Read an Excerpt
In Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary, two bright young Jazz Age things start out looking for adventure and wind up saving England. As Christie’s frothy second novel opens, childhood friends Tommy Beresford and Prudence “Tuppence” Crowley have hit hard times. It’s 1920, and the Great War is blessedly over. But the peace has left staid old England in upheaval and the young veteran and the pretty former nurse flat broke. In the free spirit of the age, the two advertise themselves as “Young Adventurers,” hoping for enjoyable as well as profitable employment. Their first client, a British Army Intelligence officer, promises both when he hires them to find a missing woman, and the charming duo—Christie’s second series detectives—are soon involved in a case of international intrigue, mistaken identities, and, ultimately, romance.
These days, Tommy and Tuppence are less well known than such Christie detectives as Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. But the smart young couple, who went on to age and solve crimes through four more books, were groundbreakers. Nine years before Dorothy L. Sayers matched Lord Peter Wimsey up with Harriet Vane, twelve years before Dashiell Hammett would introduce Nick and Nora Charles, and a good fourteen years before Richard Lockridge ushered in Mr. and Mrs. North, Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence set the standard for detecting couples. In The Secret Adversary, which launched the team, Christie used her own youthful social set as a reference, possibly modeling the smart young detectives on her own first marriage. Today, Christie is remembered as the queen of crime fiction, the author of 184 works of detective fiction and thirteen plays. But in 1922, when The Secret Adversary was published, the former Agatha Miller and her dashing young husband, Lieutenant Archibald Christie, were simply another pair of struggling London newlyweds, living right up to the limit of their means.
The young author wasn’t used to serious economizing. Born on September 15, 1890, to an aristocratic American father, Frederick Alvah Miller, and his English wife, Clarissa “Clara” Boechmer, Agatha Miller was raised as a member of the transatlantic upper class. Educated at home at the family residence, Ashfield, in the English resort town of Torquay, Agatha was the youngest of three Miller children. The early death of their beloved father in 1901 left the family in reduced circumstances, but young Agatha completed her education and developed a lifelong love of travel, attending finishing and music schools in Paris and, in 1910, traveling with her mother, who had been in ill health, to Cairo. Agatha had her “coming out” in Egypt, where the social season was considerably cheaper than its London equivalent, but otherwise her early life was one of relative luxury.
A noted beauty, Agatha was extremely social and entertained more than one proposal of marriage. But the Great War—World War I—changed the lives of young England. The pretty socialite became a Volunteer Aid Detachment nurse and in a small private ceremony married the handsome Lieutenant Archibald Christie. Both these decisions would greatly influence her later career. The former experience gave the budding writer training in poisons, which would remain her favorite means of dispatching victims. The latter would bring great heartache as “Archie” Christie’s affections strayed, and in 1927 the couple divorced. In 1930, the author married a younger archaeologist, Max Mallowen, and the two traveled and worked together throughout the Middle East, with Christie reliably delivering a “Christie for Christmas” for decades. In 1956, the author became a Commander of the British Empire and, in 1967 Mallowen was knighted, making Christie “Lady Agatha.” In 1971, Christie was named a Dame of the British Empire. When “Dame Agatha” died on January 12, 1976, her books had sold more than four hundred million copies worldwide and her play The Mousetrap was having its 9,612th performance in London’s West End, where it remains in production today.
The lighthearted tone of The Secret Adversary prefigures much of Christie’s greatness, as well as her personal tragedies. With the economy in decline and thousands released from wartime duties, England in the early 1920s was facing hard times. In her autobiography, Christie recalls the flood of door-to-door salesmen who popped up after the war. Although she admired the pluck and courage of these salesmen, largely young veterans desperate to support themselves, and saw in them the qualities that would make a good hero for her novels, she also recognized just how tough many were finding postwar life.
To some degree, Christie too would soon feel the pinch. Archie had been both lucky and smart, and even before he had left the Flying Corps had landed a job that supported the young couple in a flat in London. But Christie’s mother, Clara, had found her income reduced as investments fell through, and the family considered the possibility of selling Ashfield. Christie adored her childhood home, but sending money to her mother didn’t seem feasible; in her autobiography Christie notes, “we needed every penny we had to live on.”1 But then Archie suggested she write another book. “It might make a lot of money,”2 she recalls him saying. Although Christie had already started this second novel, the family’s financial straits prompted her to finish and deliver it to John Lane, who had published her first mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and who had requested the rights to Christie’s next five novels, a clause the novice author had blithely signed. Archie’s predictions weren’t exactly right, but Christie did get fifty pounds for the serialization rights to The Secret Adversary, twice what she had received for The Mysterious Affair at Styles. She also earned favorable reviews and even some royalties—and Ashfield was saved.
