The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Secret Adversary (1922)

The Secret AdversaryIn which we meet Tommy and Tuppence, who form The Young Adventurers Ltd, and through a combination of hard work and good luck prevent the evil Mr Brown from capturing secret documents that could cause a world war. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the book yet, its big secret is the identity of Mr Brown and I’m hardly likely to tell you that now, am I?

Tommy and TuppenceSo, greetings to Mr Thomas Beresford and Miss Prudence Cowley, who, as Tommy and Tuppence, are full of daring and spirit, consider everything a jolly jape and a wizard wheeze, were bred to enjoy the finest things in life but are down on their uppers and haven’t a bean to scrape together, old bean. But with Agatha Christie’s appreciation of post-war youngsters getting their act together and plundering their dressing-up box of resourcefulness, T&T are bound to succeed right from the start.

World War 1 MedalsHaving chosen an old man as detective in her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie went for a completely different tack with this her second. Whilst Poirot is well into his seventies, T&T are described as having “united ages” which “would certainly not have totalled forty-five”. They’d both survived the First World War; Tommy, heroically injured in both France and Mesopotamia, “stuck in Egypt till the Armistice happened”, finally demobbed and job-hunting ever since; and Tuppence, a VAD nurse and a driver in London, a fine example of an upper middle class gel doing her bit. They’re frightfully good at the smart and swanky small talk of the era, and have a very playful relationship, which Christie conveys with a great sense of fun and animation in their conversations. Like John Cavendish in Styles, Tommy describes his late mother as “the mater”, and they both come from good, if impoverished, stock, with Tuppence’s father being an Archdeacon – although Tommy has a rich, but distanced, uncle. It’s clear that Christie really loves her new characters – and she writes about them so enthusiastically that we fall in love with them too.

Fish FinIn her autobiography, Christie reveals the trigger for writing this book. “Two people were talking at a table nearby, discussing somebody called Jane Fish. It struck me as a most entertaining name. I went away with the name in my mind. Jane Fish. That, I thought, would make a good beginning to a story – a name overheard at a tea-shop – an unusual name, so that whoever heard it remembered it. A name like Jane Fish – or perhaps Jane Finn would be even better. I settled for Jane Finn – and started writing straight away.” Inspired by the notion that overhearing one name can set a chain of events going that could overthrow civilisation as we know it, Christie embarks on a sequence of outrageously far-fetched coincidences necessary to set up the story. Let’s consider them.

coincidenceCoincidence #1, that Jane Finn, a name plucked out of the obscure recesses of Tuppence’s brain, is the name of the girl who was given the secret paperwork.
Coincidence #2, that Tuppence knew intimately the pensionnat in Paris where Whittington wants to send her (Madame Colombier’s in the Avenue de Neuilly).
Coincidence #3, that Tommy knows “Mr Carter” from his days in the Intelligence Corps in France.
Coincidence #4, that of all the Jane Finns in the world, both Carter and Hersheimmer – in reply to Tommy’s vague newspaper advertisement – are thinking of the same Jane Finn as T&T and Mr Brown. I know that it’s almost 100 years ago, but, as an indication, I did a little research and there are currently 28 Jane Finns on Facebook alone.

LusitaniaNow that IS a coincidence. Perhaps the plotline didn’t seem quite so fanciful back in 1922. By associating it, on the very first page, with the real-life story of the sinking of the Lusitania, just seven years before the book was published, and still vivid in many readers’ minds, maybe Christie gave it a sense of reality that it lacks today.

Adventure ClubSomething The Secret Adversary has in plentiful common with The Mysterious Affair at Styles is detail. In that first novel, the detail was in the plethora of clues that dripped from each page so that you could barely read a paragraph without having to go back and check up on all the new information you had amassed before progressing further. In Adversary, it’s all about adventure and activity. No pausing for reflection here, no time to consider what Poirot’s little grey cells might make of the situation; it’s all out action and hurtling from scrape to scrape. Christie’s dedication tells you precisely what she wants the reader to get out of this book: “To all those who lead monotonous lives in the hope that they experience at second hand the delights and dangers of adventure”. That feels a bit patronising to me; but as we know from the present day, our war veterans can, like Tommy, frequently find it difficult to find suitable employment, and for most people in the early 1920s, money was very tight, and I guess they didn’t have that much excitement in their lives. So Christie let her imagination run riot and came up with this fantasy of a crime novel, where our heroes hide behind curtains, pretend to be domestic servants, scour cliff-edges for hidden documents and play up against Bolsheviks and other foreign agitators, all in the cause of tracking down the elusive Jane Finn and uncovering the true identity of Mr Brown.

