IT was 2 p.m. on the afternoon of May 7, 1915. The Lusitania had been struck by two torpedoes in succession and was sinking rapidly, while the boats were being launched with all possible speed.
This is still one of the most intriguing Agatha Christie opening lines I have read (another can be found in Murder on the Orient Express, but I’ll get to that in a different post).
The Secret Adversary is the first adventure of Miss Prudence Cowley and Lieutenant Thomas Beresford, a.k.a. Tommy and Tuppence.
Tommy and Tuppence have known each other since childhood but lost touch over the years with the exception that they met again in 1916, when Tommy was injured in the war and Tuppence worked as an auxiliary nurse. The story sets in as they meet again for the first time since 1916, now in London in 1920. Both are best described as Bright Young Things of their time, both are broke, and both are looking for way to make some money.
I absolutely love the start of this story, the setting and the dialogue between Tommy and Tuppence. It’s fresh, it’s witty, it’s believable.
Christie shines through in every aspect of Tuppence, and, based on descriptions of her own circumstances in Christie’s autobiography, I have a hunch that Tommy was somewhat inspired by Christie’s then husband Archie.
When thinking about bright young things, I usually first think of Waugh’s Vile Bodies. However, what is striking about The Secret Adversary is that it was published in 1922 – a whole 8 years before Vile Bodies!
This is only Christie’s 2nd(!) published novel, and yet we get such fun dialogue as this:
“Rot!” said Tommy hastily. “Well, that’s my position. I’m just about desperate.”
“So am I! I’ve hung out as long as I could. I’ve touted round. I’ve answered advertisements. I’ve tried every mortal blessed thing. I’ve screwed and saved and pinched! But it’s no good. I shall have to go home!”
“Don’t you want to?”
“Of course I don’t want to! What’s the good of being sentimental? Father’s a dear–I’m awfully fond of him–but you’ve no idea how I worry him! He has that delightful early Victorian view that short skirts and smoking are immoral. You can imagine what a thorn in the flesh I am to him! He just heaved a sigh of relief when the war took me off. You see, there are seven of us at home. It’s awful! All housework and mothers’ meetings! I have always been the changeling. I don’t want to go back, but–oh, Tommy, what else is there to do?”
Tommy shook his head sadly. There was a silence, and then Tuppence burst out: “Money, money, money! I think about money morning, noon and night! I dare say it’s mercenary of me, but there it is!”
“Same here,” agreed Tommy with feeling.
While I love Tummy and Tuppence, the plot of the story doesn’t quite work for me. It’s Christie’s first attempt at international espionage, and, if you ask me, she should have left it at that. After the two friends discuss an idea to go into business together, the plot snowballs out of control fuelled by the most unlikely of coincidences, and at some point I got confused again (and this was my third re-read!) about who is who and who is bluffing whom.
Mystery-wise, this is not the greatest of stories. However, I’d recommend it just for the sheer fun of getting to know Christie in her early years, before the necessity to make money from writing leads her to develop that famous formula that runs through most of her best known creations.