Monday, 10 May 2010

The Secret Adversary (1922)

Plot: Can our heroes stop the evil Mr Brown from forming a Labour Government?

Crikey, has ever a book seemed more timely than The Secret Adversary, Christie's second work, which introduces Tommy and Tuppence and is her first mystery-thriller. It's a rip-roaring riot, full of much unintentional humour as our solid duo fight on behalf of the Conservative Party to unmask the sinister Mr Brown and save Great Britain from economic collapse.

Tommy and Tuppence are briliant, and this book is purely, wonderfully "Wodehousian" (an easy phrase for when two bright young things banter joyously throughout). When we first meet Tuppence she's wistfully trying to marry money and is gutted when she discovers her wartime general "keeps a bicycle shop in times of peace". "I'm so very fond of money," she says frequently.

Underneath all the froth, this is a reaction to the horrors of the First World War. Christie was inspired by the number of out-of-work soldiers who knocked at her door, and she composed a book about two such people cast adrift after the war, with a lot of breeding and no money. She rewards them for their charm with lots of nice meals and a stay at the Ritz as well as much excitement, as a contrast to a dull and meagre living as a door-to-door salesmen.

Instead she gives us two lovely people who call each other "old thing" and "old bean" and who have fun, all in a good cause. Their boss, the mysterious Mr Carter may call Tuppence "little lady" but she's a thoroughly emancipated woman, while Tommy reads the Daily Mail and actually applauds the good bits. SIGH. He's not all awful, though. Christie gifts him with a fine line in wit. He greets a grubby villain with "Someone's not been using Pears soap," and bubbles merrily along - in later books he becomes much smarter, but here he's like a lump of wood with manners.

There's a contrast between two American lovers, who are sprightly and open-hearted, and Tommy and Tuppence, who very awkwardly declare their love on the final page ("They sat very straight and forbore to look at each other").

The actual plot is merry enough, and instantly familiar to readers of "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?", only better. Why that isn't a Tommy and Tuppence book is baffling, although perhaps her readers would have cried foul, as so many of the tropes (mental homes and clifftops and photographs and mysterious impostors) reoccur in that book. This is like a template for much later Christie - we even see elements of it spoofed in The Seven Dials mystery.

Sadly, this familiarity breeds an early suspicion. If you've read a lot of Christie recently you'll start twiddling your thumbs fairly early on. How was Marguerite murdered without any of Tommy and Tuppence's band of friends noticing? How does Mr Brown keep discovering their whereabouts when only the four of them know? How, tell us, how? It's a technique that Christie perfects in later books, but here the reader will have spotted a good hundred pages before our heroes do that All Is Not Right in their camp.

But this is a minor flaw - this is really a magnificent early work, breezing along with an almost improvisational joy at the twists and turns of the narrative. It's also refreshingly naive - a lot of elements are just woven in from John Buchan and Sapper without the later filtering and caution that Christie exhibits (Mr Brown is very like the multi-faced villain of 39 Steps). An exception is Tuppence's lovely relationship with Albert, the page boy addicted to pulp crime - and, as we'll see when we hit Partners In Crime, the next time we meet Tommy and Tuppence they've become a smarter vehicle for literary pastische. But hooray old thing.

It may not be

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