RomanceAnd all this is set in the context of the growing relationship between Tommy and Tuppence, which Christie amusingly and rather tenderly allows to blossom under their very noses without them quite realising it. As the days pass and Tuppence hasn’t heard from Tommy (the last we read was that he had a sudden blow on the head), she gently realises how much she misses him. It starts off with her not enjoying the adventure so much without him: “for the first time, Tuppence felt doubtful of success. While they had been together she had never questioned it for a minute. Although she was accustomed to take the lead, and to pride herself on her quick-wittedness, in reality she had relied upon Tommy more than she realized at the time. There was something so eminently sober and clear-headed about him, his common sense and soundness of vision were so unvarying, that without him Tuppence felt much like a rudderless ship.”

CryingYet she makes excuses for how she feels. “”Little fool,” she would apostrophize herself, “don’t snivel. Of course you’re fond of him. You’ve known him all your life. But there’s no need to be sentimental about it.”” Thirty pages later, she still hasn’t heard from him: “Her eyes fell on a small snapshot of Tommy that stood on her dressing-table in a shabby frame. For a moment she struggled for self-control, and then abandoning all presence, she held it to her lips and burst into a fit of sobbing. “Oh, Tommy, Tommy,” she cried, “I do love you so—and I may never see you again….” At the end of five minutes Tuppence sat up, blew her nose, and pushed back her hair. “That’s that,” she observed sternly. “Let’s look facts in the face. I seem to have fallen in love—with an idiot of a boy who probably doesn’t care two straws about me.””

angryMeanwhile, how was Tommy faring? Circumstances require that he and Julius work together a lot, and when he discovers that Julius has proposed to Tuppence, Tommy has to undergo a lot of self-examination. “Tuppence and Julius! Well, why not? Had she not lamented the fact that she knew no rich men? Had she not openly avowed her intention of marrying for money if she ever had the chance? Her meeting with the young American millionaire had given her the chance—and it was unlikely she would be slow to avail herself of it. She was out for money. She had always said so. Why blame her because she had been true to her creed? Nevertheless, Tommy did blame her. He was filled with a passionate and utterly illogical resentment. It was all very well to SAY things like that—but a REAL girl would never marry for money. Tuppence was utterly cold-blooded and selfish, and he would be delighted if he never saw her again! And it was a rotten world!”

wedding ringsBut when it looks as though the gang have murdered Tuppence, Tommy is on high alert with distress. “”Well, I’m darned!” said Julius. “Little Tuppence. She sure was the pluckiest little girl——” But suddenly something seemed to crack in Tommy’s brain. He rose to his feet. “Oh, get out! You don’t really care, damn you! You asked her to marry you in your rotten cold-blooded way, but I LOVED her. I’d have given the soul out of my body to save her from harm. I’d have stood by without a word and let her marry you, because you could have given her the sort of time she ought to have had, and I was only a poor devil without a penny to bless himself with. But it wouldn’t have been because I didn’t care!” “See here,” began Julius temperately. “Oh, go to the devil! I can’t stand your coming here and talking about ‘little Tuppence.’ Go and look after your cousin. Tuppence is my girl! I’ve always loved her, from the time we played together as kids. We grew up and it was just the same. I shall never forget when I was in hospital, and she came in in that ridiculous cap and apron! It was like a miracle to see the girl I loved turn up in a nurse’s kit——”” And so on. I think it’s fair to say, it’s love.

