The Agatha Christie Challenge – Partners in Crime (1929)

Partners in CrimeIn which we meet again Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, now six years into their happy ever after marriage – him relaxed, her bored – until their old friend Mr Carter installs them in Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives Detective Agency, where they solve a number of varied crimes whilst keeping a watch out for anything to do with the number 16… Feel free to read this blog even if you haven’t read the book – I shan’t give any of the games away! This is a slightly odd book, as it purports to be a series of separate short stories, but they follow on chronologically to make one novel, just with individual tales told episodically. I’ve split the stories up individually to look at – but in fact, you could just as easily take the whole book as one amorphous blob.

SixteenAs in the earlier collection of short stories, Poirot Investigates, there’s very little time for niceties as our gallant heroes get on with solving sixteen crimes with effortless ease. The stories had all been originally published between 1923 and 1928, principally in The Sketch magazine, which is where the Poirot Investigates stories also first saw the light of day. The twist – if you can call it that – with this selection is that Tommy and Tuppence solve each of the cases in the style of popular fictional detectives of the day – a kind of art recreating art/pop will eat itself situation. I can imagine that, at the time, it would have added to the fun of the book to note the parallels between Christie’s stories and the fictional detectives to whom she pays tribute. 87 years later, however, when very few people know these other detectives, the in-jokes and the references are largely lost and today the structure is sadly a bit of a bore. As I said earler, I’m going to take them one by one and look at each one separately, pointing out any of Christie’s usual themes and idiosyncrasies – and don’t worry, I won’t reveal the intricacies of whodunit!

A Fairy in the Flat/A Pot of Tea

fairyThe first two chapters of the book serve as an introduction and the first case for Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives. This is a very gentle, lightweight introduction indeed, as Tuppence can solve the case of where is the missing Jeanette without getting up from her desk. There’s not a lot for me to comment on really; Albert, their young lad friend who ended up being their assistant in The Secret Adversary, is still on the scene, doing his best to be of service. In this introduction he is said to be recreating the style of a Long Island butler – and I wasn’t quite sure what the reference was. I don’t think it’s anything more than the fact that Long Island was (is?) rather prosperous and posh and that everything would have been done with style and elegance. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby was written around the same time.

The eponymous fairy refers to the scandal at the time about the Cottingley fairies, which so interested Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – that’s why Tuppence suggests writing to him.

When I wrote my blog about The Secret Adversary, I tried to ascertain if Christie gave us any clues as to the ages of our two heroes. T&T were described as having “united ages” which “would certainly not have totalled forty-five”. That book was written in 1922; and although Partners in Crime wasn’t published in book form until 1929, this short story was first published (with the title Publicity) in The Sketch on 24th September 1924. So when Tommy describes his staff (Tuppence and Albert) as neither of them being over 25 years old, he’s being consistent!

It’s clear that the vast majority of cases that a private detective would have been asked to undertake would be to gain evidence in divorce cases. Tommy and Tuppence make much of the fact that that would be boring. They obviously disapprove, not only because it’s unadventurous work, but also because they find it distasteful. Tuppence comes across as surprisingly ill-tempered when she talks of divorce as the growing “divorce evil”. I expect she is referring to The Matrimonial Causes Act 1923, which put men and women on an equal footing for the first time, enabling either spouse to petition the court for a divorce on the basis of their spouse’s adultery. For a successful case, you had to prove the deed, hence the popularity of the private detective.

Apparently the basis for this first story is Malcolm Sage, Detective, by Herbert Jenkins; a jolly, but essentially flimsy, start to the book.

The Affair of the Pink Pearl

Pink PearlsThe next story concerns the apparent theft of a pink pearl from a well-to-do American lady at a house party. There are plenty of enjoyable red herrings and some wonderfully Christie-esque suspects including a socialist (gasp) and a kleptomaniac member of the aristocracy (double gasp). But of course, not everything is as it seems.

