Review: The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie

Consummate young silly ass, Gerry Wade, is the despair of hosts and hostesses across the land, with his inability to make it to breakfast before the eggs are congealed, the toast has wilted and the coffee has grown chill and distinctly unwelcoming. And so, a small group of sundry other young silly-asses and interchangeable girls decide that a good, stiff dose of eight fine alarum clocks would be just the thing to spring him, yelling, from his bed in the early hours. This plan, however, fails signally to work, for the very good reason that Gerry is far too dead to be roused by anything quieter than the Last Trump.

This discovery both puts a dampener on the house party and raises some questions. Why would a notoriously heavy sleeper die of an overdose of a sleeping draught? And why are there only seven of the eight clocks found in the bedroom, neatly and sinisterly arranged on the mantelpiece as though to convey some message?

Lady Eileen ‘Bundle’ Brent and friends, are shortly to find out…

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‘The Seven Dials Mystery’, from the first lines about “That amiable youth, Jimmy Thesiger” galloping down the staircase, whomping straight into a butler (Tredwell, the unflappable rescuer of endangered coffee and Lord Caterham’s piece of mind) and then wilting before his hostess, Lady Cootes, whose “reproachful gaze gave Jimmy the same feeling of discomfort he always experienced on catching the eye of a defunct codfish exposed on a fisherman’s slab”, quickly and efficiently sets up the novel to come. This is clearly not intended as a serious thriller but as a comedy: a mixture of Wodehousian pastiche – what with Tredwell having studied from the Book of Jeeves; Lord Caterham having more than a shade of Lord Emsworth; Rupert Bateman being first cousin to The Efficient Baxter and the general cast incorporating various Eggs, Beans and Crumpets and vivacious girls – and outright self-parody.

All of which means that there is little or no sense of character depth or jeopardy at any point and that deaths are felt about as deeply as a scratch sustained while blackberrying. If you are in the mood for anything gripping, intense or even passably realistic, then this one is not for you. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a book that revels in its own absurdity and enjoys turning a trope or two on its head, then you might well have a lot of fun.

A few side-notes:

I found Battle’s little speech about people who have some sensible consideration for their own safety being better off dead a little jarring (Spoiler: Perhaps he was feeling bitter about failing to attract more people to his little ‘Cannon fodder’ club, despite the unquestonable allure of fancy dress, enigmatic utterance and the proven possibility of dying gloriously in the cause of… er… something or other).

Bundle was a fairly entertaining and plucky heroine – albeit one with a conception of servants as lesser beings – but she does become sadly, if predictably, melty when her much-chaffed but beloved Bill, gets all masterful at the end.

“You would not coerce me against my will, I hope,” said Bundle grandiloquently.

“Wouldn’t I?” said Bill. “You just watch me do it, that’s all.”

“You really are rather a darling, Bill.”

Suffice to say that ‘darling’ is not the word I would have used.

I was inspired (or derailed) at a couple of points into browsing comic poetry:

First, a brief mention of Mrs Tanqueray, which led me to revisiting Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Matilda’. (‘Gasping and stretching one’s eyes’, incidentally, is a perfectly valid response to much of the shenanigans within this novel).

Second, there was a reference to a character eating his peas (horror of uncouth horrors) with a knife: which led me to investigating the origins of that poetry classic which begins “I eat my peas with honey”. General consensus seems to be that this is one of Ogden Nash’s (feel free to correct me if wrong). Incidentally, or those tempted to follow the advice in the poem, may I suggest treacle as being far more likely to retain the peas successfully (if no more appetising as an accompaniment).

And, finally, and most importantly: while it’s all well and good that the bowling green at Chimneys is to be restored at last to a full resplendence and flatness: was it really quite wise to take William from the Lower Border? The potential for vegetable anarchy is surely too great a risk to take.

(Sadly, as the third novel in the trilogy, ‘Domestic abuse and rampant weeds: or the latter life of the Everleighs’  was never to be completed (due, perhaps, to a feeling that it was not quite in keeping with the tone of the first two) we shall forever remain in ignorance of the answer).

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