I knew nothing about this book when I started it, other than it was Agatha Christies’ second novel, published in 1922 when Agath Christie was in her early thirties. It was a delightful surprise to find that Agatha Christie had written a thriller that wasn’t about solving a crime. And what a rollicking good read it was, a true ripping yarn that thought big and moved fast. Good grief, could you have a more dramatic start than being in the Lusitania on the day it’s torpedoed? How Hollywood is that?
‘The Secret Adversary’ took ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’, pushed all the stuffy stuff to one side and replaced the omnicompetent male hero with a young couple, Tommy and Tuppence, who are clearly winging it and where the young woman is the one with the drive and flair.
Tuppence and Tommy are irrepressible. Tommy is a sort of Hastings but with a better brain and a willingness to use his fists on the bad guys. Tuppence is.. well… Tuppence and all the better for it. These two have none of Marple’s acidic insights into human nature or Poirot’s strutting use of a ‘method’. They’re two good middle-class kids who have known each other forever, have a had a war full of challenges that have given them confidence in their own abilities and then they’ve been kicked out into civilian life with no money and no prospects. In many ways, they are the exemplars of their generation.
They are commiserating with each other’s poverty in a Lyons when Tuppence comes up with the idea that the two of them should form ‘A Young Adventurer’s Club’ and get paid for doing exciting things.
This sounded more like something out of H. Rider Haggard than a business plan. She is certain that what they lack in funds and experience and contacts they can make up for with energy and enthusiasm.
Fortunately, fate intervenes, Tuppence’s proposal has been overheard and soon the two of them are in the middle of some murky goings-on related to Russian spies, secret documents, a missing woman and a criminal mastermind intent on bringing down the government.
I loved the lightness of tone of the book, including Agatha Christie’s willingness to pile on co-incidence after co-incidence and just smile through it.
The dialogue between Tuppence and Tommy is wonderful. At one point Tuppenence upbraids Tommy by saying
‘You’re more conceited than I am but with less excuse.’
What a great line.
Then there are the period touches that make me smile, like hearing Tuppence’s dress being described as short and then understanding that this meant that it displayed her ankles.
The politics is nonsense but I didn’t mind that as it was just a pattern on the wrapping paper for the McGuffin that kept the plot moving.
I also liked that Tuppence and Tommy weren’t joined at the hip. They spent most of the novel apart with each of them putting themselves in harm’s way and relying on a mixture of courage, quick thinking and pure luck to see them through as they make their chaotic way towards the true identity of the notorious but anonymous criminal mastermind, Mr Brown.
Towards the end, Agatha Christie kicked the plotting up a gear. The action was rapid, the stakes were high and I found myself playing ‘Will the real Mr Brown please stand up’ right to the end.
I’m glad to see that there are more Tommy and Tuppence novels. I will definitely be reading them.