Dover StreetAs usual when reading an early Christie, I found myself checking back to the dictionary and other online references to understand some of her words that have fallen out of general use. Tommy and Tuppence first bump into each at Dover Street tube station – where is that? I can reveal that it became Green Park station in 1933. Tuppence is wearing “a small bright green toque over her black bobbed hair”. I’m sure if you’re into fashion you understand that, but I’d never heard of a toque before – it’s a small hat without a projecting brim. On another occasion, Tommy interrupts her silent chain of thought, much to her annoyance, to which Tommy retorts “Shades of Pelmanism!” The Pelman in question was one Christopher Louis Pelman, founder of the Pelman Institute for the Scientific Development of Mind, Memory and Personality in London, in 1899. Pelmanism was his system of memory training, which also involved a game where you had to memorise the positions of matching pairs of cards, face-down on a table. Largely a distant memory itself nowadays, Pelmanism had some distinguished followers, including Rider Haggard, Robert Baden-Powell and Jerome K Jerome. “There may be trouble with the A.S.E.” says the German voice that Tommy hears from his hiding place when trying to track down Mr Brown. Five points to you if you know that the A.S.E. was the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, one of the “New Model” trade unions that developed in the 19th century, and whose name actually changed to the Amalgamated Engineering Union before the book had been published – Christie hadn’t kept up to date with the times there, score one against her.

lionThen there are a few nice phrases that we don’t see much today. When Tuppence decides to visit Sir James with Julius, this was to be her plan: “She would meet Julius, persuade him to her point of view, and they would beard the lion in his den.” How’s that? I’ve never heard that phrase before. The OED defines it as to “attack someone on his or her own ground or subject”, but by all accounts it goes back to the Book of Samuel and the story of David, a shepherd who pursued a lion that had stolen one of his sheep. David bravely seized the lion “by his beard” and killed him. So how come I’ve never come across that one before? And when Tommy and Julius discover a package of blank paper, Tommy suspects the use of sympathetic ink – say again? But apparently that was just another name for Invisible ink – I wonder why they used the word sympathetic? When Tommy writes to Mr Carter he says “something’s turned up that has given me a jar”. Given him a what? I think – but I’m not entirely certain – this is an 18th century usage meaning “given me a shock”. Fascinating use of language! But one phrase I did recognise – and I haven’t heard in years – comes when Julius tells Tommy “I must be going to Colney Hatch”. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle would also use that phrase. Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum opened in 1851, and the phrase became widely used as an alternative to “I must be going mad”.

PoundI did a little interesting extrapolation of financial values at the time. Tuppence would be the first to accept that she’s very keen on money, so I thought it would be interesting to find out how much she’s working for. We don’t quite know how much blackmail money Whittington paid Tuppence when she visits him at the offices of Esthonia Glassware, but he was willing to pay £100 for her to spend three months doing nothing in Paris. £100 in 1922 is roughly the equivalent of £4000 today, so if he paid her that much money, no wonder T&T were eating in the most expensive restaurants to celebrate. Bizarrely, Carter’s suggested salary for their detective work was just £300 a year, to both Tommy and Tuppence, which equates to just £12000 each today, just about minimum wage level. It may not have been much, but at least there was equal pay for women, which would have been highly unlikely in 1922.

So here’s my regular at-a-glance summary for The Secret Adversary:

Publication Details: 1922. My copy is a Pan paperback, published in 1970.

How many pages until the first death: 105. That might feel quite a long wait, but solving a murder seems somehow less important in this book that tracking down Jane Finn and uncovering the identity of Mr Brown.

Funny lines out of context:
“The movies—of course! Your American word for the cinema.” This was relatively new technology – stupid people could be confused.

“Wonder what she’s been up to. Dogging Rita most likely.” Good Lord, that’s a surprise.

“Feeling more tongue-tied than ever, Tommy ejaculated “Oh!” again.” Not sure if that’s what he said or if it was a sound effect.

Any number of lines describing Julius and his gun:
“”I rather wish that fellow would come along,” said Julius. He patted his pocket. “Little William here is just aching for exercise!””

“Tommy kept a respectful silence. He was impressed by little William.”

“”And I tell you,” retorted Julius, “that Little Willie here is just hopping mad to go off!” The Russian wilted visibly. “You wouldn’t dare——” “Oh, yes, I would, son!””

“Little Willie and I will come behind.”

