The Agatha Christie Challenge – By the Pricking of my Thumbs (1968)

By the Pricking of my ThumbsIn which we’re reacquainted with amateur detectives Tommy and Tuppence, on the hunt for a missing old lady, Mrs Lancaster, who lived in the same old people’s home as Tommy’s Aunt Ada, and had given her a painting of an attractive old house. But when Aunt Ada dies, and Mrs Lancaster has been removed from her old people’s home, T & T are at a loss as to how to get the picture back to Mrs Lancaster. Cue a search by Tuppence which ends up getting her deep in trouble. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

Tommy and Tuppence“This book is dedicated to the many readers in this and other countries who write to me asking: “What has happened to Tommy and Tuppence? What are they doing now?” My best wishes to you all, and I hope you will enjoy meeting Tommy and Tuppence again, years older, but with spirit unquenched!” That’s one of Christie’s rare dedications that needs absolutely no research. By the Pricking of my Thumbs was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1968, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the same year. Unusually, it doesn’t appear to have been published in magazine format, abridged or otherwise, before the Collins Crime Club edition,  unlike most Christie books.

Macbeth TextThe book begins with an epigraph – one that explains the title of the book. “By the Pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes”. It’s from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and is spoken by the Second Witch in Act IV Scene 1. She says it just as Macbeth is about to come on stage; and there’s no doubt that he’s something wicked.

N or MAnswering Christie’s readers question, “what has happened to Tommy and Tuppence?”, I’m delighted to report that they are in fine fettle; possibly the best we’ve ever seen them, in fact. We last saw them in the frankly abysmal N or M? way back in 1941, prior to that we hadn’t seen them since operating their detective agency in Partners in Crime. In 1941 they were frustrated at not being involved in the war effort. Now it’s 1968, and they’re definitely retired, but Tuppence still has her restless flightiness and keenness to meddle in affairs that really aren’t her own. Tommy is still both solid and stolid, a reliable background figure of good renown, who fortunately has retained his old secret service contacts from the war. And they’re still looked after by Albert, their office boy in Partners in Crime, landlord of the Dog and Duck in N or M?, and now, apparently, live-in servant and chef extraordinaire provided it’s chicken. All three of them are presented in the same bright and breezy way that we remember them.

Find the LadyOne tends to think that Christie’s writing and plotting tailed off towards the end, but following the sensational Endless Night, her follow-up By the Pricking of my Thumbs is still a pretty good read, with some fun characterisations, nice plot twists and a totally unexpected denouement. What starts out as a Find The Lady story, grows in creepiness and suspense into criminal revelations that you had no concept of at the beginning of the book. No spoilers, so I shan’t tell you if Tuppence finds her lady, but you won’t be disappointed – at least, not with the whodunit element.

Red HerringHowever, there’s no question that the book suffers from Christie’s over-use of coincidences, although at least this time they don’t compromise the crime or the detection; nevertheless, they do make a lot of the framework of the book very far-fetched. There is also one big loose end that isn’t tied up; it’s as though Christie lost sight of some of her earlier plotting as she got going with her main theme. Alternatively, you could think of the big loose end as a big red herring. That’s for you to decide! I also felt the energy of the book sagged when Tuppence is in conversation with the locals in Sutton Chancellor; not so much with the Perrys, but when she spends time with Mr and Mrs Copleigh, Tuppence gets overwhelmed by all the characters she’s forced to listen about, and so do we. Fortunately, that whole sequence ends up with an unexpected and intriguing event.

Apart from a few references to known, real London locations, the majority of the book takes place in area based around Market Basing, which had been a focal point in Dumb Witness, Crooked House, and The Secret of Chimneys. Medchester, Shaleborough, and the main village of Sutton Chancellor are all creations of Christie’s imagination. There is a Cleveland Hotel in London, which is where Mrs Johnson is said to have taken Mrs Lancaster, and there is also a George Street not too far away, but the Cleveland Hotel isn’t actually on George Street, as Christie has it.

Other references are few and far between in this book. When Tuppence is looking through Aunt Ada’s jewellery she sees a “pinky stone, it must be a ruby this time and a small diamond in the middle. Oh, of course, it’s regard. Rather nice really. So old-fashioned and sentimental.” I’d never heard of that, but Regard rings were an early form of Victorian or Edwardian engagement ring with a row of six stones that spelled out the word Regard: ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby and diamond.

