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Authors: Agatha Christie

The Seven Dials Mystery

BOOK: The Seven Dials Mystery
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The Seven
Dials Mystery

Contents

Title Page

Introduction

  1  
On Early Rising

  2  
Concerning Alarum Clocks

  3  
The Joke that Failed

  4  
A Letter

  5  
The Man in the Road

  6  
Seven Dials Again

  7  
Bundle Pays a Call

  8  
Visitors for Jimmy

  9  
Plans

10  
Bundle Visits Scotland Yard

11  
Dinner with Bill

12  
Inquiries at Chimneys

13  
The Seven Dials Club

14  
The Meeting of the Seven Dials

15  
The Inquest

16  
The House Party at the Abbey

17  
After Dinner

18  
Jimmy's Adventures

19  
Bundle's Adventures

20  
Loraine's Adventures

21  
The Recovery of the Formula

22  
The Countess Radzky's Story

23  
Superintendent Battle in Charge

24  
Bundle Wonders

25  
Jimmy Lays his Plans

26  
Mainly about Golf

27  
Nocturnal Adventure

28  
Suspicions

29  
Singular Behaviour of George Lomax

30  
An Urgent Summons

31  
The Seven Dials

32  
Bundle is Dumbfounded

33  
Battle Explains

34  
Lord Caterham Approves

About the Author

The Agatha Christie Collection

Related Products

Copyright

About the Publisher

Introduction

by Val McDermid

T
hings that everybody knows about Agatha Christie: she produced a lot of books that still outsell the competition; she was the greatest plotter of the classic detective story; she did a vanishing act and turned up amnesiac in Harrogate, identified by the banjo player in the hotel band; she wrote the longest-running play in theatrical history,
The Mousetrap;
and she couldn't write thrillers.

So why am I suggesting that anyone would want to read
The Seven Dials Mystery?
After all, it has all the ingredients of the classic 1920s thriller, as exemplified by; A. E. W. Mason, Sapper and John Buchan. Secret plans, evil foreigners, marvellous cars with running boards and powerful engines, the joint threats of Germany and Communist Russia, house parties, young men wandering round with loaded revolvers and plucky young women—they're all there by the bucketload.

Oh, and let's not forget the secret society that meets behind closed doors, whose members are masked so not even they know who the other members are. Bulldog Drummond and Richard Hannay territory, surely? Which we know that Christie can't do. Right?

Wrong. Because
The Seven Dials Mystery
isn't a thriller. It's a pastiche of a thriller, an antidote to the gung-ho chest-beating of the boys. It's wry, it's got its tongue planted firmly in its cheek and it subverts the whole genre it appears to be part of, not least because as well as all of this, it also delivers cleverly dovetailed plotting with a typical Christie flourish at the end. “Ah yes,” we sigh. “Fooled again.” If one of our Young Turks did something similar with the thriller now, we'd all nod sagely and go, “how very postmodern, how very self-referential and knowing, how very metafictional.”

But that was then and this is now. So Christie gets no credit for poking her tongue out at the big boys who set the agenda for what a thriller should be. I mean, how can a nice middle-class wife and mother be considered a subversive? How embarrassing would that be for the leather-jacketed iconoclasts?

But the fact remains that
The Seven Dials Mystery
really doesn't perform as expected.

As well as showing that when it came to sleight of hand, Agatha Christie just couldn't help herself, what
The Seven Dials Mystery
reveals is the side of its author that everybody seems to forget. (Not surprisingly, when you look at those stern jacket photographs . . .) She had a sense of humour. It was sly and shrewd, and never far from the surface.

It's there in the very first Jane Marple mystery in the character of Griselda, the hopelessly inappropriate wife of the very conservative vicar. And it continues in the Marple novels with, for example, a series of sly digs at Miss Marple's nephew, the literary novelist Raymond West, whose pretensions are a constant source of bubble-bursting on Christie's part.

And it's there in the Poirot mysteries too. Perhaps Christie's funniest as well as her most self-referential character appears regularly there—the crime writer Ariadne Oliver. Mrs. Oliver, with her perpetually bursting bags of apples and her disregard for convention, is clearly a thinly disguised version of Christie herself.

Where Christie has her Belgian detective whom she came to dislike intensely, Mrs. Oliver has a Finn. She is constantly to be heard complaining bitterly about her folly in creating a depressive detective from a country about which she knew nothing and has had to learn far too much. She moans that her publisher and her readers won't let her kill him off because they like him too much. All of this is delivered in such a way that it's impossible to avoid a wry smile at the character's expense and at Christie's too.

