Tag Archives: 1920s Fiction

Agatha Christie’s ‘The Secret Adversary’

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.

Click on the link below for editions:

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John Buchan’s “The Three Hostages”

In previous blogs I’ve looked at two earlier Richard Hannay novels by John Buchan. But “The Three Hostages” is very different from “The Thirty-Nine Steps” and “Mr Standfast”. It is more contained than the Hannay spy novels set during the Great War. Here the conspiracy is a criminal plot. And there is one prime villain, a member of the British Establishment. A gentleman about town, a member of Parliament, no less, a popular character on the London scene.

Today we tend to view politicians with considerable suspicion, supposing, fairly or unfairly, that most of them are lining their own pockets at our expense. Only in it for what they can get. Reading “The Three Hostages” you have to remember that Buchan lived and wrote during a more reverential age, when politicians were viewed as genuine public servants – there, even if you disagreed with their political stance, to contribute to what was perceived as the greater good. The idea of making such a man a sinister villain might have been a tad more shocking for the readers of 1924 than it is now.

This is very much a novel about the breakdown of society and order after the chaos of a world war. Quite topical when you think of the rise of Mussolini and Hitler in the reality of the 1920s.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying right here and now that the villain of the piece is one Dominick Medina. Buchan makes this obvious from almost the start of the novel.

The basic premise is simple. In order to safeguard his criminal conspiracy, Medina has kidnapped three hostages with Establishment connections. Before Scotland Yard can close the net on the criminals Richard Hannay has to find and rescue them all.

As with all good thrillers, there is a tight deadline and Hannay only has a piece of doggerel verse to work from as a clue.

Hannay, snatched from the peace and quiet of life as a country gentleman, is also put at a considerable disadvantage by falling victim to the sinister hypnotic powers of Medina himself. The scenes where Hannay becomes – or so Medina believes – his stooge are some of the most powerful that Buchan ever wrote. Buchan himself once expressed the great fear of what it must be like to find your mind being taken over, the horror of losing self-control. It might all sound far-fetched, but remember how characters like Hitler manipulated an entire nation, in a similar bout of near mass-hypnosis.

Unlike the earlier novels, “The Three Hostages” is rooted very firmly in London, though there are episodes in the Cotswolds, Norway and Scotland. In an early Buchan novel “The Power House”, which is rather unfairly neglected these days, we saw how cleverly Buchan portrayed the dangers of London, the sinister quarters of the city which lurk just below respectability.

Here we have a similar portrayal of menace. Buchan is as good at evoking shadier areas of Fitzrovia and Gospel Oak as he is the wild landscapes of the Highlands. There is a sense of claustrophobia in this novel – a feeling that the outdoorsman Hannay is also having to fight his surroundings as much as the chief villain.

Buchan also poses an interesting dramatic situation for his hero. How can Hannay have the freedom to search for the hostages and investigate Medina when he is at the beck and call of Medina for most of the time.

The author uses other familiar characters from the earlier novels to give Hannay moral and practical support. We have here the hero of “Greenmantle” Sandy Arbuthnot (now Lord Clanroyden), Hannay’s wife Mary, the airman Archie Roylance. Buchan reprieves the character of the German Herr Gaudian, from “Greenmantle”, an ally now in Hannay’s quest, rather than an enemy. A sympathetic German in English fiction in 1924 shows Buchan’s horror at what had just happened in the trenches. It was not a very fashionable viewpoint in a Europe where vengeance was the greater motivation.

As matters are revealed there is a dramatic conclusion in the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps the finest duel in thrillerdom. A chase and gunfight on a bleak mountainside.

Now as it happens I’ve just written a similar battle myself, where two men fight it out in the Scottish mountains, in my own thriller “Balmoral Kill”.

And I found it incredibly hard to do. I stand in awe of John Buchan who raised the bar so high that any attempt to do anything similar is daunting to say the least.

The only other writer I know who comes anywhere close is Geoffrey Household in his thriller “The Watcher in the Shadows” (see blogs passim), though his location is a meadow in the Cotswolds.

Buchan was so good at these sort of scenes because of his vast experience of mountain climbing in the Highlands, the long days out in all weathers. Buchan may not have had to fight personal tournaments in such places, but he knew the locations backwards. And it shows. I climb mountains myself and I’ve undertaken long walks in Scotland and elsewhere. I can vouch for Buchan’s veracity. No writer of Scottish fiction gets the spirit of place quite so right as John Buchan.

And it’s interesting that, despite Hannay being in this wider landscape rather than the disturbing back-rooms of Medina’s London, the sense of menace – of danger creeping ever near – never goes away. Buchan makes a mountain range seem almost as ominously claustrophobic as the shadowed streets of inner London.

And as Hannay is attacked mentally as well as physically we find ourselves previewing many of the thriller plots that came along later in the twentieth-century. Where the mind and spirit are subdued every bit as much as the body. Where the survival of the individual’s moral conscience is often very much in doubt.

“The Three Hostages” is probably the best constructed of all the Hannay novels – and I don’t mean that disparagingly, for the Hannay novels in total are a hallmark of excellence in the world of thriller writing.

But here Buchan had obviously considered the plot and the issues within for a long time before he took up his pen. He produced, in my view, not only a classic thriller but one of the finest novels of the 1920s. A state of the nation piece, which makes Buchan’s homeland, coming as it was away from the traumas of the Great War, a very uncomfortable place indeed.

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