Agatha Christie: The Secret Adversary

David_WalliamsThe Secret Adversary
Agatha Christie
First published in the UK 1922, The Bodley Head
This edition: Project Gutenberg

Outwardly, he’s an ordinary clean-limbed, rather block-headed young Englishman. Slow in his mental processes. On the other hand, it’s quite impossible to lead him astray through his imagination. He hasn’t got any–so he’s difficult to deceive. He worries things out slowly, and once he’s got hold of anything he doesn’t let go. The little lady’s quite different. More intuition and less common sense. They make a pretty pair working together. Pace and stamina.

Tommy and Tuppence are a couple down-at-heel bright young things, childhood friends briefly reunited in a wartime hospital (he was a patient; she was a V.A.D.), who meet again by chance outside Dover Street tube station and go for a tea in a nearby Lyons.

Tommy sat down opposite her. His bared head revealed a shock of exquisitely slicked-back red hair. His face was pleasantly ugly – nondescript, yet unmistakably the face of a gentleman and a sportsman. His brown suit was well cut, but perilously near the end of its tether.
They were an essentially modern-looking couple as they sat there. Tuppence had no claim to beauty, but there was character and charm in the elfin lines of her little face, with its determined chin and large, wide-apart grey eyes that looked mistily out from under straight, black brows. She wore a small bright green toque over her black bobbed hair, and her extremely short and rather shabby skirt revealed a pair of uncommonly dainty ankles. Her appearance presented a valiant attempt at smartness.

They are on their uppers, and agree over a cup of tea to form a company: The Young Adventurers, Ltd. Any work accepted.

Almost before they have written their first newspaper advert they get their first adventure, A Mr Whittington of the Esthonia Glassworks Company, acting very suspiciously (‘She disliked and distrusted him instinctively’), offers Tuppence a job, gives her £50 as a golden handshake, and then promptly disappears without trace. The only clue seems to be his reaction to Tuppence’s mention of the name Jane Finn. The Young Adventurers decide to get to the bottom of this mystery by advertising for news of Jane Finn in the newspaper. There are two responses to their ad. A ‘Mr Carter’, who Tommy recognises as something in the secret service, offers the Young Adventurers his support to find her:

Funds within reason, detailed information on any point, and NO OFFICIAL RECOGNITION.

Miss Finn is of strategic importance as she may have in her possession a draft treaty from 1916 which, if revealed now, would embarrass the present Government and probably throw the country into disarray. Mr Carter explains:

Five years ago, that draft treaty was a weapon in our hands; to-day it is a weapon against us. It was a gigantic
blunder. If its terms were made public, it would mean disaster…. It might possibly bring about another war–not with Germany this time! As a party cry for Labour it would be irresistible, and a Labour Government at this juncture would, in my opinion, be a grave disability for British trade, but that is a mere nothing to the REAL danger.”

A Labour uprising and general strike is on the cards anyway; the treaty would be the last straw. So it is the objective of a cabal of plotters, led by the possibly fictional Mr Brown, bent on the overthrow of Britain.

The second answer to the ad is from Julius Hersheimmer, a hustling American millionaire straight out of a P. G. Wodehouse book. He is Jane Finn’s long-lost cousin and tells Tommy and Tuppence he is determined to find her. They move in with him at the Ritz to begin the search in earnest.

The Secret Adversary is pretty flawed. The line-up of baddies is comically stereotypical, even for the 1920s:

Certainly Mr. Brown’s organization was a far-reaching concern. The common criminal, the well-bred Irish gentleman, the pale Russian, and the efficient German master of the ceremonies! Truly a strange and sinister gathering!

The Young Adventurers are brought into the story by a fairly ridiculous coincidence – Tommy overhearing the name Jane Finn, thinking it memorable and mentioning it to Tuppence, and her dropping it into her conversation with Mr Whittington. Towards the end we are asked to buy into an enormous piece of stupidity on the part of the assorted conspirators, who must be the worst searchers ever to threaten the western world. And the politics is a little bit in your face. No question about where on the political spectrum the young Agatha stood.