Peer GyntWhen Dr Murray is telling Tommy about well-known mass murderers  who killed people they cared for, he mentions “the French woman, Jeanne Gebron, who was called The Angel of Mercy”, and “Nurse Warriner who kept a Home for elderly people.” Although they sound very convincing cases, I can’t see any reference to these people apart from in the context of this book – so this is Christie’s feverish imagination at work again. Philip Starke asks Tuppence “did you ever read Peer Gynt, Mrs Beresford?” “Who was she? Herself? The real one, the true one. Who was she – with God’s Sign upon her brow?” This isn’t a quote from Ibsen’s poem/play, but an allusion to it – when Gynt asks others “Peer Gynt? Who was he?”

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. Money is unimportant in this book, and there actually only two sums referred to. Mr Copleigh says he would only pay £5 for a painting – that’s £60 today. Wouldn’t get you much. The other sum is £50 which is the value of old white fivers that were discovered in a secret compartment of a writing desk. That’s the equivalent of £600 today, which isn’t much in terms of a life’s savings. Old white fivers went out of circulation in 1961, so let’s assume they were hidden in 1960 – the equivalent of £50 in 1960 today is £800. That’s still not much.

 

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for By the Pricking of my Thumbs:

 

Publication Details: 1968. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, the first impression, proudly boasting the words first time in paperback, published in 1971, bearing the price on the back cover of 25p. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows an eerie broken doll in the foreground (very relevant) and a lady smelling roses in the background (not quite so relevant).

How many pages until the first death: Strictly speaking, 17 – but that isn’t a death that comes under investigation. Nor is the death announced after 31 pages – although it’s shown to be very relevant later. More relevant deaths are first mentioned after 77 pages; but if you’re waiting for an actual murder that happens in real time in the book, you’ll be disappointed.

Funny lines out of context: In conversation with Dr Murray: ““Death had resulted from an overdose of morphine.” “Good Lord!” Tommy stared and the ejaculation escaped him.”

Memorable characters: For the most part, the characters, although entertaining, are not hugely well drawn or memorable, with two main exceptions. First is Aunt Ada, a bullying hectoring old woman who distrusts Tuppence enormously, and will only talk to her nephew when she’s out of earshot – very believable and amusing. The other is the person responsible for all the crimes, so please allow me to move swiftly on without any further comment!

Christie the Poison expert: Morphine is discovered to be the cause of a death that had otherwise been considered to be due to natural causes.

Class/social issues of the time: None of Christie’s regular issues come to the fore in this book, which is in itself interesting; as it was the first time she’d written about Tommy and Tuppence for over 25 years, it’s as though she wiped the slate clean with her usual bugbears, to see if any other themes emerge. They do, although not extensively, and they can all be grouped under the heading Getting used to Growing old.

Tommy and Tuppence think about Aunt Ada as a problem; the problem caused by her old age, and who is going to look after her. “The days are past when Aunt Elisabeth, Aunt Ada and the rest of them lived on happily in the homes where they had lived for many years previously, looked after by devoted if sometimes somewhat tyrannical old servants […] For the Aunt Adas of today arrangements have to be made suitable, not merely to an elderly lady who, owing to arthritis or other rheumatic difficulties, is liable to fall downstairs if she is left alone in a house, who suffers from chronic bronchitis, or who quarrels with her neighbours and insults the tradespeople.”

Other aspects of modern life prove generally irksome to older people – like the vicar of Sutton Chancellor. He bemoans the fact that the local council don’t mend the local signposts: “People who drive down these lanes aren’t usually trying to get anywhere in particular. People who are keep to the main roads. Dreadful,” he added again. “Especially the new Motorway. At least, I think so. The noise and the speed and the reckless driving. Oh well! Pay no attention to me. I’m a crusty old fellow.”

As well as local road arrangements, the vicar also objects to modernisation within the church – specifically the choice of Bible. Tuppence is looking for an Authorised Version in the church, but the Vicar can’t help her. “We don’t use that version in the church now, I’m sorry to say. One has to fall in with the bishop’s ideas, you know, and the bishop is very keen on modernisation, for young people and all that. A pity, I think.”

Another new modern-fangled invention is star-ratings on tourist accommodation. Today we’re used to seeing star ratings everywhere, but this was a relatively new thing in 1968. Tuppence asks Mrs Bligh for a recommendation for a local hotel: “It’s just a market town, you know. It doesn’t cater at all for the motoring trade. The Blue Dragon is a two-star but really I don’t think these stars mean anything at all sometimes. I think you’d find The Lamb better.”

Overall the sense you get from the social aspects of the book is a rejection of modernisation and a distrust of the complacency in the thought that life today is better because it is easier and more comfortable.

