THE BOOK PAN, 1977 221p
Another of PAN’s rather good photographic covers that were employed for swigathas in the 1960s and 1970s. Beautiful design and lettering, with the cover referring to the memoirs / love letters that open the story, the pistol used in a murder and the rose garden where a missing jewel was buried. The earlier cover also includes these ingredients as well as the signature of the Comrades of the Red Hand….
In some ways it is impossible to summarise better than PAN’s edition does on the back cover, but I’ll take a different tack: Superintendent Battle investigates the murder of a Balkan prince at an English stately home and uncovers a maelstrom of motive, sub-plot and national stereotyping.
The characterisation of the houseparty is Agatha Christie at her best and worst. The nobles portrayed (Lord Caterham, Bundle, Virginia Revel) are very noble, the bourgeoisie (Lomax and Eversleigh) dull and plodding and the foreigners (Isaacstein, M. Lemoine, Hiram P. Fish and Anthony Cade) all sharp and ‘quick on the uptake’; even so, none has a clue what is really going on.
Superintendent Battle, who knows exactly what is going on, watches them all in quiet amusement.
What would today be seen as far worse than casual racism abounds in this book, especially in the various descriptions of perceived national characteristics. Jews tended to get the bulk of it in her early books, but the actual Jewish characters themselves are never villains and often the opposite – for example Julius Hersheimer (The Secret Adversary), Jim Lazarus (Peril at End House), Oliver Manders (Three Act Tragedy), and Isaacstein here.
I think that Agatha Christie sometimes uses the stereotyping as a means of misleading her readers, who may well have instinctively shared such notions, which were common-place at the time that the book was published.
Here are a few examples from the text:
‘There was a dago whose life I saved’…
‘Just pulled this dago out of the river. Like all dagoes he couldn’t swim…’
‘I like to see your righteous heat, James, but let me point out to you dagoes will be dagoes’
‘Hebraic people. Yellow-faced financiers in City offices…’
He had a fat yellow face, and black eyes, as impenetrable as those of a cobra. There was a generous curve to the big nose and power in the square lines of the vast jaw… His voice was deep and rich and had a certain compelling quality about it…
‘Splendid fellow, Isaacstein…’ ‘Very powerful personality…’
Herzoslovakians (see also “Dagoes”):
Half a dozen men were sprawling round a table. Four of them were big thick-set men, with high cheekbones, and eyes set in Magyar slanting fashion. The other two were rat-like little men with quick gestures.
‘Merciful heaven! He has married a black woman in Africa!’ ‘Come, come, it’s not so bad as all that,’ said Anthony laughing. ‘ She’s white enough – white all through, bless her’.
The Rest of the World – the future King of Herzoslovakia explains his planned autocratic style to Battle (who approves):
‘I still believe in democracy. But you’ve got to force it on people with a strong hand – ram it down their throats. My belief in the brotherhood of man died the day I arrived in London last week, when I observed the people standing in a tube train resolutely refuse to move up and make room for those who entered… I believe in the brotherhood of man but it’s not coming yet awhile… Evolution is a slow process’.
SWIGATHA RATING 8/10
I absolutely adored this book when I first read it as a boy. Twist after twist after twist! I also appreciated the humour. Having re-read it just now, I would still recommend it to children, with maybe a word of caution that attitudes towards people of other nationalities have changed somewhat in the last century.
It is by a mile the best of her ‘Gay Young Adventurer’ stories, and the final twist is very satisfying, as there are clues a-plenty all the way through that set it up.
WHERE IT LED
Many of the characters – Caterham, Bundle, Lomax, Eversleigh and Battle – re-appear in The Seven Dials Mystery (1929). It has none of the wit or charm of Chimneys.
‘Chimneys’ was the title of Agatha Christie’s adaptation for the stage, her first. There have been no screen adaptations yet in which the story is recognisable. Here is a review of the ITV version, which replaces Battle with Miss Marple and manages to come up with a plot even more ridiculous than the original (at least Swigatha was playing it for laughs):
In Julia McKenzie, we have a Marple who gives few signs of consciousness. She sprang to life in the last 10 minutes to deliver the astonishing explanation that the gunshot was not a gunshot but a firework, and that the Marquis of Caterham had both hidden the diamond and accidentally killed the maid 23 years earlier while she was trying to stop him discovering that his wife, who was now dead, had been having an affair with a bloke in an orchestra who now turned out to be the Austrian count who was actually the real father of the marquis’s daughter, Virginia.1
Should anyone ever dare to make a proper version, I hope they keep the racy dialogue of the book and the highly individual characters intact. There is an element of P.G.Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth about Caterham.
1 John Grace, review in the The Guardian, Christmas 2010