The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
Author: Agatha Christie
Series: this is the first mystery featuring Tommy and Tuppence
Publisher: I listened to an audiobook produced by Tantor Media
Publication Year: 1922
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In her autobiography, Agatha Christie bemoans the problems she let herself in for by making Hercule Poirot, her first and most famous detective, a gentleman of retirement age. She soon wished she’d made him a young fellow just beginning his profession so she and he could have grown up together. As things stood, she had to fluff M. Poirot’s age in most of her later books, as he ought to have been well over a hundred by the time she penned her final Poirot tale.
I wonder if she had realized this yet when she sat down to write her second novel, THE SECRET ADVERSARY. The protagonists, Tommy and Tuppence, are in their early twenties. They’re childhood friends who’ve been left jobless in the wake of the Great War and are now in a wretched state indeed. Tuppence lives in a hostel and Tommy... Tommy might...
No. I can’t even type it. It’s too terrible.
But I suppose you have to know, so you’ve got some sense of what’s at stake.
If Tommy doesn’t come into some money soon, he may have to give up his club.
So, basically, Tommy and Tuppence are rich kids who’re accustomed to a certain standard of living. They need money, and they need it fast.
What do you do when the creditors are a-knockin' and club-expulsion is imminent? Start a mercenary organization with your childhood chum, of course.
Not that either Tommy or Tuppence thinks of themselves as a mercenary. They’re young adventurers,, thank you very much--except they’ll do pretty well anything for money, and that’s a mercenary mindset if ever there was one. They plan to advertise their services in the local paper, opening themselves up to a life (and, perhaps, a book series) of strange jobs. But before Tuppence can place the ad, she’s approached by a mysterious man who overheard her and Tommy discussing the scheme. His proposal throws them straight into the deep end of a plot to topple the British government, with exciting consequences for all involved.
Dame Agatha is best known for her detective stories, but she was big on crime fiction of all sorts. I must admit, I’m iffy on most of her spy thrillers, but I do love this one. And that, my dears, is all down to Tuppence.
Her name may be listed after Tommy’s in the series title, but that’s merely because "Tommy and Tuppence" generates a better syllabic rhythm than "Tuppence and Tommy." Tuppence is the true star of these books. She’s plucky and courageous and wonderfully imaginative, with a practical streak that keeps her focused. Some of her practicality resides outside herself, in the person of Tommy, who makes up for his lack of imagination with a large measure of common sense. His (mostly) grounded approach to any given problem ensures that the young adventurers stay largely on track and manage to sort through their findings with sense as well as flare.
But Tuppence, you guys. Tuppence. She comes from a good (read: fairly wealthy) family, but she’s not snobbish about it. She’s gotta work, so by gum, she’ll work. She flits equally well between the Ritz, where she and Tommy take up residence once their employer offers to pay their expenses, and the maid’s job she accepts when she goes undercover. Tuppence professes a great love for the good life, but she understands that sometimes you’ve gotta shunt all that aside and get down to business. I love her for it.
The mystery, too, is almost as good as Tuppence. Let’s talk about it in relations to the rest of Dame Agatha’s lengthy bibliography.
THE SECRET ADVERSARY relies heavily on discoveries and chance encounters, not all of which are as random as they seem. It gives the two leads (or the lead and her boy-toy, if you prefer to look at it that way) ample opportunity to use their skills, plus a handful of chances to stretch themselves. It’s a romp, pure and simple; a mad dash from one clue to the next, with a few twists along the way and plenty of low-key political manoeuvres. Dame Agatha ensures her protagonists are always in a satisfying amount of danger, not least because of the mechanism by which she reveals the villain’s identity. She clearly had a wonderful time structuring this person’s chain of motivation in relation to the rest of the story--such a good time that she uses a similar pattern in many of her other novels. It crops up over and over and over.
Which, my friends, is one of the things you’ve got to keep in mind when you read Dame Agatha. She changes her outward trappings, but many of her plots repeat in her ninety-odd novels. She’s not one to waste a compelling set of story bones. Oh no; not her.
I almost feel as though I shouldn’t have told you that lest I ruin things for the uniniated among you, but let’s face it: if you read at least ten or twelve of her novels, you’ll notice it for yourself. Hell, Dame Agatha herself was well aware of it. Every once in a while, she tweaks what seems to be an established plot so’s to throw the perceptive reader off the scent. Her bibliography’s formulaic bend often becomes as much a trap for the fan as for the author.
And hey, if you read the stories in order, you won’t have to worry about any of that with THE SECRET ADVERSARY (though I suspect you’ll guess the culprit, as I did). This is a wonderful early work, and I most definitely recommend it to you.
4 stars – loved it
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