Classic denouement:  Not at all, just one of those occasions when all the truth is revealed in a private conversation between two people. Hugely entertaining and unsettling though!

Happy ending? There’s a sense of relief for Tommy and Tuppence that their lives will go back to normal, but for everyone else there’s no particular improvement in any of their lives as a result of the experiences in this book.

Did the story ring true? Try as you might, you can’t overlook the major coincidences that Christie creates in order to get the story up and running. The fact that Tuppence recognises the house in the painting. The fact that the gallery run by Tommy’s friend Robert is actually mounting an exhibition of the works of the artist Boscowan. The fact that Robert knows Mrs Boscowan and can arrange a meeting between her and Tommy. The fact that Tommy and Tuppence’s daughter Deborah read an article in the newspaper that alerted her to the possibility that her mother might be in trouble. There are probably more!

Overall satisfaction rating: If you were just awarding a score on the basis of how suspenseful and surprising the ending is, you’d have no hesitation giving this book a 10/10. However, I think I have to dock it a couple of points for all the coincidences and untied up loose ends. But 8/10 is fair and a good score!

Halloween PartyThanks for reading my blog of By the Pricking of my Thumbs, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Hallowe’en Party, which I remember enjoying enormously on previous readings. However, all I can remember from those previous reads is that the book features a fatal bobbing-for-apples scene; and if there are apples, there’s bound to be the return of Mrs Oliver as well as our old friend Hercule Poirot. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – N or M? (1941)

N or MIn which we encounter Tommy and Tuppence, frustrated by the fact that no one wants them to help with the war effort, until a trusted contact comes along and offers Tommy a position he can’t resist. Tuppence isn’t to know about it, but of course she finds out and accompanies him. Can they identify the Fifth Columnist working undercover in an English seaside town? Of course they can! As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit – or rather, who the undercover agent is!

Common PrayerThe book bears no dedication, and, according to Christie’s autobiography, she saw it as a kind of sequel to her earlier Tommy and Tuppence novel, The Secret Adversary. N or M? was first published in the US in a condensed version in the March 1941 issue of Redbook magazine, and in the UK an abridged version was serialised in Woman’s Pictorial from April to June 1941, under the title Secret Adventure. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1941, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November the same year. The title is taken from a catechism in the Book of Common Prayer which asks, “What is your Christian name? Answer N. or M.” I’m not sure that the Book of Common Prayer holds the key to this particular case though.

Boring babyI could remember absolutely nothing about this book, and when it came to re-reading it now, I can see why. This is the dullest, most unmemorable book I have encountered on my Agatha Christie Challenge so far. Its plot is thin, and if you’re waiting for a nice juicy murder, you’ll have a long wait. There are several tedious sequences when the reader is subjected to endless reports of the activities and meaningless gurgling of little baby Betty Sprot. True, Betty has a significance to the story as a whole, but Christie dwells on the baby talk for far too long, and I found these scenes thoroughly boring. Interestingly, Christie wrote it at the same time as she was writing The Body in the Library, which would appear the following year. I wonder if she suffered a lack of concentration or commitment as a result? It will be fascinating to re-discover whether The Body in the Library shows any such signs too.

Second World WarThere’s one thing that this book does very well, and that is to suggest to the modern reader what it must have been like to live through the early years of the Second World War; the anxieties, the paranoia, the fears, the restrictions. Christie sets the book in the spring of 1940. Speculation is rife: the current Blitzkrieg is the German’s last effort, Hitler is so deranged the war will be over by August. Characters are thought to be Nazi sympathisers; especially the German refugee who acts so mysteriously. It’s difficult to get from village to village unless you’re a local, because all the signposts have been taken down to make it difficult for German parachutists. Letters arrive in the post bearing a censor’s mark. The people who bought Smuggler’s Rest were all foreigners – they didn’t speak a word of English. “Don’t you agree with me that sounds extremely fishy?” asks Commander Haydock, illustrating the general paranoia of the time.

Bletchley_ParkIn a moment of real-life paranoia, Christie was herself investigated because she named one of the characters in the book Major Bletchley, and it was suspected that she was giving away knowledge of the secret codebreaking work underway at Bletchley Park. Christie always maintained that she chose the name after travelling through Bletchley station on the train; and she died before the nature of the work undertaken at Bletchley Park was revealed to a curious world. Did she have insider knowledge? We’ll never know.

