The Seven Dials Mystery is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by William Collins & Sons on 24 January 1929 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year. In it, Christie brings back the characters from an earlier novel, The Secret of Chimneys: Lady Eileen (Bundle) Brent, Lord Caterham, Bill Eversleigh, George Lomax, Tredwell and Superintendent Battle in a story that can best be described as a John Buchan thriler told by P.G. Wodehouse.The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) and the US edition at $2.00.
A house party is taking place at Chimneys which has been rented out by the Marquess of Caterham for two years to Sir Oswald Coote, a self-made millionaire and his wife. As well as the couple, there is a party of young people staying there, three girls and four young men. One of them, Gerald "Gerry" Wade, has a deserved reputation for sleeping in very late in the morning, much to the annoyance of Lady Coote. The six youngsters plan a joke on Gerald by buying eight alarm clocks and putting them in his room that night after he has fallen asleep but timed to go off at irregular intervals the next morning, starting at 6.30 am.
The next morning, all the clocks having rung at the prescribed times but Wade not having stirred from his bed, it is discovered that the young man is dead in his bed, having drunk an overdose of chloral during the night. The group is shocked and Jimmy Thesiger and Ronny Devereux agree to drive over to Deane Priory where Loraine Wade, Gerry's step-sister, lives and break the news to her. On the way, Ronny hints at something about Gerry but stops full at confiding in Jimmy. Returning to Chimneys and going to Gerry's room, Jimmy points out to Ronny that the alarm clocks have been arranged on the mantelpiece but there are only seven of them; one is missing. It is later found in a hedge, having been thrown from Gerry's window.
Several days later, Lord Caterham retakes possession of Chimneys at the end of its two-year lease from the Cootes. The inquest has taken place with a verdict of "Death by Misadventure" but no explanation has been reached for the rearrangement of the clocks. His daughter Bundle is a friend of Bill Eversleigh's and puzzling over the matter she decides to write to him. Gerry Wade died in her room and pulling out a part of her writing desk she finds an unfinished letter from Gerry to Loraine dated the day before he died. In it he asks her to "forget what I said about that Seven Dials business." More puzzled than ever, she decides to go to London to see Bill. On the way there, a man steps out of a hedge and into the road. Bundle misses him but he collapses anyway, muttering about "Seven Dials..." and "Tell... Jimmy Thesiger." The man dies. Bundle manages to get the body into the car and to a doctor where she is told that the car didn't hit the man—he was shot.
A card on the body identifies the man as being Ronny Devereux and Bundle recalls that he also was one of the Cootes' house party. She returns to Chimneys and tells her father all that has happened and he tells her in turn that during his absence he received a visit from George Lomax, the Under-Secretary for State for Foreign Affairs who received a strange warning letter written from the Seven Dials district of London. The next day Bundle finally makes it to London and gets Jimmy's address from Bill. Going there, she meets Loraine Wade who has also called in to see Jimmy and breaks the news of Ronny's death to Jimmy. Shocked, he recounts Ronny's behaviour in the car on the way to see Loraine for the first time and she, in turn, tells the two of them that the incident that Gerry referred to in his last letter to her was a list of names and dates she found with an address in Seven Dials on it when she accidentally opened one of her late half-brother's letters. He had then hinted to her of some secret society with reference to the Mafia. The three wonder if Gerry's death was murder and the removal of one of the alarm clocks, leaving seven dials, was a warning signal. Jimmy knows that Gerry was connected in some way with the Foreign Office and security services. Bundle tells the other two of the warning letter that George Lomax received and that he is holding a house party the next week at his house at Wyvern Abbey and Jimmy and Bundle decide to get themselves an invitation and join in.
