It's murder o'clock...

It’s murder o’clock…

“That amiable youth, Jimmy Thesiger, came racing down the big staircase at Chimneys two steps at a time.”

Agatha Christie was absolutely known as an expert at plotting tight mysteries but it’s also hugely accepted that the woman couldn’t write thrillers. I beg to differ as anyone who has read The Secret Adversary knows (although perhaps not those who have seen the recent TV adaptation, which was good but very different from the original text). The reason for this reputation is because of this novel, The Seven Dials Mystery. A sequel of sorts to The Secret of Chimneys, containing the same location as the original and a return of a number of the characters (including one of my favourites, Lord Caterham), it is not your average thriller, simply because it is a parody of thrillers. No one at the time understood this and so Christie was written off as a thriller novelist, possibly simply because the big boys at the time couldn’t believe someone – let alone a woman – would mock them.

The novel opens with a group of young friends staying at Chimneys, a grand country house, as guests of the current occupants Lord and Lady Coote. One of them, Gerry Wade, has enormous trouble in waking up and getting down in time for breakfast so the others decide to play a prank on him. They purchase eight alarm clocks and, when Wade is asleep that night, set them up in his room to go off at intervals starting at 6.30 the following morning. Happy with their prank, they retire to bed.

But the next day it’s lunchtime and Gerry still hasn’t arrived downstairs. There’s no way he couldn’t have heard the noise as it woke everyone else up, so is he just stubbornly ignoring it? No. He’s dead. The group feel guilty about their prank, but there’s a further twist in the tale – the alarm clocks have been lined up on the mantelpiece and one of them is missing, leaving just seven. And when another member of the party is discovered dead, things begin to look very sinister, with everyone wondering if they’re next.

Gerry’s half-sister Loraine Wade, his friends Jimmy Thesiger and Bill Eversleigh, and the daughter of Chimneys’ owner, Bundle Brent, take it upon themselves to work out what happened. Bundle contacts Superintendent Battle who was so helpful to them when there was last a murder at Chimneys but he advises her to keep out of it. When she refuses to do so, she and her fellow amateur sleuths stumble into a world of secret societies, highly valuable political secrets, and more trouble than they quite know what to do with.

So why is this not considered a thriller? It contains a secret society, eager young girls, fast cars, loaded guns and the threat of Communism looming over everyone’s heads, so surely it perfectly fits the bill? Unfortunately, as mentioned above, Christie was, to put it bluntly, pretty much taking the piss. Oh, she was definitely not a revolutionary figure by any stretch of the imagination – she spoke poorly of the lower classes and there are definite racial undertones to some of her earlier works.

But above all, and what people forget given her reputation as a private individual, is that she was very funny. She had a hugely dry sense of humour, notable in both the Poirot and Marple novels in particular. Christie here takes the basis of what we expect from a thriller, and with the sleight of hand of the finest magician inserts her own twists and turns into it, meaning that by the end what we expect to happen doesn’t and, once again, the rug is pulled from under our feet and we are left in awe at what she manages to achieve. If written today, this would be considered postmodern and meta-fictional, so it’s way ahead of its time. It’s even something of a feminist piece, with the men routinely having to be saved by the more daring and intelligent women.

Above all, though, this does work as a thriller, a mystery and a comedic piece of work. The laughs start as we chuckle at the hapless aristocracy, and the narrator’s asides about what does and doesn’t need to be mentioned. It isn’t actually unlike a Jeeves and Wooster story, the language being more akin to that of Wodehouse. Perhaps the funniest moment comes when Bundle is proposed to by someone she’d rather not marry, and not knowing how to say no without breaking the rules of etiquette, merely gives a flat response of “no” and jumps out of the window. The only thing perhaps funnier than that is her suitor’s message to her father saying that she is merely coming around to the idea.

It’s an early one, but it’s one of the best. Christie has hit her stride and she’s away, with no end in sight for a good fifty years yet. And I’ve only got nineteen left to go…