Memorable characters:
Tommy and Tuppence themselves are pretty memorable, and as this book introduces them it contains a fair amount of description and idly just watching them do stuff. Apart from them, the two major characters of Julius and Sir James are nicely realised – and poles apart – with Julius a very “in-your-face” rich American and Sir James a more dignified and aloof Brit.

Christie the Poison expert:
The first death comes as a result of administering chloral, or as the doctor first thought, an accidental overdose. It was actually chloral that formed the “knock-out” element of a traditional Mickey Finn. It’s not currently licensed for use, but it can be used as a sedative. You wouldn’t describe it as a poison though.

However, the second death is simply described as someone collapsing, “whilst an odour of bitter almonds filled the air.” That’d be cyanide poisoning.

Class/social issues of the time:
Christie goes into great detail about potential political subterfuge with the fallout over the secret papers, with much speculation about the Labour movement and how it would react. At the time of writing, Britain hadn’t yet experienced a Labour government, and the fear and distaste of these Bolshevik ruffians is palpable in Christie’s writing. There is a lot of concern about the behaviour of the trade unions, which Tommy turns into a joke when he doesn’t want to start work early in the morning: “My union, Tuppence, my union! It does not permit me to work before 11 a.m.” Some things don’t change, though – there is huge disapproval of socialists with money: “Put on a thick coat, that’s right. Fur lined? And you a Socialist!”
The secret document that T&T are trying to keep from Mr Brown could be used to bring down (and worse) the government. Mr Carter’s politics are clear. ““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… Bolshevist gold is pouring into this country for the specific purpose of procuring a Revolution….”

Before Mr Brown is thwarted there is fear: “the 29th was the much-talked-of “Labour Day,” about which all sorts of rumours were running riot. Newspapers were getting agitated. Sensational hints of a Labour coup d’état were freely reported. The Government said nothing. It knew and was prepared. There were rumours of dissension among the Labour leaders. They were not of one mind. The more far-seeing among them realized that what they proposed might well be a death-blow to the England that at heart they loved. They shrank from the starvation and misery a general strike would entail, and were willing to meet the Government half-way. But behind them were subtle, insistent forces at work, urging the memories of old wrongs, deprecating the weakness of half-and-half measures, fomenting misunderstandings.” Once Mr Brown is defeated, “to most people the 29th, the much-heralded “Labour Day,” had passed much as any other day. Speeches were made in the Park and Trafalgar Square. Straggling processions, singing the Red Flag, wandered through the streets in a more or less aimless manner. Newspapers which had hinted at a general strike, and the inauguration of a reign of terror, were forced to hide their diminished heads. The bolder and more astute among them sought to prove that peace had been effected by following their counsels.”

Political extremists infiltrate the parties – when Carter asks Tommy to try to recognise some of the people in Mr Brown’s gang, we can see Christie’s distrust of anything other than True Blue. “You say two faces were familiar to you? One’s a Labour man, you think? Just look through these photos, and see if you can spot him.” A minute later, Tommy held one up. Mr. Carter exhibited some surprise. “Ah, Westway! Shouldn’t have thought it. Poses as being moderate. As for the other fellow, I think I can give a good guess.” He handed another photograph to Tommy, and smiled at the other’s exclamation. “I’m right, then. Who is he? Irishman. Prominent Unionist M.P. All a blind, of course. We’ve suspected it—but couldn’t get any proof.”

On a more mundane level, the class difference between, on the one hand, Tommy and Tuppence, and their soon to be long-term associate Albert, is clearly shown in their use of language. T&T are full of the swanky small talk, whereas Albert-speak is littered with “Lord!” and “Lumme!” and “Mark my words” and “Blest if I’d have known you! That rig-out’s top-hole.” Where T&T’s fantasies run to Lobster a l’américaine, Chicken Newberg, Sole Colbert or Sole á la Jeanette, Albert’s are firmly rooted in the shlock detective B-movies of the day. Some of the dramatic tension and humour of the story are created when people are engaged in activities outside their class – such as Tuppence in domestic service, or Julius shimmying up a tree.