Bundle decides to go and see Superintendent Battle at Scotland Yard about the matter, but he proves unhelpful, aside hinting that Bill Eversleigh knows something about Seven Dials. The next evening, Bundle meets Bill for a night out and asks him what he knows. He tells her that Seven Dials is a seedy nightclub and gambling den and Bundle insists he takes her there. In the club, Bundle recognises the doorman as being Alfred, a former footman from Chimneys. The next day, after making arrangements through family connections to get into George Lomax’s party, Bundle returns to the Seven Dials club and questions Alfred as to why he left Chimneys. He tells her that the Cootes had as a guest a Russian gentleman called Mosgorovsky who offered him three times his footman's salary to leave his previous employment and work at the club. Bundle forces the scared man to show her round and he eventually takes her into a secret room in which there is a table and seven chairs. She forces Alfred to hide her in a cupboard in the room and several hours later is able to witness from her place of concealment a strange meeting as five people gather. They wear hoods over their evening wear with eye slits and clock faces on the hoods, each clock showing a different time between one o'clock and six o'clock and their accents reveal their different nationalities. One of the sinister group is a woman with a mole on her exposed shoulder blade. They talk of the absent Number Two and one of the figures complains about the always-missing Number Seven. They also talk of Lomax's party at Wyvern Abbey where a German called Eberhard will be present with a valuable invention. They talk of plans to divert suspicion from the inquest on Ronny Devereux and mention Bauer, the footman at Chimneys as being in their pay. The meeting over, the group leaves and Alfred frees Bundle from her watching place.
The next day Bundle tells Jimmy of the meeting. They suspect Bauer of murdering Gerry and Jimmy tells Bundle that Eberhard has invented a formula which could make wire as strong as steel, revolutionising airplane manufacturing. The German government turned the invention down and the meeting at Wyvern Abbey is for a possible sale to the British, represented by Sir Stanley Digby, the Air Minister.
The next Friday, Bundle and Jimmy arrive at Wyvern Abbey and are introduced to the other guests including the Cootes, Sir Stanley Digby, Terence O'Rourke and the beautiful Hungarian Countess Radzky. Bundle is further surprised to see Superintendent Battle there. He tells her that he is at Wyvern to "keep an eye on things". Bill Eversleigh also turns up. Jimmy has told Bill what Bundle told him of the meeting of the Seven Dials. Realising that Sir Stanley is only going to be staying one night at Wyvern, they work out that any theft of the formula is going to be attempted that night and Jimmy and Bill agree to keep two separate watches, changing over at 3.00 am, both using a pistol that Jimmy has brought with him.
At 2.00 am Jimmy, on the first watch in an alcove in the hallway, thinks he hears a noise coming from the library, a room that leads on to the terrace. He finds nothing in the room and continues his watch from there.
Bundle, previously told by Jimmy and Bill that there was no part in their plans for her, had meekly acquiesced but instead had changed her clothes into something more suitable, climbed down the ivy outside her room and had promptly run into Superintendent Battle, also on his own watch outside the house. He persuades her to go back. She does so but goes to check on Jimmy in his alcove. Finding that he has gone, and not knowing that he has moved to the library, she goes to Bill's bedroom but finds that she has made a mistake and it is the Countess's room but the Hungarian lady is also missing. Her puzzlement is interrupted by the noises of a tremendous struggle coming from the library and two gunshots.
This noise also attracts the attention of Loraine Wade who has arrived at Wyvern at the dead of night. A few moments before the commotion, a paper packet lands at her feet as she walks along the darkened terrace. She picks it up and sees a man climbing down the ivy from above her. She turns and runs, almost straight into Battle whose questions are interrupted by the fight in the library. Running there, they find Jimmy unconscious and shot through his right arm. The household is woken by the noise and pours into the room. Jimmy comes round and tells how he fought the man who climbed down the ivy. They were both armed and each fired a shot. Sir Stanley rushes back to check his room but finds that the formula has gone. Battle is not perturbed as Loraine still holds the dropped packet and is able to return its precious contents. Sir Oswald Coote raises suspicions when he comes in from the terrace, having supposedly been on a late-night walk and having seen no one suspicious but having found the pistol of the escaped man on the lawn. The Countess is also found in the room, unconscious behind a screen. She tells a story of coming down for a book to read, being unable to sleep, and hearing what turned out to be Jimmy’s approach, hid from fear of him being a burglar. She passed out when the fight happened. Bill gallantly offers to help her to her room and Bundle suddenly spots a mole on the Countess's shoulder through her negligee: she is a member of the Seven Dials! She tells Battle the whole story of her spying on the association and the role the Countess plays and is told to leave matters alone.