It’s in this story, first published in the Sketch on 1st October 1924, that Tommy and Tuppence start to echo the detective fiction heroes in earnest. Tommy decides he will be Dr Thorndyke, the creation of British detective writer R Austin Freeman. We can consider him an early forensic science detective – a Quincy for the 1920s – and he always had his lab technician, Nathaniel Polton, in tow. I would say that the character is rather out of favour at the moment. However, in an almost “note to self”, Christie calls on Tommy to encourage Tuppence to use her little grey cells – of course Poirot’s catchphrase – and you can just imagine her rather self-conscious delight at doing so.

There are a few references to check out: the scene of the crime is The Laurels, Edgeworth Road, Wimbledon. There is an Edgeworth Road, but it’s nearer to the Oval cricket ground as opposed to Wimbledon. Lady Laura Barton is said to be the daughter of the late Earl of Carrowway – again this appears to be genealogy of pure Christie imagination. Tommy bluffs his way past Colonel Kingston Bruce with a reference to the case of Rex v Bailey, which the Colonel swallows hook, line and sinker. But is this a famous case? Doubtless there will have been Rex v Bailey cases but I don’t think Tommy was that knowledgeable about them.

There are also a couple of delightful lines and a very interesting example of linguistic semantic change: “I must explain […] that the pendant consisted of two small diamond wings and a big pink pearl depending from them.” What a charming old use of “depending” – that must have been pretty archaic even then. The Colonel doesn’t hold back from his description of Mr Rennie: “A most pestilential fellow – an arrant socialist. Good looking, of course, and with a certain specious power of argument, but a man, I don’t mind telling you, whom I wouldn’t trust a yard. A dangerous sort of fellow.” And there’s the lovely overheard quote: “you know perfectly well, Mother […] that she did bring home a teaspoon in her muff.” I sincerely hope the muff in question was a small cylindrical fur cover in which one rests one’s hands for warmth.

An amusing, interesting and nicely written case, with a surprise and sudden ending.

The Adventure of the Sinister Stranger

Russian letterAfter the smartness of the previous story, this is a rather bumbling, uninteresting and obvious story of espionage. It’s the first appearance of one of the blue Russian letters that Carter had told them to expect, which provides much of the purpose and motive for the story. It was first published in the Strand Magazine on 22nd October 1924, showing a deviation in the order of stories from their original magazine publication to their appearance in Partners in Crime. The two stories that follow in the book originally preceded Sinister Stranger in the magazine.

The detective writer to which this story pays homage is Valentine Williams, creator of the young British Officer Desmond Okewood; his book The Man with the Clubfoot is clearly on Tuppence’s mind after Dr Bower has left them. “”Well, Tuppence, old girl, what do you think of it?” “I’ll tell you in one word,” said Tuppence. “Clubfoot!” “What?” “I said Clubfoot! My study of the classics has not been in vain. Tommy, this thing’s a plant. Obscure alkaloids indeed – I never heard a weaker story.””

Just a couple of references to check out: Dr. Bower’s practice is at The Larches, Hangman’s Lane, Hampstead Heath. Hangman’s Lanes are quite common in the UK, but none in Hampstead I’m afraid. This address is contradicted and the new suggestion is 16 Westerham Road, Finsbury Park. Again no luck tracing that, but there is a Westerham Road in Walthamstow.

You don’t often get references to vitriol nowadays. Vitriol today is when someone spouts a lot of angry stuff because things haven’t gone their way. Christie’s vitriol was the real deal – Sulphuric Acid. Yes good old H₂SO₄ was heading Tommy’s way if he didn’t think quick. (He did.)

There’s a little of the contemporary anti-Germanic feel; Dr Bower is revealed as Dr Bauer – the same slip of the typewriter appears in The Seven Dials Mystery – and one of the baddies in the story cries out “Gott! What cowards are these English”. Not very subtle really.

A very bland little tale. Suffice to say, that as I read it, I solved it before Tommy did.

