The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Secret of Chimneys (1925)

Secret of ChimneysIn which we meet chancer and adventurer Anthony Cade, who helps Scotland Yard solve the mysteries of identifying both jewel thief “King Victor” and a royal assassin. It’s a thoroughly jolly jaunt, and Anthony Cade certainly experiences almost everything one can experience within the space of 218 pages. Naturally you can safely read this article and I won’t give anything away regarding whodunit. Promise!

Blitz HotelOnce again Christie travelled further afield for her next adventure. Picking up from where The Man in the Brown Suit left off, and using her recently acquired familiarity with southern Africa, we first meet Mr Cade and his pal Jimmy McGrath on the streets of Bulawayo, which in itself constitutes Coincidence Number One of several. But unlike that earlier book, which starts in England and ends in Africa, this one works the other way round, and it’s not long before Cade, impersonating McGrath, is staying at the Blitz (yes, not the Ritz) Hotel and snooping around the great and the good of British Governmental society. Christie continues to tease us by denying us (again) the return of Hercule Poirot. Instead, Cade himself dons the mantle of amateur sleuth and works alongside Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard. Battle would reappear in four more books over the next twenty years; Mr Cade, for reasons that are self-evident when you reach the end of this book, doesn’t. A shame, perhaps, because Cade is a much more entertaining character in comparison with stolid old Battle.

Abney HallChristie dedicated the book to “my nephew, in memory of an inscription at Compton Castle and a day at the zoo”. The nephew in question was James Watts, who would become Conservative MP for Manchester Moss Side in the 1959 election – only to die two years later at the age of 57. My guess is that the zoo was Paignton Zoo, which had only opened in 1923. But most commentators don’t believe that Compton Castle is the basis for Chimneys – that honour goes to Abney Hall in Cheadle, owned by Christie’s brother in law, James, the father of the aforementioned nephew. Certainly grand country mansions like Abney Hall feature throughout Christie’s career, from Styles, through Chimneys to The Mousetrap’s Monkswell Manor. Chimneys of course, is the Caterham family seat, and the previous Lord Caterham was at one point Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Today the Foreign Secretary lives at Chevening House in Kent – but that tradition only began in the 1960s. So we can’t associate Chevening with Chimneys, alliterative though it would have been.

Koh-I-NoorEveryone knows about the Koh-i-noor diamond. It’s currently set in the Queen Mother’s crown, on display at the Tower of London. It came into the possession of the Royal Family after the British conquest of the Punjab in 1849. Unsurprisingly, the governments of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran have all laid claim to ownership of the jewel – but the Queen’s not budging on this one. In Chimneys, Jimmy recollects that Count Stylptitch announced that “he knew where the Koh-i-noor was”, implying that it was not, actually, at the Tower of London (in those days it was set in Queen Mary’s crown) – and indeed, it is revealed that King Victor has stolen the Koh-i-… “”Hush Battle!” George glanced suspiciously round him. “I beg of you, mention no names. Much better not. If you must speak of it, call it the K.”” So Christie is nicely playing with reality here by pretending that the K has been stolen – when we presume it hadn’t.

Chateau de BreteuilThe book also features a nice mix of real locations and pretend ones. As mentioned earlier, Chimneys is probably based on Abney Hall, but does not exist itself per se. The local police are based at Market Basing, which doesn’t exist but in your mind’s eye you cross Market Harborough with Basingstoke, and you get a well-to-do market town. As an aside, The Market Basing Mystery is a short story featuring Hercule Poirot and Inspector Japp (but not Battle) that was first published in The Sketch in May 1925, subsequently part of the collection The Under Dog and other Stories that was published in 1929. Virginia Revel’s home address is listed as 487 Pont Street, London; in real life Pont Street exists, a fashionable street not far from Harrod’s – but the numbers don’t go up that high. Anthony Cade discovers that Mlle Brun’s reference came from the Chateau de Breteuil, and so goes to meet Mme de Breteuil to confirm it. Fascinatingly, the Chateau exists, and the family of the Marquis de Breteuil still live there today. It was where the Entente Cordiale first had its origins, and back in 1912, the Prince of Wales – later to be Duke of Windsor – stayed there for four months to learn French. So there’s a huge slice of reality in this (admittedly minor) aspect to the book. No wonder Anthony found nothing wrong with Mlle Brun’s reference. When Cade goes on the run to Langly Road Dover, the mysterious address on the mysterious piece of torn paper, I don’t know how he finds the house because the road itself doesn’t exist.

