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.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides. This is something that happens only once every eight years.

Opening line

I have just finished Piranesi, a hauntingly beautiful novel by Susanna Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It is short, only 245 pages, but this only proves to emphasize that every word matters, from opening page to the perfect final lines.

Told entirely in journal entries, this is the story of a man called Piranesi, seemingly lost in a labyrinth of marble statues, sea-water filled halls and vast chambers, yet filled with child-like wonder and love for all that is around. Gradually, his world opens to the reader, while at the same time other forces start to intrude on his ordered existence to suggest that there is a mystery at the heart of all this that he doesn’t even know to investigate and darkness threatens to shatter the innocence.

It is a novel classified as fantasy or science fiction, and perhaps it is, but I found the magic more in the telling than the plot. The gentle play of words, the gentle unfolding, the final revelation. At times I wondered if it is meant to be a meditation on being lost in our own brains, whether through over-rumination or mental illness, or on being lost in our 21st century lives, rather than the plotted mystery it first appears to be. Regardless, there is one lesson to take away, one appropriate to our current holiday season: the importance of child-like wonder and appreciation. Something that is too easy to loose, to all or our detriment.

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.

4

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cover: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cranford
Elizabeth Gaskell
1853, England

Originally published between 1851 and 1853 in a series of installments in the periodical Household Works, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is outwardly a charming illustration of a small slice of English village life at a time when the world was changing rapidly around it. Cranford is ruled, socially at least, by the “Amazons”—for the genteel classes are represented entirely by women, the men apparently finding it inconvenient to live long in this safe harbor of femininity. But into the charm of the village life, we also see at times the finger-hooks of outward realities creeping in. Cranford is no stranger to death and sorrows, and at times Gaskell, known for her novels depicting the hardships of working-class life in the mill towns of England, sneaks some of her critiques in here as well. No matter how genteel a lady, she must have something to live on, yet the truth of Victorian England is that there are few options for a gentlewoman to make a respectable living. The spinsters of Cranford may be resistant—at times almost comically—to the idea of marriage, but we are reminded of Jane Austen’s writing: marriage was often the only way for a woman to secure her future economically.

I found Cranford slow to get into at first, with its episodic early chapters that seemed divorced of each other. But as I read more, I grew familiar with the regular characters that populated the pages, tying the story together, and the brief episodes began to give way to a more linear structure, the events of one chapter more strongly linked to the preceding. By the very end, episodes and characters that seemed all but forgotten had returned to recollection, of both the town and the reader.

It is the characters that are perhaps the strength of the book, with their individual quirks and foibles. Their personalities permeate the novel; their fears, their hopes, their anticipations, their follies bring the pages to life. We are aided entry by the narrator, Mary Smith, a non-resident who visits frequently and shares with us her keen observations, even as at times she gets caught up in events herself and no longer remains a passive observer. But it is her very involvement that allows the reader to enter the town and become invested the story; to be touched by the real generosity of spirit seen not just among the principal characters, but among their servants as well. These are people that care about each other and each other’s well-being, even while they may be resistant to outsiders and changing ways of life.

Cranford is not quite the same as the other Gaskell I’ve read (Mary Barton and North and South). The intrusions of the outer world are gentler, the love stories are to the side or in the past. But in its gentle way, and in the warmth of its population, I find that it may just be my favorite.

I read Cranford as part of my Realists and Romantics project list and for Back to the Classics, Classic with a Place in the Title.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw
Henry James
US, 1898

Every year as summer rolls into autumn, I’m tempted to read something appropriately seasonal—something spooky or mysterious, a story shrouded in mist of the moors or night’s chill darkness. The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps my ur-example, but The Turn of the Screw very neatly fits the bill as well. It is—by all outer appearances, at least—a ghost story: an inexperienced governess tasked with overseeing the care of an orphaned brother and sister who are all but neglected by their uncaring uncle soon sees evil in every corner, in the form of ghostly apparitions, and makes it her mission to save her young charges. But there are more questions raised than answered, and readers and critics alike can’t seem to agree on if this is actually a ghost story or if is really the story of a mentally unstable governess: Jane Eyre with Bertha in the role of governess.

In some ways, I find this a curious question—the story works, no matter how it is read. There are hints that perhaps the governess is unhinged, and the ghosts are “all in her head,” but at the same time it is not implausible, based purely on the text at hand, to assume it is indeed a ghost story. Much is left vague in the text, with things left unsaid or half-said, and characters seeming to talk to each other, but by way of omissions perhaps actually talking past each other. In the end, either there are ghosts, of a most evil variety, or the governess has entirely lost her mind and brings the evil with her. Either the children are innocents, preyed upon by evil influences, or they are cunning, wily participants in their own destruction. Perhaps it is all the above. The interpretation may say as much about the reader and the reader’s expectations as about the novella itself.

James structures his story with a framing introduction, set decades after the main events, and which functions to introduce the governess’s written manuscript which follows.  The man who has this narrative in his possession, Douglas, raises his audience’s expectations greatly, doling out tiny pieces of information, claiming to never have shared it before, that nothing touches it—for “dreadfulness!” It is a bold claim to make, and a risky one to raise expectations so high. But revisiting the frame after finishing the novella, I find it met, regardless of the interpretation of the story, especially in looking at the children: They are corrupted or they are haunted or they are exposed to madness in one who should protect them—maybe all of the above. They may or may not be innocent, but they are certainly vulnerable. The idea of their corruption, in whatever manner, is indeed, “dreadful.” 

For all the uncertainty surrounding the plot and the reliability of the narrator (and in spite of James’s at time obtuse prose), I found it a suspenseful page-turner, one that doesn’t shy away from the concept of evil. Even if there are no literal ghosts, what remains behind is the presence of evil—the ghost, as it were, of past misdeeds. Even if neither child has ever seen a ghost, they have either previously, currently (to the narrative), or in both instances, been exposed to a darkness from outside themselves. This is the horror of the story.

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.