Agatha Christie – and Hercule Poirot – entered the crime fiction world in 1921 with The Mysterious Affair at Styles. A year later, her second novel The Secret Adversary was published, the first of five Tommy and Tuppence Beresford stories. It’s interesting that Christie was showing her versatility so early in her writing career. Instead of building on her great success with a second outing for her Belgian detective, she took a new direction with new sleuths, this time a pair. The two novels are very different.
The Secret Adversary is an adventure yarn. Much more of a light thriller in tone than a detective puzzle, parts of the plot are jolly far-fetched but who cares? I don’t, being happy to suspend disbelief for a good old-fashioned page-turner that’s lots of fun.
This novel reminds me of some Margery Allingham titles – also much-enjoyed – such as Mystery Mile and Sweet Danger. These exciting, light-hearted romps seem out of fashion. Perhaps because they belonged to such a different time, less cynical and a far more rural England. Anyway, they’re still terrific reads and a relaxing escape from our modern age.
Perhaps Agatha Christie had a similar thought at the time, for she dedicates the book:
To all those who lead monotonous lives in the hope that they may experience at second-hand the delights and dangers of adventure.
Kindly meant of course but how times have changed. Can’t imagine any author today endearing themselves by suggesting their readers have dull lives.
When we first meet our lovable duo, Tuppence is still Miss Prudence Cowley, the daughter of a Suffolk archdeacon and Tommy is her childhood friend. They haven’t seen one another since 1916, when Tuppence worked in an officers’ hospital in London and Tommy was sent there from France.
Both recently demobbed, looking for work and dreadfully hard-up, they meet by chance in Piccadilly and decide to join forces. Over a council-of-war in a Lyons’ Corner House, they decide to form The Young Adventurers, Ltd and place an ad offering their services. Tuppence takes the lead in this enterprise, as she tends to do and the advert is never needed. Someone has been listening and adventure finds them shortly after. We’re off on a lively, racing plot with spies, a criminal mastermind and assorted sinister baddies, full of danger, excitement and fun.
This reads like an early novel only in the sense that Agatha Christie captures the feeling of the time very well. It’s a story of bright young things, two resourceful people who are at a loose end. They’ve just been through the War to end all Wars and are left with no satisfying purpose or money. They’re looking for a role in life, preferably not too humdrum. The writing of The Secret Adversary is as assured as any of Christie’s later work with an observant eye for characters, strong atmosphere and a dazzling twist.
Tommy is in the best tradition of a pre-war Englishman, dogged, resourceful, brave, a gentleman and sportsman. Tuppence is the brains of the outfit, quick-witted, impulsive and liable to get herself in hot water. They’re both engaging and very real. Reading this again after decades, I can’t help ‘seeing’ James Warwick, Francesca Annis and Reece Dinsdale who played them so well in the 1985 LWT drama. A year earlier they’d also made the wonderful Partners in Crime, based on their second outing of short stories.
Agatha Christie said that this was the series she most enjoyed writing. If you fancy curling up and escaping into a great adventure with lots of period charm – The Secret Adversary is one of the very best.
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