"Speak, you swine of an Englishman--speak!"
"Don't get so excited, my good fellow," said Tommy calmly. "That's the worst of you foreigners. You can't keep calm."
Tommy took to his heels and ran--none too soon. The front door opened and a hail of bullets followed him. Fortunately none of them hit him.
--The Secret Adversary (1922), Agatha Christie
|the superb jacket of the
British first edition
(available in a modern facsimile edition)
Tommy and Tuppence ultimately would appear in four crime novels (besides The Secret Adversary, N or M?, 1941, By the Pricking of My Thumbs, 1968, and Postern of Fate, 1973) and a book of short stories, Partners in Crime (1929), which collected tales originally published in 1923 and 1924.
Christie's biographers, Janet Morgan and Laura Thompson, do not make clear why Christie chose to follow Styles, a Hercule Poirot detective novel, with the lightweight thriller The Secret Adversary.
Thompson writes that although Christie's publisher, the Bodley Head, wanted her to write another Poirot mystery after Styles and was disappointed with Adversary, the new novel actually sold better than Styles. I suspect the general sales success at the time of the English crime thriller had something to with Christie's decision (I think also that Tommy and Tuppence reminded her more than a bit of Agatha and Archie).
The between-the-wars period was not only the "Golden Age" of the English detective novel, it was also the Golden Age of the classic English thriller, as epitomized by such writers as Edgar Wallace, Sax Rohmer, Valentine Williams, Sapper, Leslie Charteris, Francis Beeding, Sydney Horler, John Ferguson, Laurence Meynell and John Buchan, among others. Indeed, in the 1920s and 1930s readers purchased more copies of crime thrillers than they did detective novels.
Here is a little English thriller chronology up to 1922:
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), John Buchan
The Power House (1916), John Buchan
Greenmantle (1916), John Buchan
Stealthy Terror (1918), John Ferguson
The Man with the Clubfoot (1918), Valentine Williams
The Secret Hand (1918), Valentine Williams
Mr Standfast (1919), John Buchan
Bulldog Drummond (1920), "Sapper" (H. C. McNeile)
The Dark Geraldine (1921), John Ferguson
Huntingtower (1922), John Buchan
The Black Gang (1922), Sapper
The Return of Clubfoot (1922), Valentine Williams
The Secret Adversary, Agatha Christie (1922)
The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922), Freeman Wills Crofts (Christie wasn't the only detective novelist to horn in on the thriller game)
|Agatha and Archie Christie in 1919
Novels by Wallace and Rohmer preceded the onset of the First World War, but one can detect the impetus of the Great War in the works of Buchan, Ferguson, Williams and Sapper (Ferguson's Stealthy Terror, incidentally, was also published by The Bodley Head and is puffed in the recent facsimile edition of The Secret Adversary).
Political and social conservatism characterized the thrillers of Sapper and the others, and today they often are condemned for racism, sexism and xenophobia. For a time these books seemed to have disappeared from public favor, but I notice that novels by Sapper and Sax Rohmer have been reprinted in nice editions that have been well-received in some quarters (John Buchan, the most literary animal of this breed, has always remained in print).
|a public school bruiser
The latter novel, which sold nearly 400,000 copies between 1920 and 1939 and launched a long series of sequels and films, introduces a bored Great War veteran in search of excitement, Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond, who places the following ad in The Times:
Demobilised officer,...finding peace incredibly tedious, would welcome diversion. Legitimate, if possible; but crime, if of a comparatively humorous description, no objection. Excitement essential.
Hugh soon finds his desired excitement, stumbling on a wicked plot to engineer a Bolshevik takeover of Britain.
This plot is very similar indeed to the one Agatha Christie employs in Adversary (and, to be sure, the plots in scores of other Golden Age thrillers). Christie's hero, Tommy Beresford, could in fact be a Sapper character. Although less arrogant and physically intimidating than Sapper's "Bulldog," Tommy comes from the same privileged, public school social background (his uncle has been knighted and has pots of money, though Tommy has been cut off from it) and like Bulldog is a bored Great War veteran.
I think where Christie came up with something new--and something that helps explain the longevity of the popularity of the Tommy and Tuppence series--is in the character of Tuppence. In my experience of English Golden Age crime thrillers by male writers, the clever women characters are villains (or to use the original term, adventuresses). The "good girls" tend to be rather dullish creations, there to provide love interest and occasions for derring-do, as invariably they are kidnapped and must be rescued from horrid fates by the hero.
However, in Christie's Secret Adversary, country vicar's daughter Tuppence Cowley, Tommy's partner in adventure, is a genuine female action hero. "Did you really think I am the kind of girl to roll about on the floor and whine for mercy?" Tuppence triumphantly queries after getting the better of a fiendish female who tried to put an end to her.
|a dangerous woman
Without disparaging Tommy as a fool, Christie repeatedly makes clear that Tuppence is the brains of their particular operation. Here's the mysterious government official Mr. Carter evaluating the respective mental qualities of Tommy and Tuppence:
Outwardly, he's an ordinary clean-limbed, rather block-headed young Englishman. Slow in his mental processes. On the other hand, it's quite impossible to lead him astray through his imagination. He hasn't got any....The little lady's quite different. More intuition and less common sense. They make a pretty pair working together.
