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The last joker

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The Last Joker (original title The Seven Dials Mystery) is the ninth mystery novel by Agatha Christie. It was first published in the United Kingdom on 24 January 1929 by William Collins & Sons[1] and in the United States by Dodd, Mead and Company later that year.[2][3]
The first German edition was published in 1934 under the title Sieben Uhren by Expreßbücher-Verlag (Vienna, Leipzig)[4] published. In 1975, Scherzverlag published a new edition with the new title Der letzte Joker in the translation by Renate von Walter that is still used today[5] used until today.

In this novel, Christie brings back her characters from the earlier novel The Earl’s Memoirs: Lady Eileen (Bundle) Brent, Lord Caterham, Bill Eversleigh, George Lomax, Tredwell, and Superintendent Battle.

Storyline

The story begins at Chimneys, the country estate of the Marquess of Caterham (actually: Marquess). Chimneys is leased to Sir Oswald Coote for two years.

For company, there is another group of young people in the house. One of them, Gerald ‘Gerry’ Wade, has a reputation for sleeping late into the morning. The other six plan a joke by buying eight alarm clocks and placing them in George’s room.

The next morning they are to ring at different times – from half past six. They do, only Wade doesn’t come down. He lies dead in his bed, dead from an overdose of chloral.

The group is shocked. Jimmy Thesiger and Ronny Devereux go to Loraine Wade, Gerry’s half-sister, to break the news to her. Returning to Chimneys, they discover that all the clocks are now on the mantelpiece – but there are only seven, not eight.

A few days later, Lord Caterham returns to his country estate of Chimneys with his family. The post-mortem has taken place – death by accident.

Bundle is friends with Bill Eversleigh and writes to him about Gerry dying in her room. She finds in her desk a letter to Loraine that she has started, talking about Gerry getting into a “terrible thing” and being “so tired I can’t keep my eyes open. Forget what I said about the Seven Dials – seven dials”.

Completely at a loss, she wants to go to London to see Bill. On the way, a man staggers in front of her car, she just manages to avoid him, but he collapses anyway. His last words are, “Seven Dials … Say…. Jimmy Thesiger.” He doesn’t die as a result of the accident though, he was shot. The dead man is Ronny Devereux.

Bundle’s father is visited by Lomax, the Secretary of State, who tells of a strange warning in a letter from Seven Dials, a London district of ill repute. The next day Bundle finally arrives in London and gets Jimmy’s address from Bill, there she meets Loraine Wade. The latter tells her that she found a list of names and dates in her brother’s papers, as well as an address, and a hint of a secret society similar to the Mafia. The three conclude that Gerry’s death was murder and the seven watches mean a warning. Jimmy knows that Gerry had ties to the State Department and the Secret Service. Bundle tells them about the letter to Lomax. There is to be a big party at his house in Wyvern Abbey next week, and Jimmy and Bundle take care of the invitations.

Bundle decides to go to Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard, but he proves to be of little help. He does, however, tell her that Bill Eversleigh knows something about Seven Dials. From him she learns that Seven Dials is a seedy nightclub in the London district of the same name. She insists on visiting it together. At the club, she recognizes the bouncer Alfred, a former servant from Chimneys. The next day she goes back to the club and questions Alfred. He has been given the job by Mr. Mosgorovsky, also a guest of the Cootes. With a little pressure, she convinces Alfred to show her the club. She discovers a secret room with seven chairs. She gets herself locked in a closet and a few hours later witnesses a strange gathering of five people.

The characters wear hoods with eye slits and clock faces over their heads. Each shows a different time between one and six o’clock. Bundle can distinguish different nationalities by the sound of their accents. One member of the sinister group is a woman with a birthmark on her shoulder. They talk about the missing number two and one member complains that number seven is always missing. They also talk about Lomax’s party at Wyvern Abbey, where a German named Eberhard will supposedly be present with a valuable invention. They also talk about Ronny’s death and that Bauer, a servant on Chimeys, is in their employ.

The next day, Bundle tells Jimmy about their experience at the club. They suspect Bauer is Gerry’s killer. Jimmy knows that Eberhard has discovered a chemical formula that can harden wire, revolutionary for the aircraft industry. The German government is not interested, so the formula is to be sold to the British, represented by Sir Stanley Digby, the Minister of Aviation, at the Wyvern Abbey meeting.

Bundle and Jimmy arrive at Wyvern Abbey and are introduced to the other guests: the Cootes, Sir Stanley Digby, Terence O’Rourke and the beautiful Hungarian Countess Radzky, as well as Superintendent Battle. Bill Eversleigh also makes an appearance. Jimmy had told him about Battle’s experiences. Because Sir Stanley is only on site for one night, everyone suspects that possibly the formula will be stolen that night. Jimmy and Bill agree on two guards, with relief at three.

