Agatha Christie’s second published novel is a bit odd if you come to it having never read anything but Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot stories. There’s a very good reason for that, however: it is a youthful book. For those who have only ever seen Christie in photographs from the end of her life, nearly fifty years later, it requires some imagination to realise that she was a young woman when she wrote The Secret Adversary, and that as a result, it is a youthful, panache-filled, “thriller” of a book.
The characters themselves should be giveaways to the fact that this is a different sort of Christie. Tommy Beresford and Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley are in their early twenties, both trying to find their feet in the years immediately after the Great War (1914-18, for those with a lamentably poor grasp of history). Childhood friends, Tommy and Tuppence elect to try to find a bit of adventure by incorporating themselves as the “Young Adventurers” (about which the less said probably the better). When they inadvertently stumble into a kidnap plot with sinister implications for national security, it falls to the ex-soldier and the ex-nurse to attempt to unravel the mystery of a missing American girl who may still hold papers so damning that they could re-start the war in Europe.
As this is a youthful book, we should forgive some of the youthful over-reach and melodrama. Clearly, Christie’s imagined plot was fueled by the chaos of the War, the rise of the Bolsheviks, and the sinister world that seemed to have emerged from the Armistice. Onto this landscape Christie installs the sinister figure of Mr Brown, a villain who is so unobtrusive that he often meets his victims and is unnoticed by them, yet who is secretly the criminal mastermind behind a gang of ruthless toughs seeking the papers given to Jane Finn by the British courier Danvers in the last moments of the Lusitania.
There are some minor problems with the story, but nothing that should make it unintelligible to an intelligent reader. Manyof these have to do with the Julius Hirscheimer and his pseudo-American patois, which is sometimes merely questionable, sometimes outright bad (as far as I can tell). A few references are dated as well, as in Tuppence looking up Sir James Edgerton Peel in the ‘red book’ (it took some looking to find that this was a reference book, obviously bound in red covers, which provided information about members of the royal family and the judiciary). It is a bit difficult to believe, as well, that nearly five years after the 1915 sinking of the RMS Lusitania, anyone still has a hope of finding the missing Jane Finn, or that she could have survived so long in captivity. Some of the villans also appear and disappear like chimera, and I imagine we are left to assume that the rest of the gang scatter when their leader dies. But the role of the conclave of foreign agents (again, for the time, they are Russian and German and Sinn Feiner Irish – don’t forget, there was an uprising in Ireland in 1916), seems to vanish once Tommy is caught spying on them. Clearly, Christie just wanted to get on with the story.
Despite the flaws, The Secret Adversary is an entertaining stroll through the world of nearly 100 years ago. Fans of Christie should find enough here to intrigue them, and casual readers will do well to just go along for the ride. It’s not Christie’s best story, no, but The Secret Adversary is the best sort of juvenilia, in that it is not horribly embarrassing. Four stars.
A Few Additional Thoughts on “Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime” (2015)
In my review of N or M?, I vented a few frustrations with the 2015 remakes for television of the Tommy and Tuppence stories, undertaken by David Walliams (of “Little Britain”, a show which I have always found unwatchably unfunny). It was Walliams who apparently took the decision to extensively rewrite Christie to make these wooden, pasteboard caricatures of characters and story. Unfortunately, whatever his positive characteristics as a comedian, Walliams is hopelessly out of his depth in this chaotically bad drama. Jessica Raine as Tuppence is inoffensive, but hardly convincing. James Fleet, sadly, seems a bit like a bewildered bank clerk, and for some reason, they’ve taken the chirrupy Albert and given him an artificial hand. The show looks nice, yes, but then, most things look nice in HD if they’re made with a bit of a budget.
What the production team evidently still haven’t learned is that it is what was actually written in the story that made them beloved, not the framework of the story. By changing so much about the tale: moving the setting in time by thirty years, making Tommy and Tuppence a mid-thirties old married couple with a son, turning Tommy into a hapless and failing entrepreneur (again woodenly acted by Walliams), for some reason making Tommy an aspiring beekeeper (seriously?), rewriting the Julius Hirscheimer and Jane Finn characters, and setting the entire thing in the Cold War, it’s not really recognizable as The Secret Adversary. And in the conclusion of the adaptation of N or M?, there is a painful moment when Albert and Tommy attempt to disarm a nuclear bomb which the re-write has lobbed into the plot, because, well, why not? If that weren’t enough of a cliché, Albert actually utters the line: “Damn this artificial hand.” Yes, I thought, damn and blast it, and every other re-hashed cliché that’s been chucked into this episode. The production team have essentially made up their own story. And if that is the case, I’m not sure why they needed to keep the character names or attach Christie’s name to it.
The rewrite is exactly the sort of thing that made Christie herself refuse to allow television adaptations during her lifetime, an embargo maintained by her estate and broken only by the original production of The Seven Dials Mystery in the early 1980s. And it was that production which led to the original – and far superior – televised version of The Secret Adversary, and the much-maligned Partners in Crime that followed. Although not well-received at the time, these productions will, I think, stand up as being far more faithful to Christie, not to mention better acted and produced (even if limited by the production values of the era). Give me James Warwick and Francesca Annis any day over Walliams and company. If you like these characters, do yourself the favour of tracking down the 1980s versions (available on DVD and via some streaming services, including Acorn TV, at the time of writing). It’s worth your time.
Otherwise, well… it’s only television. Probably best to turn it off and read another book.
Originally reviewed 17 September 2015.
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