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|The Secret of Chimneys|
Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
|Cover artist||Percy Graves|
|Publication date||June 1925|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Pages||310 pp (first edition, hardback)|
|Preceded by||The Road of Dreams|
|Followed by||The Murder of Roger Ackroyd|
The Secret of Chimneys is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in June 1925 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year. It introduces the characters of, among others, Superintendent Battle and Lady Eileen "Bundle" Brent. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) and the US edition at $2.00.
||This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. Please help improve it by removing unnecessary details and making it more concise. (September 2010)|
Seven years previously, the Balkan state of Herzoslovakia had one of its periodic revolutions that resulted in the death and bodily mutilation of its monarch, King Nicholas IV and his wife Queen Varaga. The latter formerly was Angèle Mory, a dancer at the Folies Bergère, who had been bribed by the Herzoslovakian revolutionary organisation "Comrades of the Red Hand" to lure the King into a trap when he visited Paris, but instead double-crossed them, seduced and married Nicholas, and was introduced in Herzoslovakia as a Countess and descendant of the Romanoffs. When realizing the deception, the populace reacted with an uprising and the establishment of a republic which has been in force ever since.
Now the people of Herzoslovakia wish to restore the monarchy and offer the vacant crown to the exiled Prince Michael Obolovitch, a distant relation of the murdered King. The British government is acting as powerbroker to the restoration in return for oil concessions in the state. The head of the syndicate who is financing the deal, Herman Isaacstein, is to meet Prince Michael at the English country house of Chimneys whose reluctant owner, the Marquis of Caterham, is bullied into hosting the get-together by George Lomax, a foreign office minister. A difficulty has arisen though: a Count Stylptitch, twice Prime Minister of Herzoslovakia and in exile in Paris since the revolution, died two months previously and his memoirs—believed to contain many indiscreet references to the Herzoslovakia monarchy—were smuggled to Bulawayo in the care of Jimmy McGrath, a gold prospector who four years ago saved the Count's life in Paris. As part of his will, the Count has asked McGrath to deliver the manuscript of his memoirs in person to publishers in London on or before 13 October in return for one thousand pounds and McGrath is due to arrive in London soon.
However, McGrath's gold prospecting seems about to bear fruit and he is loath to leave Africa. In Bulawayo he meets an old friend and fellow adventurer, Anthony Cade, and asks him to impersonate him and deliver the manuscript for a quarter share. McGrath had another task for Anthony: by saving a drowning "Dago", coincidentally also a Herzoslovakian, he came into the possession of a set of letters from an Englishwoman called Virginia Revel to her lover, a Captain O'Neill, which the "Dago" had used to blackmail Mrs Revel and which McGrath wanted to be returned to her, thus saving her from further embarrassment. Anthony agreed to deliver both sets of documents. We learn that Virginia Revel is the widow of a former British diplomat to Herzoslovakia, whom everybody falls in love with and whom Lomax has asked to be one of the house party at Chimneys to charm Prince Michael.
Arriving in London, Anthony checks into the Blitz hotel where several attempts by fair means and foul are made to obtain the manuscript. The final one is at night when a hotel waiter, Giuseppe, enters Anthony's room. He wakes and the two men fight but Giuseppe gets away, not with the manuscript but with Virginia Revel's letters. The next day Giuseppe visits Virginia and blackmails her with one of the letters. She doesn't reveal to the man that the letters are not hers, but playfully gives him 40 pounds and asks him to return the next evening for the rest.
Anthony completes his task for Jimmy McGrath when a Mr Holmes of the publishers collects the manuscript from him and pays him. He only then receives, in the name of McGrath, a government invitation to the meeting at Chimneys where it is hoped he will be persuaded not to hand over the manuscript at all. Anthony decides to travel under his own name, stay at a village inn outside the house and investigate matters. Before that he looks up Virginia. When she returns home, she meets Anthony at the door and finds Giuseppe in her study, recently killed with a pistol bearing the engraving "Virginia". In Giuseppe's pocket is a scrap of paper with "Chimneys 11.45 Thursday". Anthony finds out about Virginia's invitation to that house and deduces that someone is attempting to prevent her going there. To outwit them he disposes of the body and follows Virginia, who instinctively trusts this "Ex-Eton and Oxford" stranger, to Chimneys.
