Tuesday, March 11, 2014

"It Will Mean the End of Britain as We Know It! Call in the Amateurs!" The Secret Adversary (1922), by Agatha Christie

"It's--it's so lovely to think of things--and then for them to really happen!" cried Tuppence enthusiastically.

"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)
Coming off the triumph of her first published detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), Agatha Christie followed with a thriller, The Secret Adversary (1922), in which she introduced two new crime fighters, the irrepressible Thomas Beresford and Prudence ("Tuppence") Cowley.

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, SapperLeslie Charteris, Francis BeedingSydney HorlerJohn 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
In addition to these, between 1905 (with The Four Just Men) and 1922, Edgar Wallace published some two dozen thrillers, culminating in the best one by him I have read, The Crimson Circle; and between 1913 and 1922, Sax Rohmer contributed some dozen himself, including three about his most famous creation, the nefarious "Oriental" criminal mastermind, Dr. Fu-Manchu.

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
So when Agatha Christie decided to write The Secret Adversary, she certainly was not doing so in a vacuum. Indeed, the plot of Adversary resembles that of Sapper's hugely popular Bulldog Drummond.

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:

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.

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
And then there is the stereotypical American millionaire, Julius P. Hershheimmer (in books like this there is always a middle initial to the American millionaire's handle and an uneuphonic, multisyllabic surname), who uses the phrase "I guess" thirty-three times, by my count, in the novel.

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.


  1. I don't even remember if I read this book or not, no memory of the story whatsoever, but if I did it was in the period when I discovered Christie and the plot obviously didn't leave much of an impression. It was a period in which I wanted every detective to be an actual detective story. Good review though. Makes me want to revisit Christie.

    1. I share the same bias for the detective story, but even trying to stick to the thriller standard, I think this is subpar stuff. If Adversary hadn't introduced Tuppence along with Tommy, there just wouldn't be anything memorable about it, in my view. I think she stepped up her game in with The Man in the Brown Suit and The Seven Dials Mystery (not a fan of The Secret of Chimneys or The Big Four, though it's been a while since I read the latter).

  2. There were also two veterans still churning out thrillers and espionage novels -- E Phillips Oppenheim and William LeQueux. Oppenheim had two and LeQueux had five (possibly six) published in 1922.

    This was one of the first Christie books I read after MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (my intro to Christie). Coincidentally, I managed to find almost all her atypical thrillers first and got them out of the way. I remember liking this one and THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS and THE SEVEN DIALS MYSTERY which is very Wallace-like. It helped that I serendipitously chose adult books that were very much like the Three Investigators series (which I had been devouring at that time) to help me transition from juvenile literature to adult mysteries. But if I re-read any of Christie’s early thrillers now, nearly forty years later, I think (or should I say I guess?) I'd see the weaknesses that you point out above. Still, I bet she had a ball writing them. I can easily see her laughing a lot while coming up with some of the more outrageous escapades and silly dialogue.

    1. I really do think, by the way, that Tommy and Tuppence must have been partly autobiographical. Maybe that's why she never wrote about T&T again for some fifteen years, between 1925 and 1940. Maybe it was too painful after her divorce and the disappearance hubbub (even though Partners in Crime was originally published in 1929, the stories in it were published in 1923 and 1924, so had been written much earlier, around the time, I believe, of the early Poirot stories).

  3. I read The Seven Dials Mystery in grade school originally but have read it twice since and enjoyed it both times. The Secret of Chimneys, on the other hand, I thought was pretty awful! Seven Dials is much more like one of her detective novels in its construction, despite having the criminal gang element (it resembles Why Didn't They Ask Evans? in some ways).

    I agree about Oppenheim and LeQueux, though they go back such a long way, like Doyle. Rohmer and Wallace preceded the Golden Age, but blossomed so much within it. Rohmer actually wrote more of the Fu-Manchu books in the 1930s, I believe, than any other decade and Wallace became one of the great fiction factories.

    Todd Downing was a great fan of Oppenheim, who actually wrote through the whole period. He was also a great fan of Wallace and Rohmer, even though he was a political liberal and anti-imperialist, which just goes to show you can't pigeonhole readers of these books ideologically, whatever you think of the books!

    He loved Christie too, for that matter (in fact he favorably reviewed a reprinted edition of The Secret Adversary, though he liked her detective novels much more).

    I don't have as much experience with Oppenheim and, especially, LeQueux, but my impression is that their stuff was rather more mundane compared to the typical Golden Age thriller. May be wrong though! J. S. Fletcher wrote a number of thrillers in the Edwardian era as well, before hitting it big as a detective novels (primarily) in the Golden Age.

    1. A lot of LeQueux's thrillers involve politics during wartime that might appeal to a historian like you, Curt. His prose can be laborious though. Oppenheim does a bit of Union Jack flag waving and pro-England speechifying in many of his books (THE GREAT SECRET, THE DEVIL'S PAW come to mind) but he also wrote potboiler thrillers like THE TREASURE HOUSE OF MARTIN HEWS that I really enjoyed. He tends to be remembered for his adventure thrillers set in Monte Carlo populated with decadent rich people. He wrote all types of crime novels and even a few that qualify as detective novels.