Finessing the King/The Gentleman Dressed in Newspaper

RedherringAn enjoyable little story but not one that really makes you sit up and take notice. Tuppence is bored and wants to go dancing and has seen an advertisement in the newspaper that will justify their appearance at the Three Arts Ball. It then becomes one of those stories where everyone is masked and in fancy dress, so that it’s hard to work out who killed who, and why. Nevertheless, our magnificent duo, with an eye to Isabel Ostrander’s detective Tommy McCarty and his sidekick, Denis Riordan, a fireman, work it out. That’s why Tuppence humiliates Tommy into wearing a fireman’s outfit for the ball.

Not much to discuss here. The cover illustration of my copy of the book (Fontana, 3rd impression, 1971) by Tom Adams depicts the Queen of Hearts with a dagger through her heart, thus representing this story in a manner that gives it more excitement and style than perhaps it merits! The Three Arts Ball certainly existed as an annual event, held more often than not at a swanky London venue.

From a language point of view, we get a rare chance to see in full the “red herring” allusion that we all know and love. “”Aren’t you clever?” said Tuppence. “Especially at drawing red herrings across the track.”” The original idea was that by drawing red herrings across the track you create a false scent to be followed. I’d never come across the full allusion before.

Having agreed in the opening part of the book that neither Tommy nor Tuppence can still be over 25, Tuppence accuses Tommy of being 32 in this book. Whether that was a Christie error, an annoyed suggestion by Tuppence that he’s acting like an old man, or whether he really is 32, I guess we’ll never know.

The Case of the Missing Lady

CarfaxThis little story sees Tommy pretending to be Sherlock Holmes, including excruciating playing on the violin and preposterous guesswork about their client’s background – which all turns out to be true. Soon our heroes are trying to hunt for his inamorata, the missing Lady Hermione. And I shall say no more about the plot because there isn’t really anything else I can say that wouldn’t give the game away. Suffice to say, again it’s mere confection in comparison with some other Christie short stories.

The story has echoes of Conan Doyle’s Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, but reading it won’t really prepare you for this story. It does, however, have one classic line: “Fat women and fat dogs are an abomination unto the Lord – and unfortunately they so often go together.” For other references: The Honourable Hermione is said to be the daughter of Lord Lanchester – who doesn’t seem to exist anywhere else other than in a 2012 Mills and Boon romance by Linda Sole. Lady Susan Clonway lives in Pont Street, which does exist – a fashionable address near Harrods. And there is the town of Maldon. Two of them apparently; one in Surrey, and one in Sussex. The one in Surrey is really Malden; the one is Sussex doesn’t exist. However, there is one in Essex to which she doesn’t refer.

Blindman’s Buff

blind_mans_bluffAnd so it goes on; another short story where Tommy is playing at being a fictional detective, this time the Blind Problemist Thornley Colton, the invention of writer Clinton H Stagg who died in 1916 aged just 27. Much of the early part of the story is taken up with Tommy’s learning how to “play blind” which today comes over as being rather unpleasant trivialising of a serious disability. The story doesn’t stand successfully by itself, you would have to have read the entire volume so far to appreciate the references and motivations of the characters – and actually, I found this story immensely tedious, ridiculously fanciful and borderline sick (in the old fashioned sense).

Just a couple of references – a character declares himself to be the Duke of Blairgowrie, a picturesque market town in Perthshire; but of course in real life there is no such dukedom. Tommy and the Duke get into “a smart landaulette”. I’ve never heard of that term before. Of course we all know and love the Royal State Landaus used for pomp and ceremony occasions – so one can guess what a landaulette is. In fact, it’s more like a convertible limousine of the era. Very smart!

Not a story to dwell on, in my humble opinion.

The Man in the Mist

MistFinally, a much more substantial short story, with a proper build up, a proper crime and a lovely piece of light dawning as Tommy tries to solve it. This story is told in the style of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories – at least, Tommy is dressed like Father Brown for most of the time, and so adopted the good Father for this story.