The next morning, Battle searches the scenes of the crime and finds the place where the assailant's pistol landed when it was thrown onto the lawn, only one set of footprints leading to this point—Sir Oswald's—and a charred, left-handed glove with marks of teeth in the fireplace. He theorises that the thief threw the gun onto the lawn from the terrace and then climbed back into the house via the ivy. Bundle hears news from Chimneys that the footman Bauer is missing and Sir Oswald leaps to the conclusion that he is their man.
Before the house party breaks up, Jimmy asks Loraine to keep an eye on Bundle and make sure she doesn't get herself into danger by investigating on her own any more while he integrates himself with Lady Coote and gets an invitation to their new house in Letherbury, wanting to investigate Sir Oswald further, suspecting him of being the missing Number Seven from the Seven Dials.
At Letherbury, Jimmy looks through Sir Oswald's study in the dead of night, is almost caught by Rupert Bateman but manages to talk his way out of the situation. The next day Loraine and Bundle arrive, their car having "broken down" a short distance away, and Jimmy is able to tell them that he has found no evidence that Sir Oswald is Number Seven.
Several days later, Bill turns up at Jimmy's London flat. Ronny Devereux's executors have sent him a letter that Ronny left for Bill, should anything happen to him, and he finds its contents incredible. A short time later, Jimmy rings up Bundle and Loraine who are at Chimneys and tells the girls to meet him and Bill at the Seven Dials club, Bill's story being "the biggest scoop of the century." The two girls get their first and Bundle frightens Alfred away by telling him the police are after him. Jimmy arrives, having left Bill outside in the car and upon his request, Bundle shows him the secret room where the Seven Dials meet. Loraine interrupts them: something is wrong with Bill. In the car, they find him unconscious and take him into the club. Jimmy runs off to get a doctor and Bundle goes round the club looking for brandy for Bill but someone knocks her unconscious.
She comes round in Bill's arms and Bundle is pleasantly surprised to hear words of love from him. They are interrupted by Mr Mosgorovsky who then takes them into an emergency meeting of the Seven Dials. Number Seven is there and reveals himself: it is Superintendent Battle. He tells Bundle that the Seven Dials is not an association of criminals but instead is a group of criminal-catchers and people who do secret service work for their country. Among the group, Mr Mosgorovsky is a member, Gerry Wade and Ronny Devereux were, the Countess having now taken Gerry's place but her real identity is the American actress, Babe St Maur. To Bundle's shock, another member of the association is Bill Eversleigh but that shock is increased when Battle tells her that the association has at last succeeded in getting their main target, an international criminal whose stock trade is the theft of secret formulae: Jimmy Thesiger who was arrested that afternoon together with his accomplice, Loraine Wade.
Battle explains that Jimmy killed Gerry Wade when he got onto Jimmy's track. Ronny took the eighth clock from the dead man's room in an attempt to see if anyone reacted to there being "seven dials". Bauer was put into Chimneys by the Seven Dials to keep an eye on things but Jimmy was too clever for him.
Ronny Devereux was killed when he started to get too close to the truth and the latter's last words were not a warning to Jimmy about the Seven Dials but the other way round. At Wyvern Abbey, there was no second man stealing the formula. Jimmy climbed up the ivy to Sir Stanley Digby's room, threw the formula down to Loraine, climbed back down the ivy and into the library where he staged the fight, shot himself in his right arm and threw the second pistol onto the lawn. As his right arm was disabled and he was right-handed he had to dispose of his left-handed glove, using his teeth hence the marks, in the fire.