1920s partyWhat marks this book apart from Mrs Christie’s previous offerings is its constant sheer light-heartedness. It’s a very flippant book; the tone is light comedy throughout. Even Christie herself admits it’s money for old rope: “Detective stories are mostly bunkum,” said Battle unemotionally. “But they amuse people.” Tongue in cheek, Christie couldn’t be bothered to provide a description of Chimneys house herself: “Descriptions of that historic place can be found in any guidebook. It is also No 3 in Historic Homes of England, price 21s. On Thursday, coaches come over from Middlingham and view those portions of it which are open to the public. In view of all these facilities, to describe Chimneys would be superfluous.” Butlers bring tea and cakes amongst the corpses of the murder victims. Characters like Bundle, with lines like: “mother got tired of having nothing but girls and died” might make you think of PG Wodehouse. Plot escapades where a character sneezes and almost alerts the bad guys to the presence of the good guys at the Council Chamber at Chimneys bring to mind something out of one of Mr Ben Travers’ Aldwych farces. Conversations such as “I say Virginia, I do love you so awfully – “ “Not this morning, Bill. I’m not strong enough. Anyway, I’ve always told you the best people don’t propose before lunch” could easily be dropped into Noel Coward’s Private Lives or something similar. Caterham is portrayed as an old buffoon, Cade as a dashing hero, Lemoine as an over-excitable Frenchman, the King’s valet Boris as a hammy actor and Baron Lolopretjzyl insists on ending each sentence with a verb in the best Germanic tradition so that he comes across as Yoda’s long lost cousin; laughing at foreigners it is. Cade’s pet name for him of Baron Lollipop is pure Wodehouse/Travers.

AssassinIt’s also incredibly patronising. The whole story centres on the little known and purely fictional Balkan state of Herzoslovakia. The name is clearly a portmanteau of two other eastern European countries, and it’s designed to represent some kind of Ruritanian backwater, out of which clever English people can take the Mickey. We’ve already seen how characters like the Baron and Boris are figures of fun. Herzoslovakians are described by Lomax as “most uncivilized people – a race of brigands”. Cade gives us a very dismissive description of the country: “Principal rivers, unknown. Principal mountains, also unknown, but fairly numerous. Capital, Ekarest. Population, chiefly brigands. Hobby, assassinating kings and having revolutions”. Cade and McGrath are also merciless with their use of the word “dago”. I guess in 1925 it didn’t have the same racist overtone it does today, but following their conversations with the word littered in almost every sentence makes for extremely uncomfortable reading: “just pulled the dago out of the river”; “any name’s good enough for a dago”; “dagos will be dagos”.

PassportThe character of Herman Isaacstein provides opportunities for some playful yet distinctly anti-Semitic name-calling, with Caterham referring to him Ikey Hermanstein, and even Bundle calling him “Fat Iky”. Part of Caterham’s comic persona is his distrust of foreigners and unwillingness to mix: “I don’t get on with Canadians, never did – especially those that have lived much in Africa!” Constable Johnson is disappointed that the murder victim at Chimneys wasn’t a decent Englishman. ““I’m sorry it were a foreigner” said Johnson, with some regret. It made the murder seem less real. Foreigners, Johnson felt, were liable to be shot” – an interesting take on blame the victim. And this patronising and insulting tone isn’t just reserved for “foreigners”. Women too, are seen as very much second-class citizens in the eyes of Lomax: “it has occurred to me… that a woman might be very useful here. Told enough and not too much, you understand. A woman could handle the whole thing delicately and with tact – put the position before him, as it were, without getting his back up. Not that I approve of women in politics – St Stephen’s is ruined, absolutely ruined, nowadays. But woman in her own sphere can do wonders. Look at Henry’s wife and what she did for him. Marcia was magnificent, unique a perfect political hostess.”

