The Secret of Chimneys

The Secret of Chimneys

Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
Author Agatha Christie
Cover artist Percy Graves
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Crime novel
Publisher Bodley Head
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, first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in June 1925[1] and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year.[2] It introduces the characters of Superintendent Battle and Lady Eileen "Bundle" Brent. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6)[3] and the US edition at $2.00.[2]

At the request of George Lomax, Lord Caterham reluctantly agrees to host a weekend party at his home, Chimneys. A murder occurs in the house, beginning a week of fast-paced events with police among the guests.

The novel was well received at first publication, described as more than a murder mystery, as it is a treasure hunt. Later reviews found it a first class romp and one of the author's best early thrillers. The most recent review says the novel requires a hefty suspension of disbelief. The later reviewers note that descriptions of characters use the terminology of the times in which it was written, and might be considered racist decades later.

Plot summary

When they meet up in Bulawayo, Anthony Cade agrees to take on two jobs for his friend James McGrath. Anthony heads for London to deliver the draft of a memoir to a publisher, and to return letters to the woman who wrote them. In England, politician George Lomax persuades Lord Caterham to host a house party at Chimneys. George's cousin Virginia Revel is invited, as is Hiram Fish, a collector of first edition books, along with the principals in a political scheme to restore the monarchy in Herzoslovakia – while assuring that newly discovered oil there will be handled by a British syndicate.

On Cade's first night in London, the letters are stolen from his hotel room by his waiter. The publisher sends Mr Holmes to pick up the memoirs. These were written by the late Count Stylptitch of Herzoslovakia; now that oil has been discovered, the nation is in turmoil between republicans and royalists. On advice, Cade puts a dummy package in the hotel safe. The thief brings one letter to Virginia Revel at her home, as it is her name in the signature of each letter. Unaware she did not write the letters, he wants to blackmail her. On a whim, she pays, and promises more money the next day. When she arrives home the next day, she finds him murdered in her house, and Anthony Cade on her door step. Cade arranges to have the body discovered elsewhere by the police, to avoid a scandal and allow Virginia to proceed to Chimneys.

Dell Mapback No. 199, first US paperback edition, 1947
Crime map showing "Chimneys" from Dell Mapback #199

At Chimneys, Prince Michael, presumed heir to the long-empty throne of Herzoslovakia, is killed the night of his arrival. Cade was at Chimneys that same evening, leaving footprints outdoors but not indoors. He boldly introduces himself to Superintendent Battle, explaining the story of the memoirs, and persuading Battle of his innocence in the murder. After seeing that the dead prince had posed as Mr Holmes, Cade pursues his own ideas in finding the murderer, while Battle leads the main investigation. The next heir to the throne, Nicholas, cousin to Michael, was raising money on his expectations in America. Cade checks out the governess, a recent addition to the household; he travels to France to speak with her prior employer.

The Koh-i-Noor diamond had been stolen from the Tower of London and replaced by a paste copy some years earlier, by a French thief named King Victor. Chimneys is one place where it may be hidden, though many searches have not found it. King Victor was released from prison in France a few months earlier, so Battle expects he will seek to recover it. The night Cade is in France, there is a break-in at Chimneys. Virginia Revel hears the noise, and sees one or two men taking old armor apart. She and Bill Eversleigh do not catch the thief. The next night, the three wait for a second attempt; they catch M. Lemoine of the Sûreté, on the track of King Victor. Battle has been waiting for him. The stolen letters appear in Cade's room. Battle realizes the thieves want him to decode the letter that points to the location of the stolen gem, because Count Stylptitch had moved it from the place where the Queen had hidden it. This is done, revealing the clue: "Richmond seven straight eight left three right". Battle follows the Richmond clue to a brick in a hidden passage, which in turn reveals a puzzling conundrum. Cade slips out to Dover, to find an address on a slip of paper given him by Boris Anchoukoff, valet to the late prince. He finds the meeting of King Victor's gang; Hiram Fish, really a Pinkerton detective on the thief's trail for his crimes in America; and the real M. Lemoine tied up as a hostage.

At Chimneys, all are gathered to hear the mysteries explained. In the library, Boris finds Miss Brun with a pistol, as she means to kill him and get the jewel. They struggle; the gun goes off in her hand, killing her. Miss Brun killed Prince Michael. She was the last queen of Herzoslovakia, thought to have been murdered with her husband in the revolution; but she escaped. She wrote the coded letters to Captain O'Neill, an alias of King Victor. Cade introduces the real M. Lemoine to the group, while Hiram Fish snares King Victor, who has been posing as the French detective and in America as Nicholas. Anthony Cade gave "Mr Holmes" the dummy package; he gives the real memoirs to Jimmy McGrath to earn his one thousand pounds. Cade and Fish solve the conundrum; it points to a rose on the grounds, where the Koh-i-Noor is subsequently recovered. Anthony presents himself as the missing Prince Nicholas, ready to ally with the British syndicate. He offers himself as Herzoslovakia's next king. Earlier that day, he married Virginia, who will be his queen.

Characters in "The Secret of Chimneys"

(Other identities assumed by characters in the course of the novel are given [in square brackets]).

Inhabitants of "Chimneys" and guests at the house party

Friends in South Africa

British Government


Police and criminal investigators


Literary significance and reception

The Times Literary Supplement reviewed the novel in its issue of 9 July 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".[4]

The reviewer for The Observer wrote on 28 June 1925: "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."[5]

The review in The Scotsman of 16 July 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".[6]

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."[7]

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".[8]

The novel was not reviewed in The New York Times Book Review.

