The Secret Adversary

THE BOOK   PAN, 1968 pp 221  

The photographic cover is a simple depiction of the hiding-place of a “vital secret document”. The book is in great condition for a second-hand 50 year-old paperback. The older PAN cover is a strange one, because it shows the thing that never happened – Jane Finn handing over the incriminating document.

There is a somewhat patronising dedication: “To all those who lead monotonous lives in the hope that they may experience at second hand the delights and dangers of adventure“.

THE STORY  

The book opens with the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. On the basis of “women-and-children-first”, a man hands a highly-secret and sensitive document to Jane Finn, a young woman who is more likely than him to survive and deliver it into safe keeping. Years later, WW1 now over, she still has not managed to do that, claiming to have lost her memory.

With widespread unrest and revolution in Europe following the ‘end’ of hostilities, these papers now present a major threat to the British powers-that-be. Two young people recently demobbed from active and nursing service, Tommy Beresford and Lady Prudence (Tuppence) Cowley, find themselves involved, through a series of coincidences, in the search for Jane Finn. 

CHARACTERS AND ATTITUDES 

Tommy and Tuppence are not Agatha Christie’s finest creations, but at least she had the sense to start them young; unlike Poirot and Marple, they are able to age normally, which is just as well because she was still writing about them 50 years later.

Sir James Peel Egerton K.C. was the first of the benign villains from the upper strata of society to feature in her books, soon to be followed by another in The Man in the Brown Suit (1924). Albert the page-boy, the mysterious Mr Carter, the multi-millionaire Julius P Hersheimmer (who promises to bankroll a re-creation of the sinking of the Lusitania to jog Jane’s memory), the villainous Rita Vandemeyer and her coterie of Borises are all pretty much cardboard cut-out figures.

One oddity: Inspector Japp, doyen of the Poirot stories, is mentioned as wanting to interview Julius, though he does not appear in person.

The Labour Party in the 1920s is represented as a group of dupes, putty in the hands of an unscrupulous villain, and as such a threat to world order. This theme reappears in other stories from this period, and seems almost laughable today, but would not have done so then: after the end of WW1, quite apart from the civil war and consolidation of revolution in Russia, there were left-wing uprisings in Germany, Hungary and Italy.1 

Agatha Christie’s seeming 1920s obsession with national characteristics and life-long interest in genetics are given free rein in this story:

He was fair, with a weak, unpleasant face and Tommy put him down as being a Russian or a Pole. He was probably about fifty years of age, his shoulders cringed a little as he talked, and his eyes, small and crafty, shifted unceasingly.

If that isn’t a Hun, I’m a Dutchman!” said Tommy to himself. “And running the show darned systematically, too – as they always do.”

In many of her books, Agatha Christie seems to express disapproval of the UK criminal justice system. Here is Julius P Hersheimer on the American equivalent:

“You will hang if you shoot me,” muttered the Russian irresolutely.
“No, stranger, that’s where you’re wrong. You forget the dollars. A big crowd of solicitors will get busy, and they’ll get some high-brow doctors on the job, and the end of it all will be that they’ll say my brain was unhinged. I shall spend a few months in a quiet sanatorium, my mental health will improve, doctors will declare me sane again, and all will end happily for little Julius.” 

Christie returned to the subject of justice in the US in Murder on the Orient Express, when describing how Cassetti evaded it for the murder of Daisy Armstrong.     

SWIGATHA RATING  5/10

The whole book is a bit silly and childish in many ways, and Christie had not certainly established her style by 1922, but I must admit to having quite enjoyed re-reading it. There are enough twists and mis-directions to keep many an 11-year-old today happy.

WHERE IT LED

This book marked the first appearance of Tommy and Tuppence, who later marry and set up their own detective agency with Albert as their receptionist. The Beresfords next appear in 1929 (Partners in Crime).

This book also set the template for Swigatha’s other ‘world-domination’ thrillers, which she continued to write until hitting rock-bottom with Passenger to Frankfurt nearly fifty years later, in 1970. 

ADAPTATIONS 

The first adaptation was a silent German film from the mid-1920s called Die Abenteuer GmbH. This  translates as ‘Adventurers Ltd’ and echoes the ‘Young Adventurers’ that Tommy and Tuppence style themselves in the book.2 It is interesting that Agatha Christie’s work had spread so quickly into mainland Europe: it makes one wonder how the Weimar Republic readers might have reacted to Tommy’s quote about the Hun! 

Since then, there have been two British TV adaptations. One, from the 1980s, starred Francesca Annis and James Warwick and was reasonably true to the spirit of the original. The other, from 2014, is pretty dreadful; it appears to have been the brainchild of David Wallians (who played Tommy and was executive producer).  It is not always clever to allow the lead actor in a series to have executive producer status (cf the later episodes of Poirot and Endeavour).

NOTES

1 Historical Note: The Labour Party won the UK General Election for the first time two years later, in 1924.

2 Agatha Christie on Screen, by Mark Aldridge