The Seven Dials Mystery (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: UK: Collins, 1929; USA: Dodd Mead, 1929

My review

When a popular author of the 1920s writes a book set at a large country house in summer, where the characters include an absent-minded aristocrat and his strong-minded daughter (with an ominously forceful sister), a pushy self-made millionaire, a secretary called “the efficient Rupert B –” and silly asses named “Pongo” and “Socks”, and the plot hinges on a misunderstood remark, one would immediately assume that the author was PG Wodehouse penning a sequel to Something Fresh. They would be wrong. This is Agatha Christie penning a sequel to The Secret of Chimneys, and, like that book, Seven Dials is a high-spirited and thoroughly entertaining bit of nonsense. While Chimneys is subtler, more sophisticated and more complex, this is one of Christie’s best early jobs of leading the reader astray. In many ways it is the Roger Ackroyd of the thriller, relying on the reader’s expectations about the conventions of the genre (the silly ass hero, the secret society, the master criminal and the foreign adventuress, all of which are stated to be fictional devices rather than found in real life several times in the novel) to lead him astray. Doubtless he will fail to realize that many of the sentences in the novel carry a double meaning, although he may (like various contemporary critics) feel that the solution is unfair. It isn’t at all – the clues of the chewed glove and the golf clubs should make it fairly obvious, but of course one never considers that possibility at all.

Blurb (UK)

When Gerald Wade died, apparently from an overdose of sleeping draught, seven clocks appeared on the mantelpiece.  Who put them there and had they any connection with the night club in Seven Dials?  That is the mystery that Bill Eversleigh and Bundle and two other young people set out to investigate.  Their investigation lead them into some queer places and more than once into considerable danger.  Not till the very end of the book is the identity of the mysterious Seven o’clock revealed.

Blurb (US)

Christie - The Seven Dials Mystery US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

No finer endorsement of this new detective story by Agatha Christie could be found than to say that it is written by the author of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Mystery of the Blue Train and that it compares favourably with both of those great detective novels.

To give even the slightest hint of the story spoils it for the reader and is obviously unfair.  It may be disclosed that the scene is the “Chimneys,” an English country house which has figured in earlier stories by the author; that Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard plays an astonishing role in the affair – and that a cold-blooded murder gives the story its start.  After and beyond that the reader must prepare himself for the sort of intellectual experience and a mental exhilaration which Agatha Christie has proved herself an expert in preparing.

Contemporary reviews

New Statesman (26th January 1929): The Seven Dials Mystery is certainly one of the best detective stories that Mrs. Christie has written.  It has not a dull page and in several respects is an advance upon her previous work in this genre.  The plot is really ingenious and well worked out, and the concomitants—the characterisation and the dialogue—are thoroughly amusing, showing a distinct improvement in the writer’s technique.  The only fault we have to find with the story is that it is thoroughly unfair; the reader is given no chance whatever of guessing the solution one single paragraph before it is revealed.  In this respect it is certainly the unfairest detective story we have ever read, wherefore we have the less compunction in unfairly revealing the criminal in this notice.  We complain not of the absence of clues but of the insertion of deliberately false clues.  Thus, Jimmy, invited to view the body of his murdered friend Gerry, declines to do so.

“I don’t think so,” said Jimmy, who was a healthy young man with a natural dislike of being reminded of death.

Then “Ronny”, the oldest and closest of all his friends, is murdered and Jimmy soliloquises thus:

“Ronny, old boy,” he murmured, “I’m going to be up against it.  And you are not here to join in the game.”

After that, SPOILER when one learns that Jimmy has killed both Ronny and Gerry in cold blood, one feels that Mrs. Christie has outraged all the ethical canons of detective fiction.  Yet one hopes she will go on outraging them if she can produce books as good as this, for in the art of creating and solving a really ingenious mystery she has very few peers.  One other small point, however, calls for protest.  A certain comic personage named George Lomax is introduced.  His portrait is well and very amusingly drawn, but he is described as a “public-spirited Cabinet Minister, His Majesty’s permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs”.  Now that women have the vote and, by reason of their numbers, the major share of responsibility for the conduct of the affairs of the nation, they have no right to commit such ridiculous solecisms as this without being brought to book for them.  In any case, the publisher’s reader should surely have noticed and eliminated the absurdity.

Times Literary Supplement (4th April 1929): It is a great pity that Mrs. Christie should in this, as in a previous book, have deserted the methodical procedure of enquiry into a single and circumscribed crime for the romance of universal conspiracy and international rogues.  These Gothic romances are not to be despised but they are so different in kind from the story of strict detection that it is unlikely for anyone to be adept in both.  Mrs. Christie lacks the haphazard and credulous romanticism which makes the larger canvas of more extensive crime successful.  In such a performance bravura rather than precision is essential.  The mystery of Seven Dials and of the secret society which met in that sinister district requires precisely such a broad treatment, but Mrs. Christie gives to it that minute study which she employed so skilfully in her earlier books.  There is not one, but a succession of murders and thefts.  “I know it’s common enough in books,” Mrs. Christie’s detective says “—a secret organisation of criminals with a mysterious super-criminal at the head of it whom no one ever sees.  That sort of thing may exist in real life, but I can only say that I’ve never come across anything of the sort.”  It is too true, and we share the detectives’ scepticism when we hear about such a society and its masked meetings.  Of course things are not what they seem, but then they never are even in the most romantic stories.  And there is no particular reason why the masked man should be the particular person he turns out to be.

Nation and Ath (23rd February 1929, 180w): Once Mrs. Christie was the queen of detective story writers.  But her power has latterly declined.

Books (NY Herald Tribune) (Will Cuppy, 17th March 1929, 160w): All signs indicate that Mrs. Christie has been reading P.G. Wodehouse, and she does it very well in spots; this is her gayest thriller and mustn’t be missed.

Outlook (W.R. Brooks, 20th March 1929, 100w): If you like an amusing, exciting, well-written story, with a surprise at the end, which has been so cleverly prepared that although you know it’s coming you haven’t the least suspicion of what it may be, we advise you to read this one.  Or any other one by Agatha Christie, for that matter.

NY Times (7th April 1929, 200w): The author has been so keen on preventing the reader from guessing the solution that she has rather overstepped the bounds of what should be permitted to a writer of detective stories.  She has held out information which the reader should have had, and, not content with scattering false clues with a lavish hand, she has carefully avoided leaving any clues pointing to the real criminal.  Worst of all, the solution itself is utterly preposterous.