Agathon #6: The Secret of Chimneys 
Anthony Cade, Superintendent Battle, Eileen “Bundle” Brent
Here we go again! This is another Agatha Christie novel that doesn’t fit my apparently-narrow previous idea about what an Agatha Christie novel was. Instead it’s another of these early – what do we call them? Not quite spy novels, more intrigue romps. Definitely not a murder mystery, though there is murder and mystery aplenty.
Having said that, the plot of this one is even more bonkers than I have come to expect from Christie’s early work, and the various threads of lost European royalty, con men, posh people with titles and dead bodies frankly bemused and befuddled me. Having said that, my heart was won very early on by the gorgeous and banterrific Virginia Revel – I paid attention pretty much for her, and everything that came out of her mouth.
Christie writes marvellous young women! I tend to find all her younger male characters quite bland, with only the older and more character-laden men being worth paying attention to (with the possible exception of Hastings) and in this book I did enjoy the gruff and intelligent Superintendent Battle. But the absolute stars of The Secret of Chimneys for me were Virginia and, to a slightly lesser degree, Eileen “Bundle” Brent (whom I see from our spreadsheet is going to make a comeback, hooray!)
Virginia feels very much like a British version of the kind of characters Katherine Hepburn used to play in the 30’s: she’s witty, beautiful, flirtatious, and utterly in touch with her own frivolity. She’s also very sexually confident, and enjoys half her male acquaintance being in love with her. I liked that she was originally brought into the conspiracy because the aristocratic blokes trying to deal with – all that complicated plot business which I won’t pretend I understand or remember – admired her charm and intelligence. Then of course, while they tried desperately to patronise her, she ran rings around them constantly. In another era, she would totally be alongside Patrick McNee in the Avengers. Is it too much to hope there was a movie version of this novel made in the 60’s starring Diana Rigg?
Bundle on the other hand is a quieter sort of female, more docile and domestic, and yet she is every bit the wit that Virginia is – snarkier and more understated in her remarks. I enjoyed their double act and would have liked to see many more scenes with them together.
The reveal at the end about our con man protagonist (sort of) Anthony Cade being a secret prince and heir to the throne of Whereverslovakia was hilarious and awful in its bizarreness, even if it made a terrible kind of sense. And it was totally worth it for the scene in which he tells Virginia exactly who it is she married.
“How perfectly screaming!”
This installment felt a bit soulless to me. My major trouble is with hero of the story, Anthony Cade. He’s FAR too perfect, and even when you think he’s down and out, you find out later he’s not (cos he’s perfect). And Christie keeps mentioning his bronzed face and lean body, which to be honest is a little unsettling! Perhaps what I found missing from this installment is a bit of grit and grime (which seems a little odd to say when there’s murder, and leaving-of-bodies-beside-the-road, but there you go), but everything seemed to sort itself put far too neatly. Also, this novel was quite uncomfortable to read from a race point of view – it starts off with a few derogatory remarks about Africans, and then moves on to some less than flattering mentions of Jews, and ‘dagos’ (which in this case seemed to mostly be referencing citizen of the fictitious European country Herzoslovakia). ‘The Secret of Chimneys’ was published in 1925. Obviously it’s a book of its time, but does that make it ok? Does this represent Christie’s own views or is she just writing what she sees?
The main positives of the book are Christie’s female characters. Virginia Revel is the kind of women I’d want to be in 1925 (most specifically independently wealthy and quite able to run her own life). I probably have a bigger a soft spot for Bundle, though, – so earnest and pragmatic and one of those young ladies of a certain age who gets lumped with an unusual nickname. I’d love to know if this was common at the time, or if it’s just a ‘Christie’ thing. I can think of several young ladies of Christie’s invention who have suffered an unusual nickname (Lettuce is one that comes to mind), indeed Bundle’s younger sisters have already given the monikers of Guggle and Winkle at 10 and 12! Also, I have to admit that the book does have some fairly charming chapter titles: Anthony Disposes of a Body, Mainly Political and Financial, Anthony Signs on for a New Job.
So in summary, some good lady characters (though I’m not sure it passes the Bechdel test), a motley assortment of uninspiring men, and a far too neat resolution. Not awful, but not great either.
TANSY COMES BACK TO SAY:
I know we don’t normally do right of reply, but I wanted to agree with your point about the casual racism in the book, something that’s very much of its time but also not going to become LESS of an issue with Agatha Christie as we go on.
I’m pretty sure that it does pass the Bechdel Test (we should check in with this for each book!) because of the bit where Virginia calls up Bundle and says she’s coming to Chimneys, nothing would keep her away, what ho, old girl.
The chapter where Anthony disposes of the body is pretty great, and the ramifications of this demonstrate that Christie’s sense of humour was pointed sharply inwards – she’s poking fun at the same genre conventions that her novels rely upon.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)
The Big Four (1927)
[Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings, Chief Inspector Japp]
The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)
The Seven Dials Mystery (1929)
[Eileen “Bundle” Brent, Superintendent Battle]