Royal Prince CrownAnother verbal trick that works well in this book, and happily doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable, is the 1920s small talk, and in particular its gift for fine understatement. When Battle informs Cade that the gentleman who was murdered was a royal personage, Cade simply replies: “that must be deuced awkward”. The understatement really emphasises the sense of the ridiculous. Here, Virginia is trying to find someone to ask advice as she sits at home with a murdered man. ““Oh damn!” cried Virginia, jamming down the receiver. It was horrible to be shut up with a dead body and to have no one to speak to.” Even Battle succumbs to this style, as he explains why the equerry, Captain Andrassy, did not come to Chimneys with the Prince: ”it’s perfectly simple. He stayed in town to make arrangements with a certain lady, on behalf of Prince Michael, for next weekend. The Baron rather frowned on such things, thinking them injudicious at the present stage of affairs, so His Highness had to go about them in a hole-and-corner manner. He was, if I may say so, inclined to be a rather – er – dissipated young man.”

memoirsWhen you have stories like this that are almost a century old, I think it’s interesting to convert any financial values mentioned to what they would be worth today – it gives you a better understanding of the size of rewards, or blackmails and so on. There are only a couple of instances of this in the book, but the £1000 that Jimmy would receive for the safe delivery of Count Stylptitch’s memoirs is worth about £42,500 today – that’s a pretty good reward. When Virginia allows herself to be blackmailed just to see what it feels like, she pays over £40 – and that’s the equivalent today of £1,700. That’s a pretty hefty petty cash tin she’s got.

St StephensChristie often uses words, phrases and references that were obviously fully understandable back in the day but have not kept pace with time. When Anthony remembers the first occasion he met Jimmy, he describes rescuing him from cannibals, saying it was a “very nice little shindy”. Shindy? Well, replace it with the more modern “shindig” and you have your meaning. Lomax’s observation that “St Stephen’s is ruined” mentioned a little earlier I believe must refer to St. Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster. In a harkback to the Kilmorden Castle of The Man in the Brown Suit, Anthony’s arrival back in England is confused by Bill when he checks the itinerary of the Carnfrae Castle instead of the Granarth Castle. All these liners are fictitious, but the Union Castle line, which ran them, was certainly real, and only ceased trading in 1977.

Evening DressVirginia asks her maid to pack her “new Cailleux evening dress”. I think this is a made-up fashion designer. There was a model by the name of Barbara Cailleux but she was active in the 1950s and so it can’t refer to her. However, if you know more, please let me know! Cade in conversation with Battle, reflecting on the open middle window, says “either he was killed by someone in the house and that someone unlatched the window after I had gone to make it look like an outside job – incidentally with me as Little Willie…” Julius in The Secret Adversary uses the same name for his gun. Not quite sure of the reference here, but Little Willie was the name given to the first tank prototype constructed in 1915. However, if you think Cade is referring to anything else, again please let me know! I was amused at Cade’s use of the phrase all will be gas and gaiters, primarily because it reminded me of that great 1960s comedy series, but it did make me wonder where the phrase came from. It’s the invention of Charles Dickens, in Nicholas Nickleby. A nameless old gentleman who is courting Miss La Creevy uses it to suggest that everything will be wonderful.

PanhardBundle’s two young sisters who are looked after by Mlle Brun are named Dulcie and Daisy, “like the song, you know. I dare say they’d have called the next one Dorothy May”. This refers to a song written by A L Harris, entitled “Three Green Bonnets”, published in 1901 and made famous by none other than Dame Nellie Melba. “”You modern young people seem to have such unpleasant ideas about love-making,” said Lord Caterham plaintively. “It comes from reading The Sheik,” said Bundle. “Desert love. Throw her about, etc. “ “What is The Sheik?” asked Lord Caterham simply. “Is it a poem?” Bundle looked at him with commiserating pity.” The Sheik, of course, was the archetypal desert romance novel written by Edith Maude Hull and published in 1919. It was the source for the famous film starring Rudolph Valentino. Bundle, as a modern woman, is happy to get behind the wheel of the Panhard – and clearly is a reckless driver. I confess I hadn’t heard of Panhards before. Rene Panhard was a pioneer of the motor car industry in France, his first vehicle being sold in 1890. They look rather nice, as you can see in this photograph.

WorstedCan anyone help me with the phrase: “I retire worsted”? Cade says it to Lemoine when he’s baffled. And Bundle says to Virginia, “I hate that man with his prim little black beard and his eyeglasses…. I hope Anthony does snoo him. I’d love to see him dancing with rage.” Snoo doesn’t appear in my OED and possible definitions of it on Urban Dictionary all seem unlikely. Any ideas? And to explain the reference to King Victor’s Bertillon measurements, I refer you to my blog about The Murder on the Links.

