The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

Cover: The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

The Secret of Chimneys
Agatha Christie
England, 1925

When I picked up The Secret of Chimneys this summer it turned out to be one of those “perfect books for the time” sort of events. I’d been reading some heavier books that required a good deal more brain power than a Christie novel does, and it was a breath of fresh air to pick up a mystery, especially one with such charming young characters.

We first meet Anthony Cade, working as a guide for British tourists in southern Africa. A chance meeting with a friend provides him with an opportunity for easier cash: get a manuscript to the publishers in London and return some letters to the lady who wrote them. Neither seems the sort of task likely to present difficulties, but Anthony is beset with adventures almost the moment he arrives in England. And when Virginia Revel turns out not to have written the letters, we discover that we are only at the beginning of a multi-layered intrigue involving a French crook, oil rights, a lost diamond, a missing prince, and, of course, an old country-house known as Chimneys, the scene of crimes both past and present.

Anthony and Virginia are both wonderfully fun characters, as they embark on their own investigations, independent of the professionals on the scene, Inspector Battle and M Lemoine of the Sûreté. And although amateurs, they are not without the ability to detect, if at times their lines of investigation prove unprofitable. Inspector Battle was an interesting character to me. He clearly has a handle on what’s going on, but doesn’t have as much “stage presence” as I would have expected from an “Inspector Battle” novel. He will appear in a number of Christie’s later mysteries and I look forward to seeing how he is presented in these.

As a mystery, I’m not sure it’s one of her stronger ones: although there are many layers and lines of inquiry, I worked out many of the answers without effort, and thought perhaps she left too many clues on the page (which I suppose is a better problem than not enough!). Or perhaps I’m just getting used to her methods and it’s easier to see where she’s going? Nevertheless, a delightful romp.

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

The Man in the Brown Suit
Agatha Christie
England, 1924

What a wonderful romp! Christie’s fifth outing (and fourth novel) takes us on a multi-continent adventure in search of the eponymous “Man in the Brown Suit” and the answer to the mystery of the death of an unidentified woman in a home owned by the absent Sir Eustace Pedler. After a scene setting prologue, introducing us third-hand to the character of the anonymous “Colonel,” a master criminal who has managed to never get his hands dirty, we start ordinarily enough in post-Great War England, with  young heroine Anne Beddingfield, recently orphaned, rather poor, and in search of a great adventure.  With nothing to lose, she takes the first opportunity to move to London, sure that it is a city where adventure awaits. Anne is not wrong. Soon she finds herself embroiled in a complex web of intrigue stretching from England to South Africa and Rhodesia, as she endeavors not only to track down the brown-suited man, but also to unravel the mystery of the murdered woman, and discover the hidden secrets of her fellow travelers.

Anne is a delight as a character, with her youthful enthusiasm and intelligence. And the remaining cast of characters are fascinating as well: Mrs. Blair, a wealthy but bored socialite; the silent, stern Colonel Race, who may or may not be British Intelligence; Sir Eustice Pedler, a wealthy MP who loves nothing more than comfort; the sinister-looking Guy Pagett, secretary to Sir Eustice; Harry Rayborn, a mysterious man also in the employ of Sir Eustace; and Reverend Edward Chichester, who may not quite be what he seems.

Much as with The Secret Adversary, The Man in the Brown Suit is more thriller than mystery, despite the murder in the early chapters. Rather, it is the murder that triggers subsequent events, and the reader is carried along with our young heroine, against a background of diamond thieves, revolution, and dynamic scenery. As far as I can discover, it has only had one film adaptation, a made-for-TV movie that doesn’t appear to have been well-reviewed, but with the fast-pace and variety of scenery, I can imagine it as an excellent big-screen entertainment. As much as I enjoy the mysteries of Hercule Poirot, The Man in the Brown Suit is so far my favorite of the Christies in my chronological set of reads.

Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie

Poirot Investigates
Agatha Christie
1925, England

Entry number four in the ongoing Agatha Christie challenge keeps us with Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings, only instead of a single mystery, we now have a set of fourteen unconnected short stories. (A side note: this is the American edition – the UK edition only contains 11.) These stories originally appeared in magazine format (Sketch in the UK, from April to October of 1923; Blue Book Magazine in the US, from October 1923 to April 1925), and were collected for publication in book format in 1924 (UK) and 1925 (US).