This gave rise to some anti-Catholic rhetoric from Mrs Honeycott: “To begin with, you’ll excuse me if I say I don’t hold with the Roman Catholic religion. Never did I think to see a Roman Catholic priest in my house. But if Gilda’s gone over to the Scarlet Woman, it’s only what’s to be expected in a life like hers…” The rather stern Mrs H also diatribes against divorce – “Divorce is sinful” she avows, much like Tuppence’s distaste for the subject in the early pages of the book. She also equates theatre with wickedness, so she’s a pretty outdated old stick.

Other interesting observations of the times come from the fact that it’s obviously a good old pea-souper that obscures Morgan’s Avenue in the quaint village of Adlington – we don’t get those anymore. We also don’t get prejudice against people writing “pacifist poems”, even if it does make the hairs on Tuppence’s militaristic back stand on end. It’s also a world where use of the words “Hell” and “Damn” are seen as worthy of apologising to strangers for. How times change.

Adlington Hall really exists! The village of Adlington is near Macclesfield, Cheshire and was certainly in existence at the time Christie wrote the book. However, it’s hardly a short hop back to London, which is what the book implies. It doesn’t boast a Morgan’s Avenue, although there is a Morgan Avenue not too far away in Warrington.

A much more entertaining and rewarding tale than the majority of others so far.

The Crackler

Million DollarsThis story, in the style of Edgar Wallace, isn’t bad, although it’s not exactly riveting either. Our tempestuous twosome are on the hunt for the source of counterfeit currency, and, as usual, Tommy gets lured into a trap but is saved by the bell.

It’s named The Crackler because that’s the name Tommy makes up to describe someone who makes nice fresh, crackly, counterfeit notes. He’s 100% sure the word will end up in the dictionary as a result of his brave sleuthing. He’s wrong – it hasn’t. Tuppence is still confused by “busies” and “noses”. Busies is still certainly a slang term for the police; never actually heard anyone use the word “noses” in this context though – but my OED confirms it’s a late 18th century term for a spy or an informer. Ryder refers to cash as “oof”, which I’d certainly never heard before – and that’s a 19th century word derived from two Yiddish words meaning “cash on the table” – i.e. gambling money.

“Marguerite Laidlaw […] was a charming creature, with the slenderness of a wood nymph and the face of Greuze picture.” Who? That would be Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725 – 1805), a French painter of portraits, genre scenes, and history painting. Pardon my ignorance.

One of those silly, out-of-context lines that only Christie can write, that sounded perfectly ok back in the day but now takes on a new meaning: “Major Laidlaw is pretty well known […] Men in the know look queer when he’s mentioned.”

The Sunningdale Mystery

SunningdaleAmong the better tales in this book. Tommy takes on the mantle of Baroness Orczy’s Old Man in the Corner, with Tuppence as journalist Polly Burton. I’ve only read one “Old Man in the Corner” story, and Polly didn’t appear in it, so I can’t vouch for Christie’s veracity. This is a tale of a man found stabbed with a hatpin (if ever there was a classic Christie weapon, there’s one) on the links at Sunningdale Golf Club.

It’s unusual for Christie to set a story so firmly in a real location. Sunningdale is, of course, a proper golf club and a pretty swish one to boot. The Christies were actually living in the village at the time, and Archie was a member of the club, so it’s written with a certain insider knowledge. There’s even reference to a footpath that leaves the course and comes out on the road to Windlesham. I reckon you could pinpoint that location with dead accuracy.

Other interesting references to note are that the story takes place in an ABC shop. What’s one of those, I hear you ask? They were a chain of tea shops, first launched in the 1860s, and that died out in the 1950s. The ABC of the title referred to the Aerated Bread Company. Catchy! I’m no golfer, and I didn’t recognise the verb to foozle, as in “not only did he foozle his drive badly…” The OED tells me it was a late 19th century term to make a bad job of something (especially in golf). It’s also rather sweet to think that there was a time when you could get cheap tickets to London on a Wednesday, just because it was a Wednesday. Such innocent times.