Bill's story of the papers Ronny left him were a fabrication to get Jimmy into the open. Jimmy gave Bill a drugged drink in his flat but it was not drunk. Bill feigned unconsciousness in the car outside the Seven Dials club. Jimmy never went for a doctor but hid himself in the club and it was he who knocked Bundle unconscious. His plan was to leave Bill and Bundle there as a "shock" to the then-unknown Number Seven.
Bundle is offered the empty place in the Seven Dials and Bill also proposes to her. Lord Caterham is delighted: Bill is a golfer and he now has someone else to play with!
Characters in "The Seven Dials Mystery"
- Jimmy Thesiger, our appealingly Wodehousian hero. Young man about town with an expensive lifestyle and no visible signs of support.
- Tredwell, the ecclesiastical and long suffering butler at Chimneys
- Sir Oswald Coote, aggressively self-made millionaire who strikes our hero as good candidate for the sinister Number Seven.
- Maria, Lady Coote, his sadly bourgeoisie wife who longs for her lovely little middle class home and simpler lifestyle.
- MacDonald, the enormously intimidating and formidably Scottish Head Gardener at Chimneys
- Rupert Bateman, Sir Oswald’s secretary. Was at school with Jimmy Thesiger. Known to the Bright Young Set as 'Pongo' and regarded by them as a party pooper with an irritating habit of being right.
- Helen, Nancy and Vera “Socks” Daventry – A trio of Bright Young Things unaccountably invited to the Cootes’ house party at Chimneys
- Bill Eversleigh a minor officer of the Foreign Office with an active social life and an eye for the ladies.
- Ronny Devereux, Victim number two, he dies warning Jimmy Thesiger of 'the Seven Dials'.
- Gerald Wade, Victim number one. He dies in his sleep at Chimneys.
- Loraine Wade, his step-sister who declares her determination to seek out the murderer of the 'sweetest brother a girl ever had'.
- Marquess of Caterham, a Wodehousianly vague peer who wants nothing to do with politics and is distinctly annoyed to find a murder has been committed in his stately home.
- Lady Eileen "Bundle" Brent, his daughter and Jimmy and Loraine's eager ally in the hunt for the Seven Dials.
- Stevens, Jimmy’s manservant, nothing can surprise him.
- Superintendent Battle, several odd stones of impassibility hiding an uncomfortably keen mind. Notably patient with eager amateurs.
- Alfred, former footman from Chimneys who gets a new job at the 'Seven Dials' gambling club.
- John Bauer, his highly suspicious replacement
- George Lomax, Bill Eversleigh's loquacious and stuffy superior. Under-secretary for State for Foreign Affairs
- Sir Stanley Digby, an air minister who isn't nearly as careful as he should be with secret plans.
- Terence O'Rourke, his cheerful Irish secretary who sleeps much too soundly one memorable night.
- Countess Radzky, revealed later as the actress Babe St. Maur, regarded as highly suspicious by Jerry, Loriane and Bundle.
- Herr Eberhard, German inventor
- Mr Mosgorovsky, owner of the Seven Dials gambling club and member of the sinister organization of the same name.
- Count Andras and Hayward Phelps, also members of the Seven Dials
- Mrs Howell, housekeeper at Chimneys. She makes Lady Coote uncomfortable.
Literary significance and reception
The review in the Times Literary Supplement issue of 4 April 1929 was for once markedly unenthusiastic about a Christie Book: "It is a great pity that Mrs Christie should in this, as in a previous book, have deserted the methodical procedure of inquiry into a single and circumscribed crime for the romance of universal conspiracy and international rogues. These Gothic romances are not 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." The review concluded, "There is no particular reason why the masked man should be the particular person he turns out to be".