At 11.45 on the Thursday night a murder is committed at Chimneys on the eve of the concessions meeting. Travelling under the pseudonym of "Count Stanislaus" the murdered man is none other than Prince Michael Obolovitch. Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate. Footprints are spotted in the grass leading to and from the open window to the council chamber where the body was found and the police’s suspicions are immediately drawn to the arrival of a stranger at the village inn the night before, Anthony Cade. Further investigations are confounded though when the self-confident Anthony suddenly appears at the house and introduces himself; moreover he tells Battle and the police all of the events to date, judiciously omitting the story of Virginia's letters and the murder and concealment of Giuseppe. He further reveals to them that he did indeed come to Chimneys the previous night and manages to convince the investigators that he was lured there on a pretext and that he had been set up for the crime. When Anthony is shown the body of Prince Michael, he is shocked to recognize "Mr Holmes" who collected the memoirs from him.
Aside from Isaacstein and Virginia (who vouches for Anthony) a third visitor to the house is the book collector Hiram P. Fish who is there to inspect Lord Caterham's collection of first editions.
Two strands of investigation take place in the house: the official one and Anthony's own. The police are interested in who benefits from Prince Michael's death and are told that his successor for the vacant throne is Michael's first cousin, Prince Nicholas, a somewhat dissolute young man who perhaps has died in the Congo. Anthony asks Lord Caterham’s daughter, "Bundle" Brent, after the occupant of a room whose light he saw go on and off after he heard the shot at the time of the murder. This turns out to be Mademoiselle Brun, the French governess to her two young sisters, who has been with them only two months from her previous position in a Château in Dinard. There is a further French connection with the matter when Anthony finds a bearded stranger with a French accent on the grounds claiming to be lost while on a walk from his stay at the village inn.
The French master jewel thief King Victor, a few months earlier released from jail, is a suspect, since Angèle Mory, in her days before Nicholas IV, was his accomplice and, while Queen, was very likely involved in King Victor's theft of the Koh-i-Noor diamond from the Tower of London (a paste copy being substituted and the public not being informed of the event). Queen Varaga was a guest at Chimneys at the time and it is believed she hid the jewel somewhere in the house and now, seven years after her death, King Victor has come to get it back. After impersonating the second-in-line Prince Nicholas in the United States for a scam, he is now rumored to be in England.
Anthony meets the middle-aged Mlle Brun and gets permission to go to Dinard to follow up on her references. While he is away there is a midnight break-in at Chimneys when Virginia and Bill Eversleigh, one of Lomax's staff from the Foreign Office, surprise a shadowy intruder who is searching the council chamber. After a fight, the intruder gets away. Anthony returns from France—Mlle Brun has proven to be above suspicion—and learns of the break-in. Expecting another attempt, he joins Virginia and Bill that night when they successfully apprehend the bearded French stranger, only to discover it is Monsieur Lemoine of the Sûreté, whose arrival had been expected by Battle. This officer had seen movement in the council chamber, but the interference by Anthony and his friends meant the suspect got away again.
Lemoine is on the trail of King Victor and he tells them that Angèle Mory sent coded letters to King Victor using the aliases of "Captain O’Neill" and "Virginia Revel" (who Mory knew from her husband's posting to the British Embassy in Herzoslovakia) and it is these that have been mistaken as the blackmailing letters. Stolen from King Victor, they found their way to Africa and, entirely coincidentally, to Jimmy McGrath. That afternoon, these letters mysteriously reappear on Anthony's dressing-table at Chimneys. Battle's theory is that King Victor, unable to decode the letters and aware that the council chamber is now watched, returned them to let the authorities decode the message and find the jewel, which he will then take at his convenience. They decide to take the bait and employ an expert codebreaker, Professor Wynwood, who deduces that the coded message tells that Stylptitch had re-hidden the jewel and had left the clue "Richmond seven straight eight left three right". Bundle equates this to an old passage behind a painting of the Earl of Richmond, but the trail only leads to another cipher (later revealed to represent a rose).
