The contents of this time capsule of a book have the exotic familiarity of myth. They include a missing diamond called the Kohinoor, the discovery of which depends upon solving a multi-layered code-cum-riddle; a memoir that threatens to cause a public scandal and a packet of letters that evoke a private one; a plot to restore the monarchy of Herzoslovakia, a stereotypically fractious Balkan nation, along with a counterplot by a dotty crew of republican zealots known as the Comrades of the Red Hand; a grand English country house, complete with secret passages and a priest hole; and a rose garden with a sundial at its center—that classic symbol of how ordered beauty works to counteract the tyranny of time.
Then there are the characters, only a few of whom are what they seem to be. They include a dashing adventurer, a comic-opera baron and his equally farcical adjutant, an impulsive Bright Young Thing who wins the heart of every man in sight, an obtuse lord of the manor and his flighty daughter, a mysterious bearded Frenchman, a fatuous American who says “vurry” when he means “very,” a self-important politician and his hapless assistant, and a stone-faced Scotland Yard man. (The latter is Superintendent Battle, who will appear in a handful of later Christie works.) The ostensible hero is an intrepid chap named Anthony Cade. Was he so dubbed in honor of Anthony Hope, whose turn-of-the-century potboiler The Prisoner of Zenda serves as a likely inspiration for this tale? If so, that choice merely reflects the deftness and subtle humor with which Christie, still early in her career, has remade a grab-bag of narrative clichés into something that is unarguably her own.
To an adventure-thriller-romp, Christie adds a complex murder puzzle of the kind that became her trademark. Indeed, the plot is too intricate; it contains holes and loose ends that weaken its overall integrity. (There is at least one character with a false identity that other characters should have seen through right away.) No one writes novels in this vein anymore—and that’s probably just as well. Even so, this period piece remains a joy to read.