Saturday, July 2, 2011
Review: The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie
The Secret of Chimneys
By: Agatha Christie
Publisher: Minotaur Books
About the book:
A bit of adventure and quick cash is all that good-natured drifter Anthony Cade is looking for when he accepts a messenger job from an old friend. It sounds so simple: deliver the provocative memoirs of a recently deceased European count to a London publisher. But the parcel holds more than scandalous royal secrets. It contains a stash of letters that suggest blackmail - and lead to the murder of a stranger who's been shadowing Anthony's every move. Discovering the dead man's identity means retracing his steps - to the rambling estate of Chimneys where darker secrets, and deadlier threats, await anyone who dares to enter.
When good-natured adventurer Anthony Cade accepts two commissions from his friend Jimmy McGrath, he little realizes that the simple delivery jobs will throw him into a web of international intrigue and danger. His first task is to deliver the recently deceased Herzoslovakian Count Stylpitch's memoirs to his London publisher - a manuscript whose secrets warring political factions will do anything to prevent being published. Anthony's second task is to return a package of indiscreet love letters to one Virginia Revel. From the moment he returns to England his every movie is shadowed, and when the letters are stolen and the thief turns up murdered in Virginia's home, he discovers a surprising connection between the Count's secrets and the scandalous letters, with the thread tying them together being the famed Chimneys estate. Political alliances are formed and careers made within Chimney's famous - and scandal-ridden - walls. As the players in the Herzoslovakian business gather, Anthony finds himself in a race against time to catch a killer, unmask a thief, and determine his future.
I was first introduced to Agatha Christie through her most famous sleuths, Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. It's only in recent years that I've delved into her standalone fiction, and now The Secret of Chimneys has rocketed to the top of my favorites list. It's a dizzingly fast-paced read, chock-full of enough of Christie's trademark plot twists and turns to give the reader whiplash. The political intrigue-saturated storyline is reminscent of a Hitchcock film, but it's the characters that set this little gem apart. Anthony Cade is an absolutely delightful hero - self-assured, intelligent, snarky, and humorously irreverent, Christie had me in stitches with his every scene. The country house setting provides a nicely isolated setting for Christie to examine a microcosmic slice of early twentieth-century English stereotypes - the devlishly smart amateur investigator, the glittering socialite, the unflappable inspector, and the long-suffering, eccentric British nobleman - all are forced to confront secrets, lies, and threats within the walls of Chimneys.
The Secret of Chimneys requires a healthy suspension of disbelief as the royal intrigue aspect of the storyline is a bit more far-fetched than some of Christie's other country house-set mysteries. However, the red herrings and dizzying plot twists, combined with intelligent, appealing leads, a well-drawn, humorous supporting cast of characters, and sparkling dialogue make Chimneys one of Christie's most delightful, entertaining standalone mysteries.
Book vs. Film:
A few weeks ago I reviewed the Masterpiece Mystery presentation of Miss Marple: The Secret of Chimneys. Besides the glaringly obvious insertion of Miss Marple into the storyline, I'm not sure I know where to even begin discussing the differences between the book and the film. The film rewrite of The Secret of Chimneys is peppered with outlandish plot twists, but when compared to the original novel I can't say they're worse or more ridiculous, only different. :) The novel's Inspector Battle is transformed into Inspector Finch, played by Stephen Dillane, and though the names were changed the essence of Christie's inspector is kept alive in Dillane's screen version. I loved Finch's interactions with Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie), but the insertion of Marple in this storyline forced Anthony Cade's character to be significantly diminished and his motivations rewritten. This is a crying shame, because now that I've read the novel I think Jonas Armstrong would've done a superb job playing the Cade of the novel if given the chance. While the storyline for Lord Caterham was signficantly re-written for the film, Edward Fox absolutely nails the essence of Christie's character. He's overwhelmed, long-suffering, and humorously out-of-touch, all in keeping with his bookish counterpart.
Though the novel was significantly revised, in many respects the film does a fairly creditable job of remaining true to the adventurous spirit of Christie's book. I only hope that some day we'll get to see Christie's brilliant Anthony Cade brought to life on-screen and allowed to retain the humor, intelligence, and appeal that makes the novel such an enjoyable read.