These are much on the same lines as the first two Hercule Poirot novel entries – Poirot exercises his grey cells, Hastings is obtuse, and the mystery is neatly wrapped up in the final pages. (Well…perhaps “The Chocolate Box” is less true to these lines, but it would be spoiling things to say too much.) However, rather than reminding me strictly of The Mysterious Affair at Styles or Murder on the Links, what really sprung to mind were the short mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. From reading the earlier novels, it was already apparent that Christie’s characters owed a debt to Doyle, but here I was even more forcefully reminded of his short story format. As in so many Holmes stories, we frequently see Poirot sitting in his rooms when a client arrives with a tricky little puzzle for Poirot to solve. In the opening story, “The Adventure of the ‘Western Star,’” he quickly deduces that the young woman walking up the street is coming to see him. And in “The Veiled Lady,” Poirot bemoans the quality of the criminal class (specifically his lack of interesting cases) and remarks that perhaps he should have taken up criminal acts himself. The ghost of Holmes haunts continually. This all adds up to the suggestion that these are still early Christie. On the other hand, I noticed less of the tendency to have Poirot solve the crime by means  of knowledge the reader doesn’t (and can’t) have; even when he seems to have pulled the answer out of thin air, a revisit to the start of the story shows tracks carefully laid for the reader. And we still get the opportunity to outwit Hastings, who remains remarkably obtuse at times, a perfect foil to Poirot.

All-in-all, they are enjoyable little diversions. None perhaps terribly memorable on their own, but each easily readable in a short bit of time, perfect as the just-before-bed read.

Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

Murder on the Links
Agatha Christie
1923, England
Hercule Poirot

Agatha Christie’s third published novel brings us the second outing with Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings. This time, we are taken to northern France, whence Poirot has been summed by a potential client, Paul Renauld, on a matter of some urgency. However, by the time they arrive, Renauld is dead, and the great detective must turn his attention to murder. This is complicated by the presence of the French police, specifically Monsieur Giraud of the Sûreté, who has little appreciation or patience for Poirot’s more thoughtful methods. Hastings for his part is dazzled by Giraud’s activity and on more than one occasion expects that Poirot is out-detected. Of course, Hastings isn’t always the most reliable of observers, and true to form proves easily distracted by a pretty face, further muddling his observational skills.

Unfortunately, I read Murder on the Links about a year ago and didn’t take any notes, so I don’t really remember my response to it all that well, although the general plot of the story has stuck with me surprisingly well. It is a mystery full of twists and turns, questionable identities, and hidden secrets from the past; secrets that once identified, begin to help Poirot’s unraveling of the case. Hastings is perhaps a bit annoying in his obtuseness, and the inclusion of history that Poirot knows but the reader has no access to can be frustrating to the armchair detective. Nonetheless, an enjoyable diversion.

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

I’ve had a handful of posts drafted for weeks now that I just haven’t made the time to post. I seem to go in fits and bursts with blogging; though, I am happy to report that the reading is still going strong – so many good books already this year! I’ve resolved to start to play catch up, but before I start, I feel a compulsion to deviate a moment.

It’s a strange time. “Surreal” is the word I keep using, for it doesn’t seem real–for so much to be shut down, for the world to seemingly come to a virtual standstill. This is a thing of movies, not real life.

But COVID-19 IS real, and the precautions we are taking–trying to take–are necessary. Fortunately, I haven’t been too impacted yet; my work has yet to directly be influenced (though I anticipate a slow down in new projects while everyone just tries to keep up with things) and working remotely has long been an available option. I’m fortunate, I know, but when I see all the articles or lists of “things you can watch/listen to/read” during these times of “social distancing,” I confess my first thought is “how do you have time?” Of course, this is as much because I’ve never been one to be out and about as it is because I’m still working full time. But if I did want to fill some time–or if I were to make a recommendation–I think Agatha Christie is a good place to start. I find something so comforting–like “coming home” when I read an Agatha Christie, or watch one of the TV adaptations. (I’m particularly fond of the David Suchet Poirot series.) The formulaic nature, the knowledge that it all works out in the end, these are soothing in trying times.

The Secret Adversary
Agatha Christie
1922, England
Tommy and Tuppence

The second of Agatha Christie’s published novels, The Secret Adversary introduces us to the lively Tuppence Cowley and solid Tommy Beresford. Childhood friends, they meet by chance in post-war (1919 – post Spanish Flu, for that matter!) London, both down on their luck and in search of a job—and more importantly, the money that goes with one. Despairing of finding any, they impetuously decide to form The Young Adventures Ltd. and advertise to take on adventures on behalf of others. But before they get as far as submitting the ad copy, an adventure falls in their laps. However, when Tuppence cautiously tells the potential client, Mr. Whittington, that her name is “Jane Finn,” he grows agitated and sends her on her way with £50, thinking it a ploy and trying to buy silence. Curious, Tommy and Tuppence decide to investigate further and advertise for information on Jane Finn. What follows in response to their ad is a delightful romp across post-Great War London and adventure plenty, for the detectives and reader both.

Although there is mystery at the heart of the story—where is Jane Finn? And who is the illusive Mr. Brown who seems to be pulling so many strings and determined to overthrow the current government?—the story feels more like a thriller to me than a strict mystery novel. Perhaps this is because the adventures are so fast-paced, the detectives so green, and the dangers so present on-screen. But in the end, in honest detective-novel form, our heroes solve the crime, and in dramatic fashion. For a change of pace, I nearly had it solved as well! I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, the wonderful 1920s English slang, and the utterly charming Tuppence and Tommy and look forward to more of their adventures.