Seven Dials is Christie’s subversion of the 1920s style thriller, only with a plucky female heroine and a subtle commentary on English society. A manor murder, a secret society, a slummy club in the East End, and international espionage that make it seem artificially complicated, but it was enjoyable enough, with a few chuckles and a sweet little romantic angle to neatly round it out.
A group of young people gather at the English estate the Chimneys, rented out to steel magnate Sir Oswald and his wife, Lady Coote. One of the young men visiting has a propensity for coming late to breakfast, so the group forms a plan to plant eight alarm clocks in his room to wake him with a violent noise. Coincidentally, he never wakes again. Lord Caterham owns the manor, and his daughter, Lady Eileen Brent, “known to her friends and society in general as “Bundle,” becomes involved when she realizes she knows several of the people involved. Besides, it’ll be smashing good fun, right? Her father’s an old dear straight out of Wodehouse–he might have been Bertie in 50 years. “They needn’t die in my house,’ said Lord Caterham… ‘Naturally I expect Brents to die here–they don’t count. But I do object to strangers. And I especially object to inquests.'”
Initially, Bundle is just satisfying her curiosity about poor dead Gerry as she pokes around the house. She finds part of a letter she feels she should deliver to his surviving sister. As she’s taking the car out for a quick errand, she runs into a man in the road. Not long after, she joins forces with one of the men in the house party who works for the government, and then the sister of the murdered lad. Investigation takes them from the countryside to a seamy club to a political house-party. If you forget the murder, it’s charming fun.
Therein lies my greatest problem with the story: tone. Murder mystery? Light-hearted romp through the English countryside? Mock-up of English society? Daring espionage thriller? It just doesn’t quite work. A forward discusses Christie’s similarity with Wodehouse, and while I can understand, part of Wodehouse’s charm is the sheer daffiness of the capers, and the utter inconsequence of any of the events. However, with one murder down and state secrets at stake, her social commentary doesn’t jibe as well as it could with the plot.
Characters, however stereotypical, are drawn with depth. Christie could be master of the subtle, and one of my favorite characters by far was Lady Coote who kept her aggressive husband firmly in check through seemingly daffy actions and her ability to cheat at bridge. Oh, and perhaps “the girl called Socks. Subtle was a word of which she was rather fond. She used it a great deal.” Her lines were great fun as well, especially when she forces the use of subtle in a most unsubtle way:
“‘We don’t want a subtle clock,’ said Socks. ‘We want one with a good loud ring.'”
Overall, enjoyable without being gripping or especially memorable. One of Christie’s more light-hearted stories.
*Note–read and owned as part of Murder At The Manor: An Agatha Christie Lost Classics Omnibus