La France roseThere are a couple of significant passages in the book where characters are visiting the Rose Garden. The reader doesn’t realise the significance until much later in the book. I wondered, when reading this passage, whether the types of rose mentioned exist in real life: Madame Abel Chatenay, Frau Carl Drusky, La France, and Richmond. Well yes they do! Madame Abel Chatenay is a pink, climbing hybrid tea rose introduced in 1917. Frau Carl Drusky is less easy to trace but it does get a mention in an old newspaper article about a “Penrith Garden” from 1915 (that’s Penrith, New South Wales.) La France was introduced way back in 1867. The Richmond rose, though, I cannot trace – unless any keen rose growers out there know different!

David and UriahAnd once again Christie shames me for my lack of Bible knowledge. Virginia says of the time that Prince Michael wanted to marry her – although she was already married – that “he had a sort of David and Uriah scheme all made out”. Not David Copperfield and Uriah Heep, but Uriah the Hittite, married to Bathsheba, whom King David fancied something rotten and impregnated, so he murdered him. Chapter 11 of the Second Book of Samuel has all the details.

And now I give you my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Secret of Chimneys:

Publication Details: 1925. My copy is a Pan paperback, published in 1956, priced 2/-. I rather like its colourful and melodramatic cover!

How many pages until the first death: 56; and then the second death comes ten pages later. Although both are relevant to the story, much more is made of the second death than the first!

Funny lines out of context:
“McGrath poured out his own drink, tossed it off with a practised hand and mixed a second one.”
“It was the waiter, Giuseppe. In his right hand gleamed a long thing knife. He hurled himself straight upon Anthony, who was by now fully conscious of his own danger. He was unarmed and Giuseppe was evidently thoroughly at home with his own weapon.”
“You’re a man in a thousand, Battle. Either you have taken an extraordinary fancy to me or else you’re extraordinarily deep”.

Memorable characters:
Plenty. This is where the book scores well. Anthony Cade is a wise cracking chap, matey with his mates, charming with the girls; risk-taking, heroic, noble and thoroughly aspirational. And there’s a surprise up his sleeve kept for the end of the book which makes him even more extraordinary. Virginia Revel is also a very spirited, daring character and the two spark off each other very well. I also liked the ploddingly decent Bill, and Boris the bodyguard/servant is as camp as a row of tents. Bundle is full of 1920s spirit, and Lord Caterham an amusingly lean and slippered pantaloon.

Christie the Poison expert:
Still on vacation. This book is all to do with gunshots.

Class/social issues of the time:

The main background to the book is the political stability of the fictitious Herzoslovakia. On the one hand you have the threatening behaviour of members of the Comrades of the Red Hand and on the other you have the British government supporting the reinstatement of the monarchy under Prince Michael Obolovitch. With all the monarchists seen as thoroughly decent, if occasionally eccentric, and all the republicans as lunatic criminal obsessives, it’s not hard to see where Christie’s sympathy lie.

Christie also reveals her belief in that old adage that people may be socialists in their youth, but once they grow up a bit, they see sense. That’s how she characterises Cade: “it was rather pleasant to be back in London again. Everything was changed of course. There had been a little restaurant there – just past Blackfriars Bridge – where he had dined fairly often, in company with other earnest lads. He had been a Socialist then, and worn a flowing red tie. Young – very young.” Bundle is emphatically a socialist – at least according to her father.

Foreigners/Race Relations – A massive amount of anti-foreigner material as I outlined earlier, that can actually make you feel extremely uncomfortable reading it, even though you know that in the day it wasn’t considered anywhere like as offensive as it comes across today. No race or country seems to go without criticism. Towards the end there is a brief conversation between two characters that feels very uncomfortable today: “Merciful God in heaven! He has married a black woman in Africa!” “Come, come, it’s not so bad as all that…she’s white enough – white all through, bless her.”

Classic denouement: Yes – you see Cade going about hither and thither, inviting people to join him at Chimneys later that evening and you know that it’s going to result in a classic showdown. What appears to be one crime is cunningly broken down into two parts, which adds to the excitement and protraction of revealing all the relevant secrets. I couldn’t remember the story nor whodunit when I first started to read; but about sixty pages before the end there was a scene that prompted me to make a guess as to the identity of King Victor – and I was right. However, there’s a wonderful build-up in the denouement where, right before the end, you have a sudden doubt and think that just maybe it could be someone else. Then you find out you were right all along. It’s a beautifully written scene.