In his analysis of Christie's Notebooks published in 2010 and 2012, Christie expert and archivist John Curran wrote that "a hefty suspension of disbelief is called for if some aspects of the plot are to be accepted."[9] Curran considered the novel an "enjoyable but preposterous romp ... littered with loose ends, unlikely motivations and unconvincing characters" and regarded Christie's The Man in the Brown Suit and The Seven Dials Mystery "if not more credible, at least far less incredible" than Chimneys.[10]

References or Allusions

References to actual places

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.

References in other works

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.

Christie later used the "Chimneys" mansion, along with the characters of Bill Eversleigh, Bundle, George Lomax, Tredwell, and Lord Caterham from this book, in the 1929 novel The Seven Dials Mystery.

Allusions to real events

The novel was written in 1925. The characters in the story refer to events that occurred about 7 years earlier, that is, at the end of the Great War when the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were broken up. The war is never mentioned directly. Instead, in Chapter 19, Superintendent Battle says: "Just over seven years ago, there was a lot what they called reconstruction going on especially in the Near East." At the same time, many royal persons were in England, including the Queen of Herzoslovakia, and Count Stylptitch; all the Balkan states were interested parties in discussions taking place. It is at this time that the Koh-i-noor diamond disappeared in the plot. Later, in an unspecified year, the Herzoslovakians rose up against the king and his commoner wife. About that time, Mrs Virginia Revel and her husband Tim were part of the diplomatic mission from the UK to Herzoslovakia, so that Mrs Revel had met Prince Michael; she was the only such person at the house party, to know Prince Michael, but not the only person in the house. The time immediately after the war was when the theft, solved in this novel, happened.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

1931 stage adaptation

The Secret of Chimneys was adapted by Christie into a stage play in 1931 but its planned performance was cancelled. Nonetheless, a copy was placed in the British Library where it was read by numerous enthusiasts who decided to comply with a request from Christie's daughter not to reveal its existence. Twenty years later, another copy surfaced in Canada, where it received its world premiere on 16 October 2003.

Main article: Chimneys (play)

Graphic novel adaptation

The Secret of Chimneys was released by HarperCollins as a graphic novel adaptation on 20 August 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.

Television adaptation

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.

It also features elements from the Miss Marple short story, "The Herb of Death".

Its cast includes Edward Fox as Lord Caterham, Anthony Higgins as Count Ludwig, Jonas Armstrong as Anthony Cade, Charlotte Salt as Virginia Revel and Dervla Kirwan as Bundle. Dervla Kirwan, in her late thirties, played Bundle, who, though still the daughter of Lord Caterham, was cast as the sister of 23-year-old Lady Virginia Revel (Charlotte Salt), an unrelated character in the original story. Of the two, Lady Virginia appeared to have more in common with the Bundle of the novels. The Radio Times observed that this production was "classic Agatha Christie, even though it's only distantly related to her original ... purists will be utterly flummoxed – and the plot has more holes in it than the murder victim".[11]

Publication history

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.[12] 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, Mrs 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.[13]

Book dedication

In the Bantam edition, the dedication is to "Punkie", who is Madge, Christie's older sister.[14] 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" was 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.[15] She writes enthusiastically about her memories of this time in the foreword to her 1960 collection of short stories The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. The references 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 probable. Christie gives no description of “Chimneys” in the book, merely stating that "Descriptions of that historic place can be found in any guidebook.”[16]

Dustjacket blurb

The dustjacket front flap of the first edition carried no specially written blurb. Instead, both the front and back flap carried advertisements for Christie's five other Bodley Head books together with one or two short quotes from reviews of those books.

International titles

This novel has been translated to various languages other than its original English. Seventeen are listed here, some published as recently as 2014 and 2015. In French, Spanish, and in Chinese, there are multiple publishers and more than one translator; just one is listed for each language here. This is in keeping with the author's reputation for being the most translated author.[17][18]


  1. Announcement in The Publishers' Circular and Booksellers Record, 3 June 1925. Volume 122, No 3076, pg. 733
  2. 1 2 American Tribute to Agatha Christie
  3. Vanessa Wagstaff and Stephen Poole: Agatha Christie: A Readers Companion (p. 41). Aurum Press Ltd, 2004. ISBN 1-84513-015-4
  4. The Times Literary Supplement, 9 July 1925 (p. 466)
  5. The Observer, 28 June 1925 (p. 7)
  6. The Scotsman, 16 July 1925 (p. 2)
  7. Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie – Revised edition (pp. 204–205). Fontana Books, 1990. ISBN 0-00-637474-3
  8. Osborne, Charles (1982): The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie, Collins (London), pp. 32–33
  9. Curran, John (2012). Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making: More Stories and Secrets from Her Notebooks. Harper. p. 96. ISBN 0062065424.
  10. Curran, John (2012). Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making: More Stories and Secrets from Her Notebooks. Harper. pp. 106–107. ISBN 0062065424.
  11. Jane Rackham in Radio Times, 18–31 December 2010
  12. Christie, Agatha (1977). An Autobiography. Collins. pp. 317–318. ISBN 0-00-216012-9.
  13. Shotsmag Archived 3 October 2006 at the Wayback Machine.
  14. Hobbs, James (2015). "Dedications in Her Works". Hercule Poirot Central. Retrieved 6 April 2015.
  15. Morgan, Janet. Agatha Christie, A Biography. (p. 36) Collins, 1984 ISBN 0-00-216330-6
  16. Christie, Agatha. The Secret of Chimneys. (p. 95) The Bodley Head, 1926. No ISBN
  17. McWhirter, Norris; McWhirter, Ross (1976). Guinness Book of World Records, 11th U.S. Edition. Bantam Books Inc. p. 704.
  18. "About Agatha Christie". Agatha Christie Ltd. Retrieved 7 December 2015. Her books have sold over a billion copies in the English language and a billion in 44 foreign languages.
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