It’s not a good thing when the first words I think of at the end of a novel are: ‘Oh dear!’ followed by ‘And it was going quite well’.
In current memes this becomes:
HOW IT STARTED
HOW IT FINISHED
I enjoyed most of the book and liked some of the characters but, in the last fifteen per cent, the plot took a wrong turn, the exposition lost its lustre and some of the characters seemed to have undergone personality transplants.
Reading through Agatha Christie’s books in order is an easy way to disprove the notion that writers get better with every book. In 1925, Agatha Christie published ‘The Secret Of Chimneys’, the book that first introduced us to some of the main characters in ‘The Seven Dials Mystery’. It’s one of the few Christie books that I’d recommend skipping. Yet her next book was one of her best, ‘The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd’. The same seems to have happened with ‘The Seven Dials Mystery’, published in 1929. It’s an improvement on ‘The Secret Of Chimneys’ but it’s far from a great book. Yet the next book that Christie published was ‘The Murder At The Vicarage‘ the first Miss Marple book and one of my personal favourites
When I started reading ‘The Seven Dials Mystery’. I was pleasantly surprised at its lightness of tone. We were at Chimneys again but with a mostly fresh cast of characters, an industrialist and his wife were renting the place and were playing host to young men who seemed to have come straight out of a Bertie Wooster novel. The young men, who included Bill Eversleigh from ‘The Secret of Chimneys’ were mostly from the Foreign Office where they ‘were employed in a purely decorative capacity’ and happily described themselves and each other as ‘silly asses’.
Of course, in Bertie Wooster novels, people don’t get murdered at Blandings. At Chimneys, someone is bumped off fairly early on and nobody knows why or by whom.
Then we see the re-emergence of some of the characters from ‘The Secret Of Chimneys’ and I wondered if things would take a dive. Thankfully, they didn’t. Bundle, (Lady Eileen Brent) has grown up a bit in the four years since ‘The Secret Of Chimneys’ and I liked her rather better this time around. I was amused at her assumption that nothing bad could happen to ‘a girl of her class’. Her use of her privilege was entirely reflexive and so easier to forgive than deliberate acts of snobbery would have been. Her father, Lord Caterham, is unchanged from the last book but gets more exposure this time. He is an essay on how to live a life focused on avoiding upset.
By the middle of the book, a pattern had been set that integrated Bundle and the decorative young asses into an informal group investigating the death of their friend. In the course of their investigations, they encounter a secret society called ‘The Seven Dials’ and we enter ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ territory in an extravagant way.
As I read on, I mentally retitled the book, ‘Bundle Pulls It Off’. I had fun watching the irrepressible Bundle pursue her prey more hampered than helped by young men who could be members of The Drones Club, as they tilted with enthusiastic ignorance at 1920’s versions of Bond villains. It was absurd but Christie clearly knew that and I think she did it well. ,
Superintendent Battle was his solid, imperturbable self. He at least seemed to know what was going on and his presence anchored the increasingly implausible plot.
I think the rot started after a very well put together scene between Lord Caterham and the ever-pompous George Lomax who had unknowingly cast himself as Mr Collins from ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and whom Caterham was trying, rather ineffectually, to protect from his own foolishness. The book took a sudden leap into quite under-written romance after that that transformed Bundle into someone who was quite hard to recognise.
What really made the soufflé fall flat were the final scenes which, instead of being a version of ‘Bundle saves the day with daring do’ became ‘Bundle sits and listens while everything is explained to her by a man who seems to have become someone much more bizarre than we thought he was’. The explanation might have worked because, although it was highly implausible it was quite ingenious, but the flat, static mode of exposition leached away any cleverness and left me feeling that whole thing was a dreary anticlimax.
The ending was so bad and so unexpected that I was left wondering if Christie was being, to borrow the favourite word of one of the characters, subtle and was quietly laughing at her earlier thrillers like ‘The Man In The Brown Suit’. which has some plot elements in common.
I listened to the audiobook version of ‘The Seven Dials Mystery’, narrated by Emilia Fox, whose narration was one of the reasons that I enjoyed most of this book. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.