‘The Secret Of Chimneys’, published In 1925, was Agatha Christie’s fifth novel. Like ‘The Secret Adversary’ (1922) and ‘The Man In The Brown Suit’ (1924), it is an early example of a thriller, rather than a detective story. It is also the first of her five Superintendent Battle books.
Sadly, it has neither the freshness and vigour of the earlier thrillers. They had main characters I could root for. ‘The Secret Of Chimneys’ is filled with people I’d prefer not to spend time with. Superintendent Battle is the best thing in the book and he isn’t given much to do except demonstrate that, even though he’s a policeman and is not a gentleman, he’s still astute and intelligent. How remarkable is that?
It was a book I was glad to be done with. The plot manages to be silly without being amusing. I felt as if I’d just stepped out of a period adaptation of Scooby Doo with added doses of patriarchy, xenophobia, and aristocratic exceptionalism thrown in for authenticity.
I detested the hero, Anthony Cade, on sight and further acquaintance only confirmed my poor opinion of him as a chancer, all confidence and cunning wrapped up in charm. The aristocrats in the book respond to him as ‘one of us’ not despite his behaviour but because that behaviour demonstrates his unassailable sense of entitlement.
The foreigners presented in the book have all the authenticity of a Tintin cartoon. Christie demonstrates her dislike of Italians, her disdain for Slavs, her sense that a British financier with the surname Isaacstein is almost a foreigner and her belief that even foreign aristocrats negotiating internal contracts can’t master the basics of English syntax.
The denouement is so ludicrous it’s almost a pastiche of itself. After the big reveal, Christie makes us trudge through two more chapters, one to help anyone who hasn’t understood the plot to have it explained to them one more time and a final one for readers who need this rather dull cake to be iced over with an attempt at romance. Even the romance fails, degrading into a successful negotiation between two people who know themselves too well to have any truck with romance.
If this had been my first Christie, it would have been my last.