The story that served to ease the family’s budget was also very much of the times. England in the 1920s was in political turmoil. The stratified society Christie had been raised in had been utterly disrupted by the war. Classes that had mingled in the trenches were now reluctant to resume their former roles, and the repercussions of the Russian Revolution were galvanizing workers and labor parties throughout the world. Such vast changes were doubtless frightening to anyone who had any investment in the old regime. In The Secret Adversary, which critic and Christie aficionado Robert Barnard calls “good reactionary fun”3, they serve as the spur to action.
Recognizing that the setup was very different from that of her first classic whodunit, Christie called The Secret Adversary “a spy book, a thriller, not a detective story,”4 since it involved an international conspiracy rather than the simple solving of a crime. It would be the first of several such thrillers she would write in the tumultuous 1920s, including 1924’s The Man in the Brown Suit. To root this first thriller in the real world, Christie used the drama of the recent past. In her prologue to The Secret Adversary, Christie revisits the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, and in her vivid re-imagining of the scene a British Intelligence officer passes along sensitive documents to a self-possessed young woman on the grounds that she will merit a place on the lifeboats—and thus survive to pass along vital information. When that young woman, Jane Finn, remains missing five years later, Tommy and Tuppence have their first case.
But that intelligence officer isn’t the only one seeking Jane. Soon a wealthy American shows up, claiming Jane as a long-lost cousin, and an inspector from Scotland Yard is also on her trail. While tracking down other survivors of the Lusitania, Tommy overhears a plot involving a general strike that could lead to a British revolution. This fictional threat, which presaged the actual General Strike of 1926, sets Tommy and Tuppence off on solo quests that put both at great personal risk. Along the way, they follow false trails and find out how easily identity—and even nationality—can be disguised. A fake case of amnesia, and a brave young woman’s years-long masquerade, help bring the case to a satisfactory conclusion, clearing the way for Tommy and Tuppence to turn their attentions on each other.
These particular plot twists would be remembered by many people several years later. On the evening of December 3, 1926, Christie—like Jane Finn—went missing. Archie had asked for a divorce, explaining that he had fallen in love with another woman, Nancy Neele. Faced with the collapse of her marriage, Christie had driven off, and her car was later found by the side of the road. The car’s lights were on, and Christie’s fur coat and overnight bag were still in the car, which was near a lake. Fearing foul play, her family started a search, and by then Christie was such a celebrity that the press jumped on it as well. The lake was dredged, and bloodhounds called in to no avail. For eleven days, Christie was missing. During this same period, one “Mrs. Teresa Neele of Capetown” had checked herself into an elegant Harrogate spa. Although “Mrs. Neele” kept to herself, explaining that she was a bereaved mother from South Africa, a chambermaid noticed her resemblance to the pictures of the noted author that were running in all the papers. Finally, a reporter confronted the supposed mourner, and Christie was unmasked. At the time, she claimed amnesia, saying she could remember nothing of the past eleven days. But the press, perhaps looking to continue the story with a bit of scandal, noted the similarity between Christie’s tale and the plot of her second book. Although the author long denied that the disappearance had been anything but an accident, it certainly did serve to frighten her family—and drag the hated name of “Neele” into the public spotlight. Christie herself never strayed from her original story and, in fact, does not mention the incident in her autobiography. Years after Christie’s death, the daughter of Christie’s sister-in-law and friend Nan Watts revealed that the escapade had indeed been planned—plotted out by the mistress of mysteries for maximum impact. However, the full truth remains one of the author’s most lasting mysteries.
Still, such scandal and sadness were far in the future when The Secret Adversary was written, and despite the global implications of its international plot, this lovely book never gets heavy.
Indeed, critics have likened its offhand and slangy style more to P. G. Wodehouse than to Arthur Conan Doyle, and its lighthearted tone tiptoes on the line between social satire and honest fun. “Tommy, old thing,” says Tuppence in her first line, greeting her friend. “Tuppence, old bean!” he replies, setting the tone for this Jazz Age couple. Indeed, while some of the slang might sound dated, in the relationship between Tommy and Tuppence we see a surprisingly contemporary match, and it should come as no surprise that Christie herself was quite fond of them. Tuppence is no flapper, though there is a reference to “short skirts and smoking.” She is, however, determined to be independent and self-supporting, and Tommy understands. From the start, the impoverished friends tacitly accept that they are to be equals when they agree to pay for their own