Happy ending? Yes – if more than a trifle far-fetched. One couple get married just before the end of the book, and although that’s all jolly good for them, other people are left behind probably feeling slightly heartbroken.

Did the story ring true? It is far-fetched, and generally preposterous, but, on reflection I reckon it could all just about happen.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. It is a very exciting read, and with some great characterisation, and full of twisty turns in the plot. I would have scored it higher had it not been for the fact that a) I did guess the identity of King Victor and b) the anti-foreigner remarks that litter the book really make you squirm at times.

Thanks for reading my blog of The Secret of Chimneys and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment – but don’t tell us whodunit! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge it’s 1926, and it’s a biggie – for many, her masterpiece – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with Hercule Poirot – I’ve missed the old chap over the last couple of books! I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)

The Man in the Brown SuitIn which we meet Anne Beddingfeld, orphaned (if you can be orphaned at her age) and inquisitive adventuress, who witnesses the death of a man at Hyde Park Corner tube station and subsequently gets caught up in a realm of intrigue which takes her from London to Marlow to South Africa, on the hunt for the mystery man named “the Colonel”. Unsurprisingly, she does discover his identity; but rest assured gentle reader, I won’t give the game (or the name) away.

MarlowChristie dedicated the book to her husband Archie’s old teacher, E A Belcher: “To E.A.B. In memory of a journey, some Lion stories and a request that I should some day write the Mystery of the Mill House“. He did indeed have a property called Mill House – in Dorney, although in the book Christie transports it to Marlow. She based the character of Sir Eustace Pedler on Belcher, and in her autobiography recalled how she found it very difficult to flesh him out in print until she hit on the brainwave of having Pedler narrate part of the book himself. Hence the book is three quarters narrated by Anne, and one-quarter by Pedler. The two different narrative voices add to the vitality and rhythm of the book, which is a very entertaining read, even though it is at times ridiculously far-fetched.

MilitaryOne of the criticisms of the book at the time of publication is that it was not a detective whodunit in the tradition of her earlier works, but more of a general thriller. Some were disappointed to find that Hercule Poirot does not make an appearance. You wouldn’t have guessed, reading this in 1924, that the one character in it who would feature in later Christie books would be Colonel Race; for although he plays an important part in the book, he doesn’t strike me as having much of a personality that would make him worthy of future inclusion. Christie obviously thought differently, as Sir Eustace points out when describing Race: “He’s good looking in his way, but dull as ditch water. One of these strong silent men that lady novelists, and young girls always rave over”. I think it’s a shame that Anne doesn’t reappear in later books – although she’s a bit bossy and a little patronising, using the knowledge she gleaned from her late father of Palaeolithic times to bully and intimidate, she’s nevertheless a jolly girl, with lots of spirit and daring, never flinching in the face of disaster. Still, I guess she ends up happy and contented – even if in a rather unconventional lifestyle for the time – and Christie felt it was best to leave her where she settled.

NurseAlthough you get the sense that Anne hasn’t had a very exciting life before the book starts, she’s clearly a thoughtful and perceptive person who makes insightful comments on life. “”My wife will be delighted to welcome you” insists Mr Flemming, her solicitor and wannabe guardian, when he offers her the chance to live with them for a while. “I wonder if husbands know as much about their wives as they think they do. If I had a husband, I should hate him to bring home orphans without consulting me first.”” Mrs Flemming is sweetness and light when they meet, but then she overhears their conversation. “A few minutes later another phrase floated up to me in an even more acid voice: “I agree with you! She is certainly very good looking.” It really is a hard life. Men will not be nice to you if you are not good looking and women will not be nice to you if you are.” Anne and Mrs Flemming rub along as best they can under the circumstances, until it is time for Anne to leave: “she was a good, kind woman. I could not have continued to live in the same house as her, but I did recognize her intrinsic worth”. She’s cheeky with Lord Nasby, she’s resourceful enough to save Harry Rayburn’s life with her nursing skills, and she’s even able to release herself from capture by cutting through the gag that binds her; but despite all that, when it comes to the crunch she’s more traditional than you might expect, in matters of the heart and stereotypical gender roles. In conversation with Colonel Race: “”So you don’t consider women as `weak things`?” I considered. “No, I don’t think I do – though they are, I suppose. That is, they are nowadays. But Papa always said that in the beginning men and women roamed the world together, equal in strength […] that is why women worship physical strength in men: it’s what they once had and have lost.”[…] “And you really think that’s true? That women worship strength, I mean?” “I think it’s quite true – if one’s honest. You think you admire moral qualities, but when you fall in love, you revert to the primitive, where the physical is all that counts.” Perhaps it’s no surprise when Anne backs down to Rayburn’s insistence that she leaves for Beira: “This is man’s work. Leave it to me.” The intertwining narrative from Sir Eustace makes an excellent contrast because he is disreputable, and, in common parlance, something of a perve; and it feels wrong that Anne should nevertheless quite like him, but she does. Women, eh? Just can’t understand them. They always like the bad boys.