I was reading recently about a campaign in the United States to ban the word "bossy" because it is felt that its use in schools inhibits young girls from taking leading roles in public and business life. So let's not call Tuppence bossy, but rather, well, assertive.
Whatever one calls Tuppence, with her Agatha Christie--who so often is accused of being fusty and old-fashioned--helped create the fictional archetype of the "modern" twenties flapper, who smokes, drinks, drives, bobs her hair, shortens her skirts, scorns subtlety and sentiment and speaks her mind at every opportunity. Both her given name, the ironic Prudence, and her nickname, Tuppence (as in "I don't care tuppence"), are inspired.
Within the mystery genre, Tommy and Tuppence (should it not be Tuppence and Tommy, really?), are one of the more significant Golden Age "sleuthing couples"--bright young things who crack wise while they crack cases (a hard-boiled version is Dashiell Hammett's crime-solving couple, Nick and Nora Charles).
To be sure, some people have always loathed Tommy and Tuppence. In A Talent to Deceive (1979), his study of Agatha Christie, the late crime writer Robert Barnard sweepingly terms the pair "everybody's least favorite Christie sleuths," while Christie's most recent biographer, Laura Thompson, deems them "appallingly twee."
In contrast with these esteemed authorities, I like Tommy and Tuppence--much more than I do Bulldog Drummond, by the by--and have always enjoyed their short story collection, Partners in Crime, as well as their second novel outing, N or M? (of their two later entries, By the Pricking of My Thumbs has its points, but Postern of Fate, the last novel Christie wrote, is a disaster, at least in its current form). The couple's ingenuous love of adventure appeals to the romantic in the hearts of many of us, I believe.
|Who is the secret adversary???
Yet I have to admit that I find The Secret Adversary a pretty lame tale. The plot, about an evil criminal mastermind, Mr. Brown (the man behind the Bolsheviks, don't you know), who wants to get his hands on some embarrassing papers in order to induce England's Labour party (well-meaning but rather dim, don't you know) to bring down good--i.e., conservative--government in Britain, reads like a pastiche of other, veteran thriller writers.
By the middle of the novel, it should be obvious to the reader that Mr. Brown has to be one of two people, and I think the experienced Christie reader can figure out which one that is, even though Christie makes a game effort to throw dust in the reader's eyes. A better plotted Christie thriller is, in my opinion, an old grade school favorite of mine, The Seven Dials Mystery (1929)--not to mention the amusing The Man in the Brown Suit (1924).
Plaguing The Secret Adversary, I'm afraid, is the banality of Christie's writing. A "humdrum" mystery can get away with dull writing if there is a good plot, because reader interest is in clue analysis and deduction. A thriller needs color and verve, which Adversary lacks. I will quote again one of the passages from the book already quoted at the top of this piece, because it made me laugh out loud, it is so decidedly unexciting:
Christie's writing is flat and unimaginative throughout Adversary. A dingy house is "filthy beyond words" (beyond words is an unfortunate phrase for a writer to use when attempting to describe something). A cheap hood is "obviously of the very dregs of society."
|two determined women face
the sinister Mr. Brown at the climax
of Agatha's Christie's first thriller
I guess that I guess must have been the greatest single linguistic prop for the British Golden Age genre writer who wanted to portray an American. However, a more convincing American would be less "American," if you get my meaning.
Julius sounds ultra-American even when he manages to avoid saying "I guess" for a few sentences:
"Here I am, son. Your British traffic beats description! Put me wise to the crooks right away."
Julius even carries a gun with him everywhere. He keeps it in his pocket and fondly refers to it, with alarming frequency, as Little Willie.
Of course Americans come off lightly compared to German nationals and those ill-kept Bolshevik types who hail from what I presume the average Englishman of that day saw as the semi-barbaric nether regions of Europe.
"He was fair, with a weak, unpleasant face, and Tommy put him down as being either a Russian or a Pole," Christie notes early in the novel. I'd love to think this is just a non sequitur on the author's part and not deliberately put! But this sort of thing is what you get in most British Golden Age thrillers. Christie knew the rules for a successful between-the-wars British thriller and she wrote accordingly.
Now, goshdarn it, don't get me wrong, guys and gals (hey, I am an American): on the whole I think Christie is underestimated as a pure writer. She wrote some excellent satire (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Seven Dials Mystery, The Murder at the Vicarage) and had an admirable ability to portray character through dialogue (see the wonderful forties Poirot mystery The Hollow, for example).
Unfortunately, I don't believe the Queen of Crime set much of a bar for herself with The Secret Adversary. Over her long career she would write many, many superior books and Tuppence and Tommy would have more engaging adventures. I plan to talk about some of them in the future.