Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
You see this is all the fault of Anthony Hope. I suppose not many of you out there will remember this author, but he was mildly famous when I was growing up. Although, truth be told, his reputation did rather rest on just two books: The Prisoner of Zenda and its sequel Rupert of Hentzau. Notice the names of the fictitious countries. Authors then had the same problem as authors now. They had to set their stories in places that resonated with mystery, romance and excitement (although not necessarily in that order). To this end, they either invented countries like Ruritania or set their stories in countries that sounded like one of these supposedly exotic places sandwiched between the Europe we all knew and the Russian expanse of which we knew little. Today, to avoid upsetting allies, dangerous gangsters or terrorists come from North Korea or Dagestan or somewhere obscure. Anyway, when we come to a young author sitting down in the early 1920s, she would likely think her book had to involve people and intrigue over places like Herzoslovakia and feature characters with names like Prince Michael Obolovitch, Count Stylptitch, and so on. That’s where we more formally enter into the novel titled The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie, now adapted as Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010).
This young author did rather churn out potboiler thriller novels with more than a suggestion of romance about them. Some are, by any modern standards, diabolically bad. At the time, they were considered full of excitement, romance and mystery (although not necessarily in that order). If you were to take a measuring gauge with some moderately objective pretensions, you might conclude this novel is by no means the worst of this type of novel but, if you tried to put it on the screen as written, today’s audience would curl up and die. This revenant from 1925 must therefore be recast so that we may adsorb its substance without being bored to tears by its delight in the politics and social niceties of the day.
The first step, of course, is to abandon the redoubtable Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard and the amateur sleuth, Anthony Cade, in favour of Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) with an unusually silent sidekick called Inspector Finch (Stephen Dillane). The only redeeming feature about this latter character is that’s he’s forewarned about Miss Marple who’s been showing up his colleagues as barely competent. So he immediately sets out to avoid the same fate by first listening to her and then arresting the wrong man — a ploy guaranteed to energise the old biddy and get her into top gear to save the innocent one destined for the romantic ending. At this point we must sympathise with Paul Rutman who was paid to write a new mystery. Even at the best of times, it’s difficult to write something to appease the purists while entertaining those new to the title. This is particularly difficult and, under the circumstances, the simplification of the plot to centre on the titular country house is sensible. The opening sections are also moderately well handled but, as we advance through into the broader part of the mystery, the initial glamour is lost and what remains is stolid, confusing and unrealistic.
As an aside, if the production company ever gets around to adapting The Seven Dials Mystery, I hope they remember one of the characters in that later book is now the murderer in this screen adaptation. More judicious rewriting and renaming will be required to avoid confusion. Anyway, let’s not worry about what may never happen. What happens in this story? Well, a group of people come to Chimneys which, for the record, is filmed at Hatfield Hall and Knebworth House. This decaying pile with the leaking roof is owned by a disgraced Lord Caterham (Edward Fox) and hunted by the emergent National Trust which wants to save it for the nation. There’s a high-level political meeting with an Austrian Count who ends up dead in a secret passageway. There’s also a poisoning and other minor excitements, some historical. The identity of the murderer is obscured by changing the apparent time of the shooting. The method used is mildly ingenious and the clue in plain sight is not completely unfair. It’s just incredible. No-one would actually be able to see it. But if we ignore this fact and we have the kind of mind capable of making intuitive leaps to the truth, it’s obvious. There’s also a dire coincidence and one of these self-sacrificing people who decides to cover up the killer’s identity. And did I mention there’s a missing diamond but that’s not the only jewel hidden in Chimneys.
The upshot of all this is that Miss Marple unmasks the killer, finds the diamond, identifies the real jewel hidden in the wall, and sets true love on its rocky path to the future — and all in ninety minutes. No mean feat for our amateur sleuth. All I can say about Marple: The Secret of Chimneys is that it looked good and Jula McKenzie does her best to be Marple-like. Everything else about it is an otherwise competent cast being given increasingly silly things to say and do. As we move into 2010, this series shows no sign of lifting itself off the rock bottom it had reached in 2009.
For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Big Four (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)