SmutsSeveral times through the book Anne refers to The Perils of Pamela; presumably this is either a film or a book that has so far satisfied her need for adventure. Back in 1922 when this book is set, there was no such thing on the screen as The Perils of Pamela. There was, however, The Perils of Pauline, a series of melodramatic short films where our heroine got into tight scrapes before being rescued by a handsome man. If this is Anne’s staple entertainment, it’s really no surprise then that her views on the status of women put the sisterhood back by a number of years. Talking of 1922, it’s quite unusual for the author to pin down the actual date of a novel so precisely. In Christie’s book, The Kilmorden Castle set sail on 17th January 1922 bound for Cape Town. In reality, there is no such place as Kilmorden, let alone a castle standing there. Pedler joins the ship so that he can personally deliver secret papers to General Smuts, who was the South African Prime Minister from 1919 to 1924. It was indeed a time of social unrest in the country, with many instances of miners striking, so maybe Pedler’s rather savage desciptions of the industrial discontent (even seen from a right-wing British perspective) were not that far from the truth. The Christies had travelled round the world throughout 1922, including some time spent in South Africa, so no doubt she was keen to put to good use whatever observations she had made of the political and social situation there.

Victoria FallsIt also explains why the book at times loses focus and reminds you more of a travelogue than a thriller, the writer almost showing off about all the places they have visited. Cape Town, Johannesburg, Muizenberg, De Aar, Kimberley, Bulawayo, The Matoppos (now Matobo National Park, where Anne and Race visit Cecil Rhodes’ grave), The Karoo (the desert), The Victoria Falls, and an island on the Zambezi all feature distinctively. In Cape Town, Anne is followed round Adderley Street (one of the most notable streets in the city) and orders two coffee ice-cream sodas at Cartwright’s. The attention to detail regarding location in this book is somewhere between fascinating and overwhelming.

DiamondAs is often the case with Christie, the plot is based on an event that took place a long time in the past. In this instance, it’s the theft of some De Beer diamonds and the framing of two innocent prospectors into the bargain. These diamonds were apparently worth £100,000 when the theft took place, just before the war, according to the dancer Madame Nadina in the Prologue. That’s over £8m in today’s money. Not a bad haul; no wonder people died as a result. The other interesting sum of money that’s quoted in the book is the £87 that it costs Anne to travel 1st class on the Kilmorden Castle from Southampton to Cape Town. That’s about £3500 today. She got a bargain.

Passenger shipAlthough The Man in the Brown Suit predates Murder on the Orient Express by ten years, there were a couple of scenes that forcefully reminded me of that latter – and much better known – book. When Anne stays awake until 1am awaiting something to happen in her cabin – and it does – she is interrupted by a knock at the door by an inquiring night stewardess, whom Anne fobs off with an innocent denial. She looks down the corridor and can only see the “retreating form of the stewardess”. For some reason this strongly reminded me of the “story of a small dark man with a womanish voice dressed in Wagon Lit uniform” and a woman in a red kimono: “who was she? No one on the train admits to having a scarlet kimono. She too has vanished. Was she the one and the same with the spurious Wagon Lit attendant?” (both quotes from Murder on the Orient Express). Suspicions about the Rev Chichester also made me think of people playing parts in Murder on the OE. “If Mr Chichester had indeed spent the last two years in the interior of Africa, how was it that he was not more sun-burnt? His skin was as pink and white as a baby’s. Surely there was something fishy there? Yet his manner and voice were so absolutely it. Too much so perhaps. Was he – or was he not – just a little like a stage clergyman?” Of course, Christie would return to the idea of someone impersonating a clergyman in At Bertram’s Hotel.