At two o’clock in the night, two shots are fired after a loud fight. Jimmy lies wounded in the right arm in the library. At this time Bundle is in her room, Battle on the terrace, where a parcel has just fallen at Loraine’s feet. The Countess lies unconscious behind a Spanish wall, Sir Oswald has come from a night walk and found a pistol.

Jimmy says he was mugged and shot by a man who fled. The formula is stolen, but is found in Loraine’s package. Everyone wants to go back to bed – Bill wants to escort the Countess to her room, when Bundle sees a birthmark on her shoulder shining through the negligee – she’s a member of the Seven Dials!

The next morning Battle examines the lawn at the spot where the pistol was found. There is only one footprint leading there, Sir Oswald’s, and in the library fireplace Battle finds a charred left glove with teeth marks. Word comes from Chimneys that Bauer is missing.

Before the company disperses, Jimmy asks Loraine if she can keep an eye on Bundle so that she doesn’t put herself in danger during her investigation. He receives an invitation from Lady Coote to their new house in Letherbury so that he can continue to watch Sir Oswald. Loraine and Bundle also arrive there, their car having “broken down” nearby. They get nowhere, however.

A few days later, Bill shows up at Jimmy’s London flat. Ronny Devereux’s lawyers have sent him a letter Ronny had written in case something happened to him – the contents are unbelievable. Jimmy calls Loraine and Bundle and they all want to meet at the Seven Dials club. The girls arrive first. Jimmy arrives but leaves Bill in the car. Bundle is supposed to show him the secret room. Once they are in the room, Loraine calls out that something is wrong with Bill. They find him unconscious in the car and take him to the club. Jimmy runs to get a doctor and Bundle searches the club for a brandy for Bill, but someone knocks them out.

She comes to in Bill’s arms and is pleasantly surprised to hear from his mouth that he loves her. They are interrupted by Mr. Mosgorovsky, who takes them to an emergency meeting of the Seven Dials. Number seven is there and introduces himself – it’s Superintendent Battle. He explains that Seven Dials is not an association of criminals, but an association of criminal investigators and intelligence officers. Among the members is Mr Mosgorovsky; Gerry Wade and Ronny Devereux were; the Hungarian Countess has now taken Gerry’s place, but her true identity is that of US actress Babe St Maur. Bundle is shocked when she learns that Bill Eversleigh is also a member of the organization. She is even more shocked when she learns that the organization has achieved its greatest goal, the arrest of an international criminal who specialized in stealing secret formulas – Jimmy Thesiger, who was arrested that afternoon along with his accomplice Loraine Wade.

Jimmy killed Gerry Wade when the latter got on his trail. He took the eighth watch to see if anyone responded – Bauer was on Chimneys, but he was no match for Jimmy. Ronny Devereux was killed when he got too close to the truth. His last words were not a warning to Jimmy about the Seven Dials, but the other way around. There was no second man on Wyvern Abbey who had stolen the formula. Jimmy climbed over the ivy into Sir Stanley Digby’s room, tossed the formula down to Loraine, and climbed back down. He staged the fight in the library, shot himself in the right arm, and threw the pistol on the lawn. Because he could no longer move his right arm, he pulled off his left glove with his teeth and threw it into the fire.

Bill’s story that Ronny had left him papers was a fabrication to lure Jimmy out of hiding. Jimmy then gave Bill a poisoned cocktail at his apartment, but Bill didn’t drink it – rather, he played the drunk. Jimmy had never run out of the club to see a doctor, but had hidden in the club and knocked Bundle down.

Bundle is offered the vacant seat at the Seven Dials and Bill asks her to marry him. Lord Caterham is delighted – Bill is a golfer, and he finally has someone to play with.

People

  • Jimmy Thesiger, rich young idler
  • Tredwell, butler on Chimneys
  • Sir Oswald Coote, self-made millionaire..
  • Lady Maria Coote, his wife
  • MacDonald, head gardener at Chimneys..
  • Rupert Bateman, Sir Oswald’s secretary, went to school with Jimmy Thesiger..
  • Helen, Nancy and Vera Daventry – Guests at the Party at Chimneys
  • Bill Eversleigh of the State Department
  • Ronny Devereux
  • Gerald Wade
  • Loraine Wade, his half-sister
  • Marquis of Caterham
  • Lady Eileen “Bundle” Brent, his daughter..
  • Stevens, Jimmy’s valet
  • Superintendent Battle
  • Alfred, former domestic servant at Chimneys
  • Farmer, his successor
  • George Lomax, Secretary of State
  • Sir Stanley Digby, Minister of Aviation
  • Terence O’Rourke
  • Countess Radzky, later turns out to be actress Babe St. Maur
  • Mr. Eberhard, German explorer
  • Mr. Mosgorovsky, owner of the Seven Dials nightclub..
  • Count Andras and Hayward Phelps, members of the Seven Dials