White QueenChristie makes her presence felt in the story on a couple of occasions; when Tuppence first arrives at the guest house “Sans Souci”, and everything seems purely above board and without any suspicion, Christie makes her own observation: “To believe in Sans Souci as a headquarters of the Fifth Column needed the mental equipment of the White Queen in “Alice”.” More annoyingly, there is a scene early on when Tommy and Tuppence, both undercover at the guest house, take time out to compare notes and discuss the characters living there: “”Now,” said Tuppence. “I’ll tell you some of my ideas.” And she proceeded to do so.” But she doesn’t tell us! That’s either deceitful of Christie, withholding observations and information from the reader, or, at best, simply lazy, with her not being bothered. Either way, it irritated me; I didn’t feel that Christie was playing fair with her readers.

KnittingSo how are Tommy and Tuppence getting on? It’s been twelve years since we saw them in Partners in Crime, but somehow since then they have acquired grown-up children and have aged considerably more than twelve years; ah, the magic of fiction. Tommy is too old to be called up, much to his grievance; Tuppence too is only considered good enough to knit for the nation. That’s not how they see themselves. Their erstwhile assistant Albert is still on the scene; he’s now married and runs The Duck and Dog pub in South London.

Be like dad keep mumTommy is still rather plodding and perhaps not the brightest tool in the box, but what he lacks in finesse he makes up for in derring-do. Tuppence is still unpredictable, flighty and playful. When she realises she will have to tell lies in this particular operation, she confesses: “I don’t mind lying in the least. To be quite honest, I get a lot of artistic pleasure out of my lies.” She’s also thoughtful and more understanding than most. Despite the fact that “there’s a war on” she feels sympathy for individuals on the other side. “I hate the Germans myself. “The Germans” I say, and feel waves of loathing. But when I think of individual Germans, mothers sitting anxiously waiting for news of their sons, and boys leaving home to fight, and peasants getting in the harvest, and little shopkeepers and some of the nice kindly German people I know, I feel quite different. I know then that they are just human beings and that we’re all feeling alike.” An unpopular opinion at the time, I’ll wager.

BournemouthThere’s not a lot of interesting material for us to discuss in this book, so let’s move on to having a look at the place names to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of Christie’s imagination. The story is set in the seaside town of Leahampton, which doesn’t exist but I see from other commentators that it is widely meant to represent Bournemouth. Other nearby locations include Leatherbarrow and Yarrow, neither of which exist as towns or villages but are mentioned in road names in the Maghull/Sefton areas of Merseyside, which is curious. Tuppence’s Aunt Gracie lives in Langherne, Cornwall; again, a completely fictitious location.

dismal desmondLet’s have a look at some of the other references in the book. The wartime setting is enhanced by references to Dismal Desmond and Bonzo; Dismal Desmonds were referred to in Parker Pyne Investigates, and Bonzo was the famous cartoon dog. Tuppence gains her kindness towards others from thinking of Nurse Cavell – Edith Cavell, sentenced to death during the First World War for helping 200 Allied soldiers to escape, and whose watchword was “I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”. Meanwhile, Sheila Perenna tells Tommy that her father was a follower of Casement in the First World War – that would be Roger Casement: poet, Irish nationalist and leader of the Easter Rising.

Sisera“So, Tuppence thought, might Joel have looked, waiting to drive the nail through the forehead of sleeping Sisera.” Who? I can do no better than to refer you to our friends at Wikipedia (so it must be true): Sisera was commander of the Canaanite army of King Jabin of Hazor, who is mentioned in Judges 4-5 of the Hebrew Bible. After being defeated by the forces of the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali under the command of Barak and Deborah, Sisera was killed by Jael, who hammered a tent peg into his temple. Nasty.

Nine of diamondsIn that game of Bridge that almost drives Tuppence to distraction, Mrs Cayley lays down the nine of diamonds. “’Tis the Curse of Scotland that you’ve played there!” says Mrs O’Rourke. I’d never heard about the Curse of Scotland as being a nickname for the Nine of Diamonds. Even as far back as 1708, you can find this description in an old book: “Diamonds as the Ornamental Jewels of a Regnal Crown, imply no more in the above-nam’d Proverb than a mark of Royalty, for Scotland’s Kings for many Ages, were observ’d, each Ninth to be a Tyrant, who by Civil Wars, and all the fatal consequences of intestine discord, plunging the Divided Kingdom into strange Disorders, gave occasion, in the course of time, to form the Proverb.” So now you know.

Home GuardMajor Bletchley goes to see the film “The Wandering Minstrel” and Christie is at pains to tell us how he criticises its military inaccuracy. However, the only films bearing that name at that time was a comedy short and this definitely wasn’t the same film that the Major saw. And there are a few mentions of the LDV – nothing to do with vans, this was the Local Defence Volunteers that later became much better known as the Home Guard. “Remember your Dickens? Beware of widders, Sammy”, quotes Major Bletchley to a perplexed Miss Minton. I had no idea to what this referred – it’s a conversation between Pickwick Papers’ Mr Weller Snr and his son (and not a proper quotation!)