Palaeolithic ManAs usual Mrs Christie gives us some unusual references, words and phrases for us 21st century types to decipher. First of all there are all Anne’s technical terms that she learned from her father, and that she uses to bamboozle opponents: “Frankly, I hate Palaeolithic Man, be he Aurignacian, Mousterian, Chellian, or anything else”. Aurignacian pertains (perhaps unsurprisingly) to Aurignac, in France, home of a Palaeolithic culture somewhere around 40,000 years ago. Mousterian relates to a period of Neanderthal Man earlier than the Aurignacian era, typified by the use of flints worked on one side only. It’s named after Le Moustier, the rock shelter area of the Dordogne. My OED states that both words were first used in the early 20th century – so Mrs Christie was spot on the ball with her up to date knowledge and terminology. Chellian, on the other hand, is a 19th century term that has fallen into disuse, but was the name given by the French Anthropologist G. de Mortillet to the first epoch of the Quaternary period when the earliest human remains were discovered, the word being derived from the French town Chelles. Anne is also into head shapes: Brachycephalic (short-headed), Dolichocephalic (long-headed) and Platycephalic (flat-headed); there may be a few more cephalics that I missed out.

AsafoetidaAnne doesn’t enjoy her first few days at sea. From the safety and security of her deckchair, she observes: “brisk couples exercising, curveting children, laughing young people”. What kind of children? To curvet – apparently – is to make a leaping or a frisking motion like a horse. When Anne retreats to her cabin she notices a dreadful smell: “Dead rat? No, worse than that….Asafoetida! I had worked in a hospital dispensary during the war for a short time and had become acquainted with various nauseous drugs.” Asafoetida is an acrid gum resin with a strong smell like that of garlic, obtained from certain Asian plants of the umbelliferous genus Ferula, and used in condiments. So now you know.

Upper BerthSir Eustace moans about having to play Brother Bill and Bolster Bar on board ship. Have you ever heard of these? I hadn’t. And after a bit of a search online and in my OED, I still can’t find anything that seems appropriate. If you’ve got any ideas, please let me know! Talk that his cabin might be haunted reminds him of The Upper Berth. This was a short ghost story published by Francis Marion Crawford in 1886 about a room on a train where passengers who have stayed overnight have died horrible deaths. And when he’s holding court telling his hunting adventures (seems in such bad taste today), he relates: “this friend of mine…was trekking across country, and being anxious to arrive at his destination before the heat of the day he ordered his boys to inspan whilst it was still dark.” Ordered them to do what? Apparently it’s a word of Afrikaans descent, meaning to yoke (oxen, horses, etc) in a team to a vehicle, or to harness a wagon. He also uses the phrase on the bust to mean “get drunk” – although I can’t see this usage anywhere else. I wonder if it’s an early example of on the p*ss?

Beche de merAnne refers to bêche-de-mer (useful if you visit the South Sea Islands). She says she doesn’t know what it is, and nor did I, so I looked it up and it’s an edible sea cucumber. I think I preferred not knowing. ““It would hardly be respectable,” said Suzanne, dimpling.” Dimpling? Does that mean making a dimple appear on your face? Apparently it does, but I’ve never come across it as a verb. Another odd word formation is: “I was to be arrested on some charge or other – pocket-picking, perhaps.” I’d never come across “pocket-picking” before. “Pickpocketing” would be a much more common phrase. I wondered if “pickpocket” was a recent word, but no, it’s been in use for 400 years. Weird one! Among the souvenirs that Anne and Suzanne consider buying are mealie bowls (South African term for maize) and fur karosses. A kaross is a cloak or sleeveless jacket like a blanket made of hairy animal skins, worn by the indigenous peoples of southern Africa (OED). Eardsley’s son is described as “quite a parti”. A what? Again from the OED: A person, especially a man, considered in terms of eligibility for marriage on grounds of wealth, social status, etc – originally a late 18th century term taken from French.

bibleAnd once again Christie shows my heathenry by offering a Bible quotation I don’t recognise. In conversation with Race, Anne says: “they win in the only way that counts. Like what the Bible says about losing your life and finding it.” A little research unearths two possible references. Matthew 10:39 – “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” But I think more likely: Luke 17:33 – “Whoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.”

So it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Man in the Brown Suit:

Publication Details: 1924. My copy is a Pan paperback, published in 1973. The cover illustration is the usual photo representing some of the clues or events of the book, but, interestingly, the artist got one of the details wrong. It shows the piece of paper dropped at the scene of the crime at Hyde Park Corner tube station. But it reads Kilmorden Castle 1. 7 22 and not Kilmorden Castle 17.1 22 as in the book. Sack the illustrator!