Tommy and Tuppence manage to solve the crime without having to get up from their tea and buns.

The House of Lurking Death

ChocolateAnd here comes another pretty good whodunit short story, with a decent crime, a decent motive and a decent (albeit rapid) denouement. Here Tommy envisages himself as A E W Mason’s detective Inspector Hanaud, considered by many to be an influence on Christie in the creation of Hercule Poirot – although apart from them both being francophones, I’m not yet convinced of too much similarity. Tommy’s last words to Tuppence at the end of this story are a direct quote from Mason’s first Hanaud novel, At the Villa Rose. I have to say those first few pages, where Tommy is practising his French style, make pretty cringily embarrassing reading. In a complete aside, Hanaud’s offsider, Ricardo, was played by Austin Trevor in Mr Trevor’s film debut in 1930; and he also went on to be the first ever Poirot on screen – in Alibi, a 1931 film based on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I met Mr Trevor when I was 8 years old, as I collected autographs at the stage door of the Lyric Theatre in London, where he was appearing in the play Oh Clarence! I remember him being a charming old gentleman.

Poison in chocolates, how delicious. If you’ve read any of my other Christie blogs, you’ll know that I look for evidence of “Christie the Poisons Expert” in every book, because, deep down, she loves it. This story has plenty of poison. There’s (allegedly) arsenic in the chocolates that made everyone sick at Thurnly House before Lois Hargreaves comes to call on T&T. Later there is a suggestion of ptomaine poisoning in the figs – I’d never heard of ptomaine, and that’s because it’s now recognised not as a poison per se but as part of the general field of food poisoning. However, the real culprit in this story is ricin, the product of the castor oil plant, much favoured by the old KGB. Let’s not go there.

Thurnly. Does it exist? No. An invention of Christie’s. However, I did enjoy the little diatribe against those damn lefties again, ascribing the sending out of poisoned chocolates as “socialist agitation”. I suppose the most in-depth references in this story are those Hell and Brimstone quotations from the Bible that Hannah the maid keeps quoting. The first one is from Psalm 140, verse 10, but Hannah misquotes it slightly; the others are variously from the Psalms and the Gospel of St John.

The Unbreakable Alibi

Clarges StreetBlunt’s Detectives are challenged to prove which of two contradictory alibis is false – how can one person be in London but also in Torquay at the same time? This is a jauntily written, entertaining little tale, but terribly easy to guess the solution that Tommy and Tuppence seem to take ages discovering. And of course, the reader is right, so the mini-denouement becomes a bit of a damp squib.

Tommy takes the guise of Inspector French from the novels of Freeman Wills Crofts, of whom I know nothing, so I can’t tell if it’s well done or not! Apparently French was good at sorting out alibis, hence Tommy’s choice. There is some nice talk of astral travel which is a concept I haven’t come across for decades – I convinced myself that I had done it one night when I was a child. I probably didn’t.

Other than that there are a few references to check out – the Bon Temps Restaurant in London (there isn’t one at the moment, at any rate) ; The Duke’s Theatre (there’s the Duke of York’s but that’s all) ; The Castle Hotel in Torquay (there’s a Castle pub, but I doubt it’s the same) ; and Clarges Street London – that certainly exists, but I don’t think there’s a Number 180.

Montague Jones refers to his mother as “The Mater”, just as John Cavendish does in The Mysterious Affair at Styles and our own Tommy does in The Secret Adversary. All peas from the same pod, I think.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect about this story is that it was written four years after the others, in 1928.