Boris Anchoukoff, Prince Michael's loyal valet hands Anthony an address in Dover ("dropped by that foreign gentleman"), and Anthony slips off to explore that location. It is a den for King Victor's men and the "Comrades of the Red Hand". Just when Anthony locates a hostage, Mr Fish captures him with an automatic gun. Still, we find Anthony next making preparations and assembling all people at Chimneys. He reveals that the "Richmond" reference in the code was to a biography of the Earl of Richmond in the library. But this is a trap for the murderer of Prince Michael: Mlle Brun, in reality the supposedly dead Queen Varaga (whose "body" seven years ago was a substitution, mutilated beyond recognition). Caught searching for the jewel in the library, Varaga is killed in a struggle over her revolver with Anchoukoff. The real Mlle Brun may have been kidnapped on the passage from Dinard while the murder of Giuseppe in Virginia's house was indeed to stop Virginia from going to Chimneys as she may have recognised the former Queen. There was another visitor though who knew her—Prince Michael—and when he found her searching the council chamber, she shot him. Anthony reveals another substitution when he produces the real M Lemoine: the hostage in Dover. The impostor is none other than King Victor, who tries to escape, but is stopped by Mr. Fish, in reality an American agent.
Anthony has several final surprises. The memoirs he gave to "Mr Holmes" were false: he gives the real memoirs (which have no incriminating anecdotes after all) to Jimmy to deliver to the publishers to get his one thousand pounds. The "Richmond" clue refers to a rose on the ground with the name "Richmond", where the Koh-i-Noor is subsequently recovered. Anthony then presents himself as the missing Prince Nicholas, who had disappeared himself in the Congo and through staggering coincidence was led into this adventure, and offers to be Herzoslovakia's next king. In the morning he has secretly married Virginia, who will be his Queen.
(Identities assumed by characters in the novel are given in [square brackets]).
Inhabitants of "Chimneys"
Police and criminal investigators
The Times Literary Supplement reviewed the novel in its issue of July 9, 1925 and after setting up the story stated favourably that "there is...a thick fog of mystery, cross-purposes and romance, which leads up to a most unexpected and highly satisfactory ending".
The Observer of June 28, 1925 said, "Mrs. Christie plunges lightheartedly into a real welter of murders, innocently-implicated lookers-on, Balkan politics (of the lighter Ruritanian kind), impersonators, secret societies, ciphers, experts, secret hiding-places, detectives (real and pretended), and emerges triumphantly at the end, before her readers are too hopelessly befogged. Nobody is killed who matters much. The right people marry, after it all, having first endeared themselves to us by their frivolous attitude to the singularly animated doings around them." The reviewer concluded that Christie's, "ingenuity and clear-headedness are really remarkable."
The Scotsman of July 16, 1925 began, "Despite Herzoslovakian politics and a background of oil and finance, this new novel by Agatha Christie gets a grip of the reader when it comes down to the business of disposing of a corpse, innocently come by but not to be repudiated without danger of grave scandal." and went on to say, "It is an exciting story with a bewildering array of potential murderers and a curious collection of detectives, amateur and professional, and with a crook of international importance and (alleged) consummate ability." The review concluded: "There is more than murder in this story; there is a treasure hunt in it, not for gold but a diamond, and the story is suitably staged for the main part at Chimneys, that historic mansion whose secret will be found in Chapter XXIX, though the wise in these matters may have discovered it a little earlier".
Robert Barnard: "If you can take all of the racialist remarks, which are very much of their time, this is a first-class romp, all the better for not being of the 'plot to take over the world' variety. It concerns the throne and crown jewels of Herzoslovakia, and combines such Hope-ful (sic) elements with bright young things and some effective caricatures. By far the least awful of the early thrillers."