On the other hand, the identity of the mysterious Mr Brown is hidden with all of Christie’s skill in misdirection. The shortlist is pretty short, but I managed to pick the wrong suspect. Our heroes are not as revoltingly arch as I had feared, and certainly nowhere near as horrible as they were in the 80s TV show (which is unbelievable, if you’ve never seen it). This is probably peak twee…

‘Tommy, I do like things to happen quickly. So far, adventure has succeeded adventure, but this
morning has been dull as dull.’
‘You must stifle this longing for vulgar sensation, Tuppence. Remember that if Mr. Brown is all he is reported to be, it’s a wonder that he has not ere now done us to death. That’s a good sentence, quite a literary flavour about it.’
‘You’re really more conceited than I am–with less excuse! Ahem! But it certainly is queer that Mr. Brown has not yet wreaked vengeance upon us. (You see, I can do it too.) We pass on our way unscathed.’

…and it’s bearable. Perhaps they get worse as the series progresses. Or perhaps I have been desensitised by recently reading a Blotto and Twinks novel. Anyway, I thought they were good company, if not as good as David Walliams (who’ll be portraying Tommy for the BBC) makes out:

‘I was first drawn to the delicious notion of a married couple solving crimes together, and the more I read of the Tommy and Tuppence novels and short stories I realised they are among Christie’s very best work.’

Hmm.


See also:

The Project Gutenberg Project: Speaking of Tommy and Tuppence… I LOVE THEM! I need my own Tommy and Tuppence to hang with, you guys. I AM SERIOUS.

Rob Around Books: There’s a special and rare charisma surrounding this duo, and one cannot help but root for them and will them out of the sticky situations they invariably find themselves in.

Mike Ripley recently pointed out the flaw in the BBC’s assertion that moving the story to the 1950s out it within living memory of its target audience. However, the Cold War period setting will at least make the espionage elements of the story a little more believable.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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22 Responses to Agatha Christie: The Secret Adversary

  1. lesblatt says:

    I suspect you found yourself liking the book despite its obvious flaws. Hey, it was only Christie’s second published book; I think it was a pretty credible performance.

    Two points. First, our good friend Mr. Brown. When I reviewed the book a few years back, I said, “I’m always a little amazed at these characters who manage to create complex plots to take over the world, and build huge criminal organizations, while leading double lives that one would think would not allow enough time for such complexity.” I agree with you that his real identity is very well hidden.

    I also think it’s worth sharing Christie’s dedication of the book: “To all those who lead monotonous lives, in the hope that they may experience at second hand the delights and dangers of adventure.” Strikes me as a pretty good goal!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. i actually rather like Tommy and Tuppence, though I’m afraid I think The Secret Adversary is pretty bad. I don’t know that I would attribute the ultra right-wing politics of this book to Christie; there’s no doubt she was conservative, but on the other hand she knew quite well how to right “down” for the thriller market.

    There is, however, some delicious stuff in here, as you mention and I do too in my blog review:

    http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/search?q=secret+adversary

    I just love the American who says “I guess” *all the blinking time*–just so we never forget he’s Americanm *I guess*–and who lovingly carries around a gun he calls his “Little Willie.” He’s so urgently American he’s never remotely believable.

    And there’s this sentence that always makes me laugh:

    “Tommy took to his heels and ran–none too soon. The front door opened and a hail of bullets followed him. Fortunately none of them hit him.”

    Interesting that Christie successfully bluffed you! I thought her trick might be one a lot of longtime Christie readers would catch, but of course when this book came out there was no such thing as longtime Christie readers!

    Like

    • westwoodrich says:

      You mean you chaps don’t really act like that? Gosh.

      Re: Mr Brown. I was sure it was him all the way along, then changed my mind at the last minute. She tricked me, basically.

      Like

      • Christie fooled me completely in N or M?, the next T&T novel. She also fooled me in The Seven Dials Mystery. Unfortunately, I knew the trick in The Man in the Brown Suit before I read the book.

