as any to write about one of the greatest wordsmiths in history. Obviously, it would be more fitting if I was writing about Shakespeare, but Christie will have to do. (I fear that Shakespeare will repeatedly appear on this blog in the future, however, due to the glut of new books I’ve picked up here.)

The Secret of Chimneys is one of Dame Agatha’s earliest novels dating from 1925. While Poirot, Marple and the Beresfords are all absent, it does feature another recurring character of hers – Superintendent Battle, the stoic and incredibly efficient policeman of Scotland Yard. However, the story starts in South Africa where Anthony Cade, a bored tour guide with a lust for adventure, meets his friend Jimmy McGrath. Sensing that Cade wants to escape, McGrath offers him the very opportunity.

It seems that McGrath is in possession of the memoirs of a certain Count Stylptitch, a noble from the country of Herzoslovakia, which has recently gone through hell and back after the assassination of the king and queen and the introduction of a republic. These diaries, McGrath says, will contain great secrets that would do best to keep hidden, but nonetheless a publisher in London is willing to pay £1000 to the person hands them over. McGrath offers Cade the chance to head back to England in his place and take the memoirs with him. He also asks that a private bundle of letters be taken too – they are written from a lady to a gentleman and contain information that suggests the woman, Victoria Revel, is being blackmailed. Cade is to return them to the woman in question so she can do what she wants with them.

Leaping at the opportunity, Cade heads to London under the name of McGrath and sets about trying to pass the documents on to the right people. However, his presence has not gone unnoticed and he is soon greeted by people who very much want the memoirs to fall into hands other than the publishers. He even wakes up one night in his hotel to find a waiter rustling through his suitcase. After meeting the infamous Victoria Revel, it soon becomes clear that the answer to all their problems lies at the stately home of Chimneys.

Heading to Chimneys separately, Victoria and Cade eventually reunite over the murder of a visiting nobleman, much to the annoyance of the owner of Chimneys, Lord Caterham. This would be bad enough but when it turns out that even more people are after the memoirs, there’s a jewel thief on the loose, someone is plotting to reinstate the monarchy to Herzoslovakia, and policeman from Britain, France and the United States are all descending on the stately home, Chimneys suddenly becomes a hub of considerable activity.

There’s quite a lot going on in this novel. It’s partly a small scale story about blackmail and missing jewels, while also having a second side that involves the abolition and potential reinstatement of a monarchy. I always prefer Christie when she’s writing small, but the big world-changing stuff is handled nicely. I was entirely wrong on who was to blame, as usual, and Christie once more throws everyone off the scent very smartly.

The suspects are varied and frankly all of them seem likely at one point or another. This is, however, a book where everyone is hiding a secret of some kind, and the inspectors are playing their cards very close to their chests. When Cade believes that he’s about to be implicated, he comes forward immediately and explains himself. The police may not believe him, but his story does at least hold together, if not posing further questions and suggesting a contrived coincidence or two.

The resolution is neat and leaves you satisfied, even if the characters are not. Lord Caterham is one of my favourite Christie characters I think; a man who is not so much appalled by the murder as simply annoyed that it’s happened in his house and he might now have to answer some questions rather than just fade into the background as he prefers.

Although you can tell that it’s one of Christie’s earlier works, already her trademarks are in play, messing with the heads of her readers and turning tropes on their heads to weave a tale of international mystery.

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