How many pages until the first death: 16; and then the second death is reported two pages later. A double whammy, one might say.

Funny lines out of context:
“In other words, the chimpanzee is a degenerate.”
“These earnest, hard-working young men with weak stomachs are always liable to bilious attacks.”
“Every now and then he galvanized himself to further efforts by ejaculating something that sounded like Platt Skeet”.

Memorable characters:
The two narrators are very lively characters, well drawn and full of quirkiness – especially Sir Eustace, with his frequent observations on the loveliness of ladies and the irritations of his colleagues.

Christie the Poison expert:
On vacation for this novel. Will no doubt be back soon.

Class/social issues of the time:

Foreigners – It wouldn’t be a Christie if she didn’t get some suspicions over foreigners in the text somewhere. Perhaps it’s no surprise that The Daily Budget is something akin to the Daily Mail of today: “In an upper room of the Mill House the body of a beautiful young woman was discovered yesterday, strangled. She is thought to be a foreigner…” Interesting that it’s not a foreigner that’s suspected of perpetrating the crime, but is the victim; it’s one of those examples of where there is a slight suspicion of “blame the victim”. Anne later goes on to interrogate the housekeeper at the Mill House. She saw the man suspected of being the murderer. “A nice-looking young fellow he was and no mistake. A kind of soldierly look about him – ah, well, I dare say he’d been wounded in the war, and sometimes they go a bit queer aftwards; my sister’s boy did. Perhaps she’d used him bad – they’re a bad lot, those foreigners.”

Also unsurprising that Pedler and his secretary Pagett have the same belief. “On the face of it, a Member of Parliament will be none the less efficient because a stray young woman comes and gets herself murdered in an empty house that belongs to him – but there is no accounting for the view the respectable British public takes of a matter. “She’s a foreigner too, and that makes it worse,” continued Pagett gloomily. Again I believe he is right. If it is disreputable to have a woman murdered in your house, it becomes more disreputable if the woman is a foreigner.”

Race – I’m still trying to make my mind up whether Christie is a latent racist or not. There are some very iffy comments that I’ve already read in the next book (see below), but I think on the whole the references to race in this book are simply the norm for the time. She uses the term “kafir” a great deal; she describes some of the souvenir tat as “absurd little black warriors” which feels a bit patronising to me; and there’s a rather awkward scene when Anne regains consciousness after an attempt on her life: “Someone put a cup to my lips and I drank. A black face grinned into mine – a devil’s face, I thought it, and screamed out.”

Classic denouement: It’s almost as though there are two denouements. The first occurs about two thirds of the way in, with the full explanation of Rayburn’s identity and his part in the story. The second, concerning the identity of “the Colonel”, slowly and excitingly becomes clear over a good twenty pages or more. And whilst it doesn’t have the classic Poirot-type set up of a room full of suspects and a man pointing “j’accuse!” it works in a much subtler and satisfying way. I had forgotten the identity of “the Colonel” and it came as quite a nail-biting surprise.

Happy ending? Of course. Anne and her man live happily ever after albeit in a rather unconventional manner and location. As for the master criminal, that person appears to get off scot-free. That might annoy the reader’s sense of justice, although Anne herself is not unhappy with the outcome.

Did the story ring true? Frankly, no! Of all the Christies I have re-read and written about so far, this is most definitely the most far-fetched. The plot leaps from coincidence to coincidence, and occasionally you have to break off and laugh at how monstrously Christie handles the reader’s credulousness.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. On the minus side you have the ridiculous coincidences that render the plot so unlikely as to make it laughable, its tendency to stray into travelogue and an awful lot of Barbara Cartland-like romantic nonsense towards the end that comes close to being nauseating. However, Christie gets away with it by having some extremely good characters, rather witty conversations and creating an old-fashioned “rattling good read”.

Secret of ChimneysThanks for reading my blog of The Man in the Brown Suit and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment – but don’t tell us whodunit! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge it’s 1925, and time for The Secret of Chimneys. It sounds a little like an Enid Blyton adventure, but there I think the similarity ends. Still using her South African experiences, the story will also introduce us to Superintendent Battle – and that jolly girl that goes by the name of Bundle. I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!