THE BOOK Fontana, 1972 pp 189
Tom Adams cover features seven clocks (Seven Dials is a district in the centre of London, but the title refers to a mysterious secret society that meets there). The gloved hand is his own; because he painted right-handed, the gun is held in his left.
‘Chimneys’ is once again the setting for murder when Sir Oswald Coote, who is renting Lord Caterham’s ancestral home, hosts a house-party. One of the guests, Gerry Wade, is a notorious over-sleeper, and his friends resolve to give him a shock. They sneak into his room in the middle of the night and leave eight alarm clocks in there.
The following morning, it is they who are given a shock. Gerry Wade is dead in his bed, and one of the eight clocks has been thrown out of his bedroom window…
Lord Caterham’s daughter Eileen, known as ‘Bundle’, decides to investigate further …
One of Agatha Christie’s early ‘light-hearted’ thrillers, Seven Dials re-unites several of the characters from The Secret of Chimneys with the indomitable, wooden and twinkling Superintendent Battle.
There are the Wodehousean Lord Caterham and his feisty daughter Bundle, their imperious gardener MacDonald, the verbally-diarrhoetic MP George ‘Codders’ Lomax, the seemingly empty-headed Bill Eversleigh, and the faithful retainer Tredwell.
Added to this mix are that ‘amiable youth, Jimmy Thesiger’, a Bertie Wooster type with his own Jeeves in his man-servant Stevens, Gerry’s sister-who-isn’t Lorraine Wade, the industrialist Sir Oswald and his wife (who yearns for the time before he made his fortune) and a few more bright young things with names like Socks and Pongo.
Finally, on the outside of this crowd, there is The Seven Dials, a group of people who sit around a table with bags over their heads that have clockfaces drawn on them.
The dialogue throughout is witty and light-hearted, but somehow the main characters are not as endearing as they had been in The Secret of Chimneys.
Christie clearly has a great affection for her ‘Chimneys’ characters, and cannot conceal her horror at the prospect of the Cootes of this world inheriting their family seats in the decades to come (what Evelyn Waugh would later describe in Brideshead Revisited as the ‘Age of Hooper’).
ATTITUDES AND QUOTES
The opening lines of the book are these:
That amiable youth, Jimmy Thesiger, came racing down the big staircase at Chimneys two steps at a time.
Almost the only thing we discover about Jimmy Thesiger, the main character, at times almost the narrator of the story, is that he is an amiable youth. It is repeated two or three times with exactly the same words. This is typical Agatha Christie, setting up the twist for later.
Lady Coote abhors her new found status, and laments the times when she and her husband ‘knew their place’:
Lady Coote was a big, handsome woman in a tragic sort of fashion… She looked as though she had some secret sorrow in her life, and yet if truth be told, Lady Coote had had no trouble in her life whatsoever, except the meteoric rise to prosperity of Sir Oswald. As a young girl she had been a jolly flamboyant creature, very much in love with Oswald Coote, the aspiring young man in the bicycle-shop next to her father’s hardware store.
She also has no idea how to deal with the staff:
‘Good morning, MacDonald.’
‘Good morning, m’lady.’
He spoke as head gardeners should speak – mournfully, but with dignity – like an emperor at a funeral.
‘I was wondering – could we have some of those late grapes for dessert tonight?’
‘They’re no’ fit for picking yet,’ said MacDonald. He spoke kindly but firmly.
‘Oh!’ said Lady Coote.
Here’s a typical piece of advice from Caterham to his daughter:
‘You shouldn’t shoot people,’ said Lord Caterham in a tone of mild remonstrance. ‘You shouldn’t, really. I daresay some of them richly deserve it – but all the same it will lead to trouble.’
Here is a description of Bundle’s aunt – any woman with a hint of a moustache in the Christie canon is to be avoided (or suspected); the previous hint of a moustache to cross Bundle’s path had been that of Mademoiselle Le Brun in The Secret of Chimneys :
Lady Caterham was a large woman – large in every way. Her proportions were majestic, rather than ample. She had a large beaked nose, wore gold-rimmed pince-nez and her upper lip bore just the faintest suspicion of a moustache.
And here, Bundle has just been asked by Coote whether Chimneys might be for sale (her horror at the idea would have been shared by Sir Oswald’s wife):
Bundle felt her breath taken away. She had a nightmare vision of England with innumerable Cootes in innumerable counterparts of Chimneys – all, be it understood, with an entirely new system of plumbing installed.
Finally, here is a clairvoyant quote from the amiable youth:
‘Oh, I was born to be hanged,’ said Jimmy.
He said it.
SWIGATHA RATING 5/10
As ever, this is hugely readable and with some amusing moments, but the idea behind the Seven Dials group is ludicrous. Once you have excluded the casts of characters from Chimneys and Seven Dials, there is only really one possible suspect close to home, and the role of his accomplice Lorraine does not ring true at all. Would she really have readily connived in the death of the step-brother she grew up happily with?
WHERE IT LED
Two years later, in 1929, Agatha Christie published ‘Partners in Crime’, a book of short stories featuring those other bright young things, Tommy and Tuppence.
After that, she veered away from the ‘light-hearted thriller’, apart from a last shot with ‘Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?’ in 1934. By then, she had begun to emerge as a detective fiction writer on a different level to her contemporaries (and successors), with titles such as The Murder at the Vicarage, Lord Edgware Dies, Peril at End House and The Murder on the Orient Express.
There was an ITV adaptation in 1981 with a strong cast, including John Gielgud as Lord Caterham and Cheryl Campbell as Bundle. It more than does the book justice, and is worth watching. The part of Jimmy Thesiger was played by James Warwick, who was to play Tommy Beresford in the same company’s adaptation of Partners in Crime a few months later.