The Clergyman’s Daughter/The Red House

Red HouseAnd this story was the first to be written, published in the Strand magazine in December 1923, only a short while after the publication of The Secret Adversary. In it, Tommy decides to take on the mantle of detective Roger Sheringham from the novels of Anthony Berkeley. Again, I’ve not read his works, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the homage.

The story is a relatively lightweight affair about a house that is up for sale, and the reason why people are desperate to buy it is because of buried treasure. The grand total of treasure is £25,200, which in 1923 was the equivalent of a majestic £10.6m. The Clergyman’s daughter who will take ownership of the tidy sum will be doing relatively well.

The story has a cryptogram to solve, which Tommy and Tuppence manage through a combination of hard work and good luck, about as opaque as those old clues on Ted Rogers’ 3-2-1 in the 1980s.

The town of Stourton in the Marsh doesn’t exist, of course, but it certainly makes you think of Moreton in the Marsh.

Apart from that, nothing much more to say about this story. It’s about now that I started to get really bored with this book. If you’re still with me, gentle reader, well done you, I’m not sure how you’re hanging on.

The Ambassador’s Boots

bootsThe penultimate tale in the book is a rather unsatisfactory account of two kit bags being swapped and Tommy allowing himself to be lured (yet again) into the hands of danger, where he will be rescued by Tuppence and the Police. These stories get more and more fanciful as the book progresses. It seems to me that there are loose ends in this story that aren’t properly tied up; it’s as though the story finishes too early.

Tommy here is emulating H. C. Bailey’s sleuth Reggie Fortune, someone else who appears to have gone permanently out of fashion. Perhaps more interesting is the allusion to a Sherlock Holmes story where it was pertinent how far the parsley had sunk into the butter. That’s The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, published in 1904.

In what would today be seen to be a rather unpleasant racial sideswipe, Tommy refers to the Spanish looking chap that bursts into the office as a dago. Remembering that this story was originally written in 1924, that precedes by one year the word’s more thorough usage in The Secret of Chimneys. I’ll watch to see if Christie continues to use it in further books.

The bag swap took place on board the SS Nomadic. You can still visit her at Belfast’s dockyards. You won’t, however, find Cyclamen Ltd at Bond Street.

The Man who was Number 16

behind_sofaAnd finally, we come to the last story that wraps up the book – and not a moment too soon, in my opinion! Christie comes full circle in this story by cocking a snoop at her own The Big Four and the dearly beloved Hercule Poirot. Christie must have revised her original short story somewhat to include the Big Four reference as the short story appeared in the Sketch in December 1924 (it was actually the last story she wrote for The Sketch) and The Big Four was published in 1927. Interesting that she chooses to refer a book that she herself considered to be well below standard.

For the most part this is an exciting end to the book, with some nice touches of “classic” espionage – Tommy has to say “I myself was in Berlin on the 13th of last month” to prove that he’s on the same side as the special agent – and there’s a suspenseful race against time as Tommy and Carter try to rescue Tuppence from the clutches of the Russian Spy. It’s all very camp and cloak and dagger; at one point, Carter reassures Tommy that Tuppence will be alright in the hotel room with the spy: “one of my men’s inside – behind the sofa”. Albert encourages Tommy to engage his little grey cells in a Poirot-like structured and neat examination of the facts in order to solve the case. Which of course he does.

And there is a happy ending – predictably nauseous though it may be!

The only thing that remains is for me to give this an overall satisfaction rating of 6/10. It started well, but I got bored. Still, it’s a clever concept and if you’re a big Tommy and Tuppence fan, you’ll positively wallow in the bright young things’ way of living life and being daring. Contemporary T&T fans would have to wait another twelve years before Christie brought them back, in N or M?

The Mysterious Mr QuinSo there we are at the end of this rather exhaustive look back at what originally looked deceptively straightforward! Thanks for sticking with me, if you did. The next book stays with the short story format and it’s our first meeting with the enigmatic Harley Quin in The Mysterious Mr Quin. If you’d like to read it too, I’ll blog about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

Leave a Reply