There’s also an observation on what Christie might have termed the criminal class: “The man who came up the staircase with a furtive, soft-footed tread was quite unknown to Tommy. He was obviously of the very dregs of society. The low beetling brows, and the criminal jaw, the bestiality of the whole countenance were new to the young man, though he was a type that Scotland Yard would have recognized at a glance.” I expect his eyes were too close together too.

And we have the usual distrust of foreigners found in a Christie novel, but here with added terrorist/intrigue/post-war flavour, and Tommy is the chief recidivist:

When Tommy first receives Julius P Hersheimmer’s card, he asks “Do I smell a Boche?” When he observes “Number 14” in Mr Brown’s gang, he says “If that isn’t a Hun, I’m a Dutchman!” And during his “bluffing” altercation with Boris, after the latter, in pure schoolboy war comic language says “speak, you swine of an Englishman,” Tommy replies “that’s the worst of you foreigners. You can’t keep calm”.

Classic denouement: Fairly protracted and elongated, covering the best part of thirteen pages, and in three distinct phases – the truth about the identity of Jane Finn, the last minute heaping of suspicion onto an innocent person, and finally the revelation of the truth. It’s definitely an exciting read. The diary confessional element to the denouement gives it an additional dimension – it was a device Christie used again in (if I remember rightly) Crooked House.

Happy ending? Very. The blossoming romance of Tommy and Tuppence results in a ham-fisted proposal, and another couple also get engaged. Not only that, but there is much rejoicing in the fact that Mr Brown’s plot has been foiled, as this means there will be continued peace and not war – and you can’t get a much happier ending than that. Oh, and Tommy gets back in touch with his rich uncle who proves himself to be a nice old geezer, who with one wave of his financial magic wand, puts all T&T’s money troubles to rest: “In future I propose to make you an allowance—and you can look upon Chalmers Park as your home.”

Did the story ring true? There’s an enormous amount of coincidence, and T&T survive by the skin of their teeth. The fact that Mr Brown is revealed to be a man of extreme intelligence, overweening self-confidence but with the Achilles’ heel of insisting on writing a diary so that he can enjoy seeing his brilliance in writing, is, I think, highly believable.

Overall satisfaction rating: 7/10. I miss the traditional “murder mystery/whodunit” aspect in this book, and, like its predecessor, I find it a little over-frantic. But there’s much to enjoy and the characterisations of Tommy and Tuppence themselves make it worth reading alone.

The Murder on the LinksThanks for reading this summary of The Secret Adversary, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment – but don’t tell the world who Mr Brown is! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we move from 1922 to 1923, with the second appearance of Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings in The Murder on the Links. I read this when I was a very young man and can’t remember much about it, so I am looking forward to revisiting it. I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, why not read it too? Happy sleuthing!

4 thoughts on “The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Secret Adversary (1922)

  1. Since, in your post about By The Pricking of My Thumbs, we mentioned currency notes– there’s an interesting part here where Tuppence is asked not to wave “Fishers” about– to which she says something to the effect of “this one’s five times better, and this one’s ten times better” if I recall rightly. ‘Fishers’ refer to Treasury Notes. For a century before WW1, the five pound note had been the smallest banknote to be issued in the UK, which was at the time the equivalent of about 37 grams of gold. When WW1 broke out, convertibility was suspended– and ten shilling and pound notes introduced. Until 1928, however, these were issued by the Treasury and not the Bank of England– in keeping with their legal status as a coin. These, therefore were signed by the Secretary of the Treasury, first Bradbury and then Fisher.

    Sorry for this completely pointless segue into British banking history, but Agatha Christie’s novels first made me think about currency notes and the way they looked and felt– and that obsession has carried on into adulthood, making me a collector of these notes.

    • Not pointless at all, that’s a great explanation, and a reference I must have missed when I wrote this blog. Christie’s early works are all round about 100 years old now, so our understanding grasp of the money values in her books are beyond anyone’s memory. Thanks for your contribution!

  2. I didn’t like this book the first time I read it, featuring neither Poirot nor Miss Marple. Nearly 50 years later, I read it again and enjoyed it. I doubt it will feature very high on my final preference list though. Thanks for the contextual explanations.

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