Christie in Ruritania

Ruritanian fiction was very popular in the '20s and '30s. Perhaps it was an antidote to a world that had changed more rapidly than anyone had anticipated. Gone was the great Hapsburg Empire that stretched from Austria to the Ukraine. Gone were the Romanovs of Russia with their vast wealth, Faberge eggs, and serfs who held them next only to God. Gone too, it seemed, were the romantic elements that had come out of the Empires - the music of Johann Strauss, the long gowns, the beautiful women of Klimt, the jewel-box of the Spanish Riding School. Of course none of the latter had gone, but society spurred on by the First World War was changing exponentially.

I previously reviewed Margery Allingham's foray into the world of Ruritanian adventure Sweet Danger and thoroughly enjoyed it. I also enjoy (although wouldn't usually admit it) Anthony Hope's Prisoner of Zenda novels. So I'm a bit of a Ruritanian fan. But I hate, hate, hate Agatha Christie's forays into the genre.

In general I'm a big Christie fan. There are very few of her murder mysteries that I haven't enjoyed. Even the pot-boilers usually have something good to be said of them. At her best she was enormously influential. Such novels as The murder of Roger Ackroyd, Death comes as the end and And then there were none were truly genre changing. But, occasionally she strays into the world of the adventure novel and tries to out-Buchan Buchan. Sometimes she gets it right, perhaps because she knows the location so well - I love They came to Baghdad. But sometimes, they can be truly dreadful. Sadly The secret of Chimneys is an example of this.

Written in 1925, a year before the ground-breaking Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Chimneys is a dreadful novel. Anthony Cade, an adventurer, is given the job by a friend of delivering a manuscript to a publisher and some blackmail letters to a lady. Only problem is that half of Ruritania is after the manuscript suspecting that it says something rather nasty about the king in waiting, while the lady who appears to have been blackmailed is blissfully unaware of the blackmail.

All the threads meet up at Lord Caterham's country house, Chimneys, where an heir apparent will be murdered, and a jewel thief will be on the lookout for a missing jewel from the Tower of London. It's just dreadful, coincidence after coincidence after coincidence. Cartoon characters, a heroine you want to slap, and a hero who may not be English but whose lip is stiffened with corn starch. All this and several prime examples of the horrible racism that is often too apparent in English fiction of the period. The fact that Christie doesn't mean to be unpleasant only points out how endemic it was then.

Where I think Christie loses out to Allingham and Hope is that they both take their story seriously. Christie tells it in a slightly hysterical tone, you can hear the archness in her narrative voice. No-one over the age of 12 (the last time I read the book, I think) is going to believe in any of this for a moment. Please avoid. It's a dreadful, dreadful book.


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