Friday, May 10, 2013

Book Review - Agatha Christie's The Secret Adversary

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
Published by: UK General Books
Publication Date: 1922
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

When Tommy and Tuppence run into each other outside a tube station it's fate. They've been friends forever but have fallen out of touch since they last saw each other when Tommy was sent home from the front to hospital and Tuppence was the nurse sneaking him out to late night picture shows. Since the end of the war they've both fallen on hard times financially. Tuppence only thinks about money morning, noon, and night, as does Tommy. While nibbling away at a rather meagre tea Tuppence decides that they should do something about this destitute situation they are in immediately and form a joint venture, she likes the sound of that: "Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere. Pay must be good. No unreasonable offer refused."

As luck would have it, after leaving Tommy a man called Whittington follows Tuppence out of the restaurant and asks for her help, if she would just come to his office tomorrow. The next day she arrives and things seem to be going smoothly enough until she gives the false name of Jane Finn as her own. Whittington explodes and tells Tuppence to leave after paying her rather handsomely. Meeting with Tommy they decide that maybe accidentally blackmailing people is the way to get some money, yet they itch to know why Whittington reacted so strongly to the name of Jane Finn. They place an ad in the local paper and the next day they have two replies, one from a man within the government going by the name of Mr. Carter, who wishes to hire them off the books, and another from an American, Julius Hersheimmer, a millionaire who is looking for his cousin Jane Finn, who disappeared after surviving the sinking of the Lusitania.

What becomes clear from these meetings is that there is an elaborate plot afoot and finding Jane Finn is the biggest priority, not only of Tommy and Tuppence, but Julius Hersheimmer, and a mysterious Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown is the real danger. No one knows who he really is or what he really looks like. He is the controller of a vast network of thugs and spies and he will not allow Tommy and Tuppence to get in his way, but perhaps he can use them for his own means. 

The Secret Adversary is the first book staring Agatha Christie's famed crime fighting duo, Tommy and Tuppence.  A few years back I was thinking of watching the series that ran in the 80s, Partner's in Crime, staring the always fabulous Francesca Annis, but I had the misfortune of watching the deathly flat production of Why Didn't They Ask Evans, which had the same cast, first. After that waste of a long evening I decided to shelve my plans of watching anything further with these stars. While I'm now thinking I might go and try the series, what it did give me was a rare experience. I had an Agatha Christie novel that I knew nothing about! Most books and stories have been adapted somehow and in someway in recent years to be part of Marple if they weren't already part of Poirot. So the only real experience I had of Tommy and Tuppence was the odd mash up they did of By the Pricking of My Thumb. So I had a miraculously clean slate on this one.

Oh, and how I loved how alive and vibrant Tommy and Tuppence are. They just jumped off the page radiating the energy and the witty banter that films like His Girl Friday are known for. It reminded me, more then a little, of the wonderful series by J.J. Murphy with Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley as a crime fighting duo, that is how quick and funny and rabid fire the dialogue was with our hero and heroine. Tuppence is a little English Dorothy Parker through and through. I'm sure Dorothy would have taken the money if she was unexpectedly blackmailing someone. The supporting characters didn't lack anything either, all the evil henchmen are nice and evil, while Julius Hersheimmer radiated "American." There's a broadness to the way Americans are depicted that can be a bit grating for us Americans who don't all have endless pocket books and a gun next to the cash, but Christie was still able to make Julius feel real, despite embodying this stereotype. The one flaw was that, after the amazing first chapter, Tommy and Tuppence are separated in their investigations, whether from expedience or fowl play, when they aren't with each other the book becomes a bit limp. Tommy and Tuppence are like a circuit, they need the other to spark.

Then I come to the newness of Christie as a writer. As I said before, she obviously doesn't have the fluidity that she would later develop, but here there was a marked improvement over The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Here the problem wasn't so much the particulars of writing but the style of the convoluted plot. Now, I could be doing a disservice to Christie, and the convoluted nature of the plot could be more a device, a red herring thrown out so that we don't suss out too early who the bad guy really is. Yet, there's a point when you realize that Christie had some demented need to not just throw everything into this novel, but everything and the kitchen sink, that makes you want to shake her and ask for restraint. There are abductions... three of them, false identities, amnesia, government conspiracies with missing documents and the looming threat of Communism. Um... just one of those would have been good, or at least, not that many abductions... with all these plot devices, the book veers a bit out of the cozy murder mystery genre and heads closer to espionage and a pre Cold War thriller. While I do enjoy that kind of story, overall, big government conspiracies and the fate of nations leaves me a little cold. I like my murder a little warmer, a little cosier, thank you very much.


My only Agatha Christie so far has been "Murder at the Vicarage," which I really did enjoy. I think I should probably try another of hers - do you think a Poirot, another Marple, or a stand alone is the best way to go?

I would probably go with a Poirot or Marple. Because while I really really liked her stand alones, there's just something about Poirot and Marple that is deliciously lovely and makes me insanely happy to be reading it. They're like old friends.

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