Reviews

The review in the Times Literary Supplement, issue of April 4, 1929, was for once considerably less enthusiastic than usual about a Christie book: “It is a great pity that in this book Mrs. Christie foregoes the description of the methodical procedure of investigating a single clear-cut crime in favor of a romance of universal conspiracies and international criminals. These chilling romances are not to be despised in themselves, but they differ so vastly from the story with a strict conclusion in their literary form that it is impossible to suppose that anyone has mastered both. Mrs. Christie lacks the haphazard and credulous romance that usually successfully fills the big screen of extensive crime. In this genre, bravura trumps precision. The mystery of the seven dials and that of the secret society meeting in a sinister district requires just such bravura treatment, but Christie gives it as a minute study, as she has done in her earlier books.” The review concludes, “There’s no particular reason why the man in the mask is the one exposed at the end.”[6]

The review in The New York Times Book Review, April 7, 1929, begins, “After reading the first chapter of this book, an unexpectedly entertaining yarn unwinds. There are some very funny young people in it, and the fact that they appear in a detective novel does not diminish their spirit to any great extent.” Explaining the plot until Gerald Wade is found dead, the unknown reviewer writes: “So far the story is excellent; and it continues so until the moment comes when the mystery is to be solved. Then you can see that as much as the author wanted to keep the reader from guessing the solution, she almost overstepped the boundaries that apply to a mystery writer. She withheld information that the reader should know, laid false leads with a light hand, and avoided any hint of the real killer. Worst of all, the solution itself is utterly absurd. This book is far below the standards set by Agatha Christie’s earlier books.”[7]

The Scotsman, January 28, 1929, says: “Though less good in point of style than some of her earlier novels, The Seven Dials Mystery can claim the reputation of the author’s genius.” The review goes on to say that it is a peculiarity of the story that the reader wants to turn back at the end to see if he has been treated fairly by the author. By and large, he was.”[8]

Robert Barnard: “The same persons in the same place – in Chimneys; but without the same enthusiasm and impudence.”[9]

Filming

Following their 1980 success with the adaptation of A Step into the Void, The Seven Dials Mystery (German title: Das Geheimnis der sieben Zifferblätter) was adapted into a 140-minute television drama by the production company London Weekend Television and aired on March 8, 1981. The team of Pat Sandys, Tony Wharmby and Jack Williams worked again with the same actors: John Gielgud and James Warwick, as well as Cheryl Campbell as “Bundle” Brent. The adaptation stuck closely to the novel, with no significant changes.

This second success in adapting a novel by Agatha Christie then led to the 1983 adaptation of the television series Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime(Detective Agency Blunt) with its pilot episode A Dangerous Foe.

Important editions English-language and German-language editions

  • 1929, first edition UK William Collins and Sons (London), 24 January 1929
  • 1929, first edition USA Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1929
  • 1934, German first edition Seven Clocks: Expreßbücher-Verlag; Vienna; Leipzig[4]
  • 1975, new edition with new title Der letzte Joker in the translation by Renate von Walter published by Scherzverlag[5]

In her autobiography, Christie refers to this book as “a cheerful thriller” and goes on to say that these novels always wrote easily because they did not demand so much both for plot and in planning, especially in contrast to her very carefully planned detective stories. She referred to this period as her time of plutocracy, when she was paid money for series rights in the US, more than she earned in the UK and didn’t have to pay tax on that money.[10] She compared this period to the time when she was writing her autobiography, when she had been struggling with income tax problems for over twenty years.[11]

Dedication

Unusually for her novels, Christie wrote no dedication for this book.

Audio books

  • 2005 The last joker (3 CDs): with the original Miss Marple movie theme. Read by Peter Kaempfe. Directed by Sven Stricker. Translated from the English by Karlheinz Dürr; Authorised reading version. Der Hörverlag Munich[12]
  • 2008 The last joker (6 CDs): only unabridged reading. Narrator: Hans Eckardt. Directed by Ann-Sophie Müller. Translation from the English by Renate von Walter. Publishing house and studio for audio book productions Marburg[13]

Web links

Individual references

  1. The Observer January 20, 1929 (Page 10)
  2. John Cooper and B. A. Pyke. Detective Fiction – the collector’s guide: Second Edition (Pages 82 and 86) Scholar Press. 1994. ISBN 0-85967-991-8
  3. American Tribute to Agatha Christie
  4. a b German first edition in the catalogue of the German National Library
  5. a b New edition in the catalogue of the German National Library
  6. The Times Literary Supplement April 4, 1929 (Page 278)
  7. The New York Times Book Review April 7, 1929 (Page 20)
  8. The Scotsman January 28, 1929 (Page 2)
  9. Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie – Revised edition (Page 205). Fontana Books, 1990. ISBN 0006374743
  10. Christie, Agatha. An Autobiography. (Pages 413-414). Collins, 1977. ISBN 0-00-216012-9
  11. Thompson, Laura. Agatha Christie, An English Mystery. (Page 434) Headline, 2007 ISBN 978-0-7553-1487-4
  12. Audiobook (abridged) in the catalogue of the German National Library
  13. Audio book (complete) in the catalogue of the German National Library