secret adversary

Probably the guy with the briefcase…

“It was 2 p.m. on the afternoon of May 7th, 1915.”

I have been a fan of Agatha Christie ever since the Doctor Who episode in which she featured. My knowledge of her prior to this was minimal, although I was aware she was the bestselling author of all time and known as the Queen of Crime. I fought through my reluctance to read anything published before 1990, picked one up and was instantly hooked. She truly is the best crime and mystery writer that history has yet given us.

The Secret Adversary is her second novel, published in 1922 after the success of her debut The Mysterious Affair at Styles which featured Hercule Poirot in the leading role. Here, she dispenses with him (and with the straight mystery genre with which she is so closely associated) and it’s a whole new ball game. This book is about Tommy Beresford and Tuppence Cowley, two young things who have known each other since their childhood and have just met again in 1920s London, at the height of the jazz age.

As I said, this is also not one of the traditional mysteries, being much more of an action story, providing far more chasing about than Poirot does. This is a spy novel, perhaps a precursor to the James Bond novels in some respects. However, the traditional Christie mystery aspect remains forefront.

Tommy and Tuppence are in their early twenties and, broke and bored, decide to set up Young Adventurers Ltd, a silly idea of a company that they will advertise, letting them have small excitements and adventures and get paid for them – in fact, the advertisement states that the pay must be good. However, before they even get a chance to make their plans known, they are met by a man who has overheard their talk and says that his boss would wish to hire them. Tuppence meets the man in question and, after claiming her name is Jane Finn and convincing him that she knows more than she does, manages to anger him so much that he pays her off handsomely. (Apparently £50 is enough to buy two dinners for two people, and a trip to the theatre, and still retain 80% of the original sum in 1922.)

Tommy and Tuppence then find themselves embroiled in one hell of a mess. Who is this Jane Finn, and why has her name upset this man Whittington so much? Who is Mr Brown? Where are these orders coming from? Can Julius Hersheimmer be trusted? Where are the documents hidden? What’s up with Mrs Vandemeyer?


The Ritz: both then and now a sign of splendour

The novel makes good use of the time period, using the sinking of the Luistania as the catalyst for all over events. The characters of Tommy and Tuppence – who appear in several other of Christie’s works and are unique in being the only characters who age along with the real world – are introduced cleverly and the exposition of their backstories does not feel forced. They meet again after a few years, and therefore the discussion of what they’re been up to in that time feels natural. You are soon caught up in them. They are both grand characters, very different but immediately likeable. Tommy is considered slow and stupid, and called so a number of times, but he is merely someone who likes to have a solid opinion before speaking, and he can rarely be swayed from it. He is good in a tight corner and cannot be decieved because he has no imagination. Tuppence on the other hand is a quick thinker, obsessed with money and one of those thoroughly modern girls who wears short skirts and displays their ankles. Together, they make an excellent detecting team.

I previously read a Christie novel that was more action based, The Big Four, and was not so impressed, but I think it was because she was shoehorning Poirot and Hastings into the genre, when the whole thing was beneath them. Giving the roles of action heroes to two younger characters works far better.

It’s a gripping read and kept me going until the very end, when, in typical Christie fashion, everything comes together in a way you (or I, as usual) didn’t see coming. Yes, it has a few cliches in it, but that’s the nature of the genre and still the whole thing works and is a very enjoyable read. Hersheimmer is a great addition as the slightly eccentric millionaire, and there’s even a nod within the book to other aspects of Christie’s world, implying that these books are set in the same universe was Poirot, even if the characters don’t meet.

An exciting visit to London at its finest. A must for any adventure fan.