From the very first paragraph of
The Seven Dials Mystery,
we should be in no doubt that we're in a world of Wodehousian insouciance. No one could have written such an opening, not even in 1929, without being conscious of its parodic quality.

That amiable youth, Jimmy Thesiger, came racing down the big staircase at Chimneys two steps at a time. So precipitate was his descent that he collided with Tredwell, the stately butler, just as the latter was crossing the hall bearing a fresh supply of hot coffee. Owing to the marvellous presence of mind and masterly agility of Tredwell, no casualty occurred. “Sorry,” apologized Jimmy. “I say, Tredwell, am I the last down?”

Substitute Bertie Wooster for Jimmy Thesiger and Jeeves for Tredwell, and it wouldn't feel at all out of place. I think it's safe to say that Christie wasn't setting up in competition with Buchan and Sapper when she wrote this novel.

When critics consider Christie now, they often point to the apparent intolerance and lack of political correctness revealed by her attitudes to class and to other races. It's true that she patronises the lower classes and is extraordinarily offensive about Jews, Germans and Russians, among others. But in this she reflected the attitudes of a woman of her class and generation. It would have been remarkable if she had displayed different attitudes. Even a feminist icon like Virginia Woolf, writing at around the same time, displays an unnerving lack of insight into the lives and dreams of the “servant classes.”

But that hasn't stopped people leaping on Christie as an example of all that is worst about the English. She's accused of snobbery, of insensitivity, of racial and class stereotyping.

But how valid are these criticisms? For myself, I've always thought that the true test of people's beliefs lies in their sense of humour. What they find funny will tell you far more about someone than their serious professions of belief. It's often seemed to me that those we make the butts of our jokes are those for whom we nurse our deepest and most secret contempt.

So what does Christie make fun of in this novel?

Well, first there is the aristocracy. The egotistical, indolent and almost indigent Lord Caterham (a title absurd in itself, Caterham being the epitome of stifling Home Counties suburbia) is drawn with affection, but where Buchan or Sapper would have shown him as a figure of status, worthy of respect and trust, Christie shows him as a figure of fun who is indulged by his feisty daughter. He's a not-too-distant relative of Wodehouse's Lord Emsworth.

Christie teases the nouveau riche just as wickedly. Sir Oswald and Lady Coote are perceptively lampooned, the one for his over-reaching ambition, the other for her failure to escape her lower middle-class sensibilities. We see her treated with disdain by the servants, while her husband fails to see how little acceptance his wealth, his title and his material success have brought him.

But the upper middle classes are given no more leeway than the arrivistes.
The Seven Dials Mystery
is peppered with ineffectual Oxbridge Foreign Office young men being rescued by their women. The men are silly asses, who avoid disaster more by luck and having the right people behind them than by finely honed judgement.

But most importantly, prejudice comes under the cosh. There are several characters in
The Seven Dials Mystery
about whom we are invited to make knee-jerk judgements, from the mysterious East European countess to the apparently reliable but unimaginative Scotland Yard detective. All of these snap decisions would fall into line with the received bigotry of the time.

Yet by the end of the novel, Christie has forced a reversal of almost all of these positions.

I'm not suggesting that she was actually a secret radical who was aiming to subvert the narrow-minded intolerance of her time and class. That would be patently absurd, for Agatha Christie was no revolutionary.

But she was far less of a hidebound conservative than is generally assumed. There is clearly more to
The Seven Dials Mystery
than a facile attempt to turn everything on its head in order to make the “least likely person” hypothesis work. There is, I believe, clear evidence that Christie saw her world with a far clearer and colder eye than those who disparage her understand.

The Seven Dials Mystery
is the perfect antidote to anyone who has overdosed on the classic English thriller from between the wars. But it's also worth reading for the sheer skill with which Christie plays with her readers' expectations and uses them to play the cleverest of narrative tricks with us.

It's all sleight of hand. And the quickness of Christie's hand still continues to deceive our eyes, all those years later.

One

O
N
E
ARLY
R
ISING

T
hat amiable youth, Jimmy Thesiger, came racing down the big staircase at Chimneys two steps at a time. So precipitate was his descent that he collided with Tredwell, the stately butler, just as the latter was crossing the hall bearing a fresh supply of hot coffee. Owing to the marvellous presence of mind and masterly agility of Tredwell, no casualty occurred.

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