Charles Osborne: "The Secret of Chimneys is one of the best of Agatha Christie's early thrillers (...). Her attitude to democracy is so unsympathetic, at least as expressed by a character of whom Mrs. Christie evidently approves, that it reveals an unexpectedly authoritarian aspect of the author's nature". 
The novel was not reviewed in The New York Times Book Review
The Blitz Hotel is a play on words on London's Ritz Hotel. Christie uses the same location (and the same name for it) in the 1924 short stories Blindman's Buff and The Man Who Was No. 16, which later formed part of the 1929 collection Partners in Crime.
The fictional country of Herzoslovakia makes a return appearance in the short story The Stymphalean Birds which was first published in the April 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine and later appeared in the 1947 collection The Labours of Hercules. It is also briefly mentioned in the 1940 novel One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.
The Secret of Chimneys was adapted by Christie into a stage play in 1931 but its planned performance was cancelled. The manuscript was lost until 2001 when a copy surfaced in Canada where it received its world premiere on October 16, 2003.
The Secret of Chimneys was released by HarperCollins as a graphic novel adaptation August 20, 2007, adapted by François Rivière and illustrated by Laurence Suhner (ISBN 0-00-725059-2). This was translated from the edition first published in France by Emmanuel Proust éditions in 2002 under the title of Le Secret de Chimneys.
An adaptation was produced for the fifth series of Marple, with Julia McKenzie as the lead. The adaptation retains Chimneys as the setting. However, the substitution of Miss Marple as the main detective is only the first of many changes made to the story, which amalgamates and renames several characters, turns the political connection (transferred from the fictitious Herzoslovakia to Austria) into one of several red herrings, and comprehensively changes both the murderer's identity and motive.
This was the last novel published under Christie's six book contract with the Bodley Head which had been agreed back in 1919. Christie had signed without literary agent representation and had come to resent its terms which she stated were unfair. Her future books in the UK were all published by William Collins & Sons (with the sole exception of The Hound of Death) once a new and more favourable contract had been signed with them by her newly-appointed agent, Edmund Cork of Hughes Massey. Cork became a lifelong friend.
This novel was much admired by her future mother-in-law, Marguerite Mallowan, who penned a note in a leather-bound copy she commissioned of this book together with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Hollow. The note read "Passing a bookshop while I was in Paris in 1932, I bought The Secret of Chimneys, now almost unobtainable. I had just heard of Agatha Christie. Though not a reader of detective stories, her book captivated me so much that I never left it until I had finished it. Soon after she married my son, whom she had met in Mesopotamia while he was working under Sir Leonard Woolley. Later I read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd which, I think, made her reputation universal. Lastly came The Hollow, a book dear to me as revealing her artistic, simple and sincere temperament. This is the reason for my choice of these three books to be bound together. I wish them to be a testimony of my admiration for her art, and above all, of my gratitude for her loving kindness through all the years I have known her". The copy of the book was sold at auction in September, 2006.
In the Bantam edition, the dedication is to "Punkie" which is Madge, Christie's older sister.
In other editions the dedication reads:
"To my Nephew. In memory of an inscription at Compton Castle and a day at the Zoo".
The ‘nephew’ is James (Jack) Watts (1903–1961), the son of Christie’s brother-in-law and sister James and ‘Madge’ Watts. Christie became very close to her nephew after his birth when she was thirteen and joined her mother in looking after him at his home, Abney Hall when her sister and brother-in-law went on skiing holidays to St Moritz and at Christmas, memories of which she writes enthusiastically about in the foreword to her 1960 collection of short stories The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. The reference to Compton Castle and the zoo are obscure. It is possible that the house “Chimneys” is based on Compton Castle but Abney Hall is equally a probability. Christie gives no description of “Chimneys” in the book, merely stating that “Descriptions of that historic place can be found in any guidebook.”
The dustjacket front flap of the first edition carried no specially written blurb. Instead both the front and back flap carried adverts for Christie’s five other Bodley Head books together with one or two short quotes from reviews for those books.