THE BOOK Fontana, 1971 pp 189
The Fontana book has a remarkably dreary cover that its back proclaims (correctly!) is by Tom Adams. He says that the ‘awfully jolly pranks of the amateur sleuths Tommy and Tuppence’ are ‘lightweight stuff’, so he gave it a ‘lightweight cover to match’. 1
His cover bears remarkable similarities to an earlier PAN cover. Both focus on the same story (‘Finessing the King / The Gentleman Dressed in Newspaper’) – unsurprisingly, because it is one of the few that have much of a plot.
Seven years on from their adventures recounted in The Secret Adversary, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford find themselves bored and desperate for something to happen. Out of the blue, they receive a visit from Mr Carter, a somewhat nebulous character whose outfit has just bought up a detective agency. Mr Carter wonders whether Tommy and Tuppence would like to run it, and at the same time perhaps uncover a secret world conspiracy of the kind that infected swigathas in the 1920s.
They agree to do so on condition that they can imitate the antics of other fictional detectives of the time during their investigations.
Most of the characters are somewhat stereotypical; perhaps that is not surprising given that some of the stories are very short. Tommy and Tuppence’s determination to play investigation in the manner of different detectives each time becomes a very tedious element of the book, especially for the 99% of readers who have never heard of most of them. They run through Thorndyke, Francis and Desmond Okewood, M’Carty, Thornley Colton, Father Brown, The Old Man in the Corner, Hanaud, Roger Sheringham and Dr Fortune before ending up as Poirot and Hastings.
Agatha Christie was always interested in genetic engineering:
‘Tuppence,’ said Tommy, ‘you take my breath away. The whole thing is the most immoral business I ever heard of. You aid and abet this young man to marry out of his class – ‘
‘Stuff,’ said Tuppence. Janet is a splendid girl – and the queer thing is that she really adores that weak-kneed young man. You can see with half a glance what his family needs. Some good red blood in it …’
She also enjoyed pricking the pomposity of the English:
‘You know what Americans are about titles, Mr Blunt.’
‘And others beside Americans sometimes, Colonel Kingston-Bruce.’
‘Alas, only too true, sir, Nothing I hate more than a snob…’
It comes out time and again in her stories that Agatha Christie did not seem to have much time for senior officers, retired or not:
‘Francis Haviland, who always was and always will be one of the most perfect asses God ever made!’
‘You forget I used to drive him about during the war, when he was a General. Ah! those were the good old days.’
‘They were,’ agreed Tommy.
It is interesting that both Tommy (who was injured on the Western Front) and Tuppence (who nursed there) find themselves pining for what by all accounts was hell on earth. It was a view shared by many others after they had finally returned to Blighty in 1919-20.2
Here, Tommy pretends to be able to recognise racial characteristics even when blindfolded. Tuppence confirms it, thereby confirming that she too can discern someone’s origins just by looking at them.
‘The man two tables from us is a very wealthy profiteer, I fancy,’ said Tommy carelessly. ‘Jew, isn’t he?’
‘Pretty good,’ said Tuppence appreciatively.
Finally, Agatha Christie lets slip what she thinks of one of her own creations:
‘I’ve a feeling,’ said Tuppence, ‘that this particular adventure will be called The Triumph of Hastings.‘
‘Never,’ said Tommy. ‘It isn’t done. Once the idiot friend, always the idiot friend.’
SWIGATHA RATING 4/10
There are some good ideas and twists in these stories (The Ambassadors’s Boots, The Man in the Mist), but it seems a shame to waste them on such poor material. The Unbreakable Alibi features the most obviously breakable alibi one could hope for (very unusual for a swigatha).
The characters of Tommy and Tuppence are very popular with many of Christie’s readers, but not this one.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
At the end, Tuppence announces that she is having a baby. That story was published in December 1924. When we next encounter the Beresfords, in the spring of 1940 in N or M, the baby proves to be a rather remarkable pair of twins: at the age of (at most) 15, the boy Derek is an RAF veteran and the girl Deborah is working hush hush.
The stories were adapted for ITV in the UK, featuring Francesca Annis and James Warwick as the detective duo. It is a slow-paced, light-hearted series that does its best with the light-weight material.
1 Tom Adams, Agatha Christie Cover Story
2 Watch Peter Jackson’s documentary film They Shall Not Grow Old for myriad examples of this sentiment.