    2. Yes, I always see "Oppy" associated with Monte Carlo. I know he wrote some more detection-oriented stuff too, but it's always hard with him to figure out what is what, he wrote so much. As I recollect Leory Panek wrote about them and wasn't too favorable, but then he didn't like the Humdrums either, so bah!

  4. Thank you for collecting all those beautiful examples of cover art! It was a real treat to see them all.
    I can't say that I have a specific insight into Agatha Christie's character, but when I consider these early changes in style -- Tommy and Tuppence, her early thrillers like THE BIG FOUR and BROWN SUIT, Bundle Brent, Harley Quin -- I'd think she was trying to learn what the market wanted and how to meet its needs, before finding out and settling in to write books that would sell (puzzle mysteries, Poirot and Marple).
    I can't say I ever cared much for Tommy and Tuppence until I saw the BBC adaptations with Francesca Annis. Before, I'd found them a bit precious ... although that might have something to do with having read them first at an age when I didn't really understand what they were parodying and the social context in which they were rooted. But once I saw them overlaid with a gorgeous reconstruction of the clothing and accessories of the period, I realized that they were light on detection and quite a bit about style. Well, I like their style! I don't think I'll mind the new 50s adaptations.
    I was thinking that a bunch of Patricia Wentworth's early books (pre 1937) were quite a bit like this. Gorgeous young flappers with clean-limbed boyfriends who ran up against a society blackmailer, or a smuggler, or a drug ring. If you want something like Tommy and Tuppence, you could do worse.

    1. Noah, that's a great point about Wentworth. Didn't she write her first mystery around 1924? It's interesting that the Miss Silvers have stayed in print always, but that the early Wentworth thrillers, whcih predominated in her Golden Age writing, often are hard to find and first editions command tremendous prices. As you suggest, one would think people who like Tommy and Tuppence would like those Wentworth thrillers (Todd Downing did).

      Wentworth probably was the great English woman Golden Age thriller writer, unless I am missing someone.

    2. I agree the 1920s were a time of experimentation for Christie. It's kind of amazing to me that it took her a decade or more to really settle on Poirot and pure detection, when she was so obviously meant to do just that!

      I know some people find Tommy and Tuppence arch and twee, etc., but in the right mood I enjoy them!. I like them better than Bulldog Drummond, who tends to remind of bullies from high school, lol.

  5. Great post! (I've always loved that original British first edition cover.) I've read all of Christie's books at one time or another. I also do tend to reread Christie a lot. Including this and other Tommy and Tuppence books. Not so much the later ones when they've grown older although I can't think why.
    At any rate, I kind of look forward to the television series, just to see what they come up with.

    THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT and THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS, by the way, are two of my very favorite Christie books - I reread them most of all, I think. (Besides THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD) Sure it's not super great writing, but quite good enough for what I'm looking for when I head back to Christie. She had a way of making all the events in her early books seem like so much fun. Not to mention her way of easing you into the time like no other writer since.

    I'm currently reading GREENMANTLE by Buchan and will probably launch in MR. STANDFAST afterwards. I guess I'm in the mood for that 'in between the wars' time of secret societies and such. I'm going to check out some of the other titles on your list.

    Would you consider THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY by Chesterton, a book belonging to this fraternity? Also THE SECRET VANGUARD by Michael Innes which I reread recently and highly recommend as well.

    1. I have always liked the semi-sequel to Chimneys, The Seven Dials Mystery, better. I wish Christie had continued the adventures of Bundle! I like Man in the Brown Suit too.

      Glad you liked the thriller discussion. There were so many out there back then. The Chesterton is another good early example, along with Riddle of the Sands. I'm not actually that crazy about 39 Steps, but there's no question to me that is was of signal importance in launching the Golden Age thriller.

      I'll be looking at Christie's Destination Unknown next week. I'm finding it interesting because she really is in Eric Ambler territory with this one.

  6. I must admit that I remember liking the main characters but not really many of their books when I read Christie in my youth )or most of ther spy thrillers in fact) - perversely, BY THE PRICKING OF MY THUMBS one of the few detective stories of its type that deals with old age still stikes me as a late masterpiece full of fascinating subtext. I am shortly going to be re-reading POSTERN, having been goaded into it to see if my memory of its badness is accurate - when you say in 'its present form' Curt, do you mean there is alternative text somewhere? And thanks so much for all the fascinating detail about publishing of the era - invaluable!

    1. I read a review of Postern of Fate by Kevin Killian where he was talking about how there is much more book in Postern of Fate (via the dictations that Christie made) than actually made it into the final version. He thinks it was very poorly edited and it might be able to come up with a better version. An intriguing idea. I think there's no question that her books from At Bertram's Hotel on could have been better edited (with the possible exception of Endless Night and maybe Nemesis).

      Thanks for the feedback, I wanted to get across some of the context of Christie's early thrillers. Her biographers don't really do this (only one of them mentions Edgar Wallace, for example, and she does this only in connection with Wallace's theorizing about Christie''s 1926 disappearance!).