BlondelSee if you can spot the word that looks wrong: “They want people who are young and on the spot. Well, as I say, mother got a bit hipped over it all, and so she went off down to Cornwall to stay with Aunt Gracie…” Hipped? It’s actually a really strange word for a young character of the time to say. According to my OED, it means depressed or low-spirited, and is an archaic 18th century colloquialism. (Longfellow: what with his bad habits and his domestic grievances he became completely hipped.) “There is time to weep after the battle” says Mr Grant, encouragingly, to Tuppence. I can’t locate that as being a direct quotation (all these characters are misquoting things, I wonder if that was the characters’ or Christie’s laziness?) but the nearest I can find is good old Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 Verse 4, “a time to weep and a time to laugh”. I’m more sure-footed on the reference to Blondel and Berengaria; Blondel was a troubadour linked to King Richard I, or, perhaps more accurately, his queen Berengaria.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for N or M?:

Publication Details: This takes a little research, as my copy does not bear a date, but is clearly a cheap copy with its poor quality paper and print setting. My only clue is to take the list of books by Christie that has been promotionally listed on the inside front cover, and the book with the latest publishing date in that list is They Do It With Mirrors, which was first published in 1952. Her following book, After the Funeral, was published in 1953 but that’s missing from the list. Therefore, I deduce this is either from 1952 or 1953! Published by the Crime Club as a “White Circle Pocket Novel”, the Art Deco inspired cover shows two demonic figures, one armed with a knife and one with a gun. The cover bears absolutely no resemblance to the content of the book at all! But that’s because Christie’s White Circle Pocket novels always had the same design.

How many pages until the first death: A massive 104. And even then, we see at first hand who shoots who, so there’s no element of detective whodunitry.

Funny lines out of context: Showing the importance of differentiating between an adverbial clause and an unhyphenated noun.

“Tea was the next move and hard on that came the return…”

Memorable characters: Frankly, none of the characters interested me in the slightest, I thought they were all very vacuous.

Christie the Poison expert: No references to poison made either!

Class/social issues of the time:

As mentioned earlier, the strength (if any!) of this book is its commentary on living in wartime Britain, which is interesting to the modern reader who has never lived through such days. Given the fact that it was largely seen as a battle between democracy and fascism, Major Bletchley’s observation about how the army is run is curious: “How are we gong to win the war without discipline? Do you know, sir, some of these fellows come on parade in slacks – so I’ve been told […] it’s all this democracy […] you can overdo anything. In my opinion, they’re overdoing the democracy business. Mixing up the officers and the men, feeding together in restaurants – faugh! – the men don’t like it…”

The other Christie bête-noir, that of sexism, continues to rear its ugly head. At the beginning of the book, Tommy laments that he is of no use to the war effort. Tuppence sympathises, but Tommy adds: “it’s worse for a man. Women can knit, after all – and do up parcels and help at canteens”. Talk about sexual stereotyping! Mind you, Major Bletchley is no better: “Women are all very well in their place, but not before breakfast.”

And here’s a generalisation to consider: “Albert was not given to the exercise of deep reasoning. Like most Englishmen, he felt something strongly, and proceeded to muddle around until he had, somehow or other, cleared up the mess.”

Classic denouement: No, it’s very straggly. In our search of N and M, one of them is identified with still 40 pages (over 20%) of the book still to be read. The two other revelations are more of a surprise, but I think I was so bored by the rest of the book that they didn’t impress me much.

Happy ending? Yes. Tommy and Tuppence resume their continued wedded bliss and there’s no doubt they are a devoted and affectionate old couple. And there are two other characters who will clearly be “getting it together” in the near future.

Did the story ring true? There appears to be one massive coincidence that stretches your credibility beyond a joke; but once you understand the full picture you realise it wasn’t a coincidence at all. And in fact, in many ways, this is one of the most believable Christie books. It’s dull in the same way that real life is dull. So you may well find yourself wishing it was less believable!

Overall satisfaction rating: Despite a few positive aspects, I generally did not enjoy this book at all, and if it had been the first Christie I ever picked up, I doubt I would have ever read another. I’m going to be generous and give it a 3/10.

The Body in the LibraryThanks for reading my blog of N or M? and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is The Body in the Library and the welcome return of Miss Marple in what was at the time only her second full-length case. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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!

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!