        Like

  3. tracybham says:

    I remember being a fan of Tommy and Tuppence when I read Agatha Christie decades ago, but I wasn’t sure I would still like them when I read so many Christie fans who don’t like the books. When I read this one a couple of years ago, I liked it a lot. I know it has flaws, but Christie entertains me and Tommy and Tuppence are likable. Thanks for the links to other info.

    Not too worried about the new adaptations, because I haven’t watched the old ones yet…. except for Secret Adversary, which I liked so I expect to like the other episodes.

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    • Tracy, I agree about Tommy and Tuppence being likeable. And I think that was Christie’s real innovation in the thriller genre at the time. When I read Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond stories, I think Bulldog just comes off like a jerk most of the time. This is something Jefferson Farjeon was good at too. He and Christie both softened some of the more unpleasant elements to the Golden Age thriller.

      I quite enjoy the story collection Partners in Crime and I hope they don’t muff it too badly on television. I think most of what Rich finds intolerable tweeness comes from Francesca Annis’ performance in the thirty-year-old adaptation. I like Annis, and I know a lot of people like her in Partners, but I think she’s pretty hard to take as Tuppence, who, frankly, in the book reminds me not a bit of Annis, as she performs the role in the series. To me she seems much too posh for Tuppence!

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  4. If she hadn’t written such great books later I probably would like this one better… I found the ‘overhearing the name Jane Finn’ very hard to take. Later Agatha would have found a much better method to get them involved.

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    • westwoodrich says:

      The ‘overhearing a clue’ trope turns up quite a bit, I think, but I’m racking my brain trying to remember where else I’ve read it recently. I’m sure it was in the last couple of months.

      One example is Harry Kemelman’s short story The Nine Mile Walk, where an entire crime is reconstructed from hearing a single, seemingly innocent, sentence. It’s a great story, but all hinges on an unbelievable coincidence.

      Like

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I remember this as being pure hokum but great fun – as are all Tommy andTuppence’s stories. But then I’m a devoted Christie addict…. 🙂

    Like

    • westwoodrich says:

      Hokum’s the exact word I should have used. Look out for it in future T+T reviews. I’m going to try to read all of them before the TV show comes out.

      Like

      • kaggsysbookishramblings says:

        Enjoy! I am inordinately fond of the much maligned “Postern of Fate”!

        Like

      • I read Postern of Fate in a tree house in Alabama when I was thirteen. Loved the stuff about the message in the book, but don’t recall anything in the book making sense after that!

        Interestingly, I just read a Cornell Woolrich novella, “The Book That Squealed,” that uses that same plotting element, very cleverly.

        Like

      • kaggsysbookishramblings says:

        It’s a while since I read it but I recall liking the elements that looked into the past, using the census etc. *Must* read it again! 🙂

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  6. Do these pre-date Nick and Nora Charles, Dashell Hammet’s married detectives in The Thin Man series?

    I’ve not read these books, but it’s too bad that the television series is moving them to the 1950’s. There was plenty of espionage in the 20’s and the cars were so much cooler.

    Like

    • Oh, yes, indeed; by a dozen years. Of course they aren’t married in the first book. But they’re getting there! The linked stories collection, Partners in Crime, is a lot of fun, I think. I reviewed that one.

      Like

  7. Juxtabook says:

    I love Tommy and Tuppence despite the gauche chap and gel routine. I agree with Rob Around Books that despite all that they have real charisma. I might be inoculated against the style by reading lots of girls’ school stories. It is no surprise that Mary Cadogan (sadly just died – Guardian obit http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/06/mary-cadogan) and Patricia Craig wrote both You’re a Brick, Angela! and The Lady Investigates. You need the same kind of stomach for both literary pursuits I think.

    Like

  8. Pingback: Agatha Christie: Partners in Crime | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  9. Pingback: Partners in Crime to air in the UK next month | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  10. Pingback: Partners in Crime – The Secret Adversary episode 1 | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  11. Pingback: Partners in Crime – the verdict | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  12. richmonde says:

    Why is it “twee” to quote the language of bad historical novels? T&T probably grew up reading books that were full of “Hist! We are observed!” and by the 20s it was the fashion to send them up. (Agree about Francesca Annis.)

    Like

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