The review in The New York Times Book Review of April 7, 1929 began "After reading the opening chapters of this book one anticipates an unusually entertaining yarn. There are some very jolly young people in it, and the fact that they become involved in a murder mystery does not dampen their spirits to any great extent." The uncredited reviewer set up plot regarding Gerald Wade being found dead and then said, "Thus far the story is excellent; indeed it continues to promise well until the time comes when the mystery is to be solved. Then it is seen that 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. This book is far below the standard set by Agatha Christie's earlier stories."
The Scotsman of 28 January 1929 said, "Less good in point of style than some of her earlier novels, The Seven Dials Mystery…maintains the author's reputation of ingenuity." The review went on to say that, "It is an unusual feature of this story that at the end, the reader will want to go back over the story to see if he has had a square deal from the author. On the whole he has."
Robert Barnard: "Same characters and setting with Chimneys, but without the same verve and cheek."
Val Dermid, in her introduction to the electronic edition calls The Seven Dials a brilliant subversion of the Richard Hannay/Bulldog Drummond school of suspense. One by one the characteristic tropes of the genre are introduced and then turned inside out; the sinister secret society turns out to be on the side of truth, justice and European peace. The Mata Hari-like foreign countess is in fact nothing of the kind and worst of all the appealing young hero and his spunky love interest turn out to be deep dyed villains. No wonder contemporary reviewers were disappointed and dismayed!
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
Following the success of their version of Why Didn't They Ask Evans? in 1980, The Seven Dials Mystery was adapted by London Weekend Television as a 140-minute drama and transmitted on Sunday 8 March 1981. The same team of Pat Sandys, Tony Wharmby and Jack Williams worked on the production which again starred John Gielgud and James Warwick. Cheryl Campbell also starred as "Bundle" Brent. The production was extremely faithful to the book with no major deviations to the plot or characters.
- 1929, William Collins and Sons (London), 24 January 1929, Hardback, 282 pp
- 1929, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1929, Hardback, 310 pp
- 1932, William Collins and Sons, February 1932 (As part of the Agatha Christie Omnibus of Crime along with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Mystery of the Blue Train and The Sittaford Mystery), Hardback (Priced at seven shillings and sixpence)
- 1948, Penguin Books, Paperback, (Penguin number 687), 247 pp
- 1954, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 189 pp
- 1957, Avon Books (New York), Paperback
- 1962, Pan Books, Paperback (Great Pan 571), 207 pp
- 1964, Bantam Books (New York), Paperback, 184 pp
- 2010, HarperCollins; Facsimile edition, Hardcover: 288 pages, ISBN 978-0-00-735458-0
In her autobiography, Christie states that this book was what she called “the light-hearted thriller type”. She went on to say that they were always easy to write as they didn’t require too much plotting or planning, presumably in contrast to the very-tightly planned detective stories. She called this era her “plutocratic” period in that she was starting to receive sums for American serialisation rights which both exceeded what she earned in the UK for such rights and was, at this time, free of income tax. She compared this period favourably with the time at which she wrote these comments (1950’s to 1960’s) when she was plagued with income tax problems which lasted for some twenty years and ate up most of what people presumed was a large fortune.
Unusually for a full-length crime novel, Christie did not write a dedication for this book.
The blurb of the first edition (which is carried on both the back of the dustjacket and opposite the title page) reads:
"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 investigations 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.”
- Czech: Záhada Sedmi Ciferníků (The Seven Dials Mystery)
- Dutch: De zeven wijzerplaten (The Seven Dials)
- Estonian: Seven Dialsi mõistatus (The Seven Dials Mystery)
- German: Der letzte Joker (The last Trump Card) (since 1975), first edition in 1934: Sieben Uhren (Seven Clocks)
- Italian: I Sette Quadranti (The Seven Dials)
- Portuguese: O Mistério dos Sete Relógios (The Seven Dials Mystery)
- Spanish: El misterio de las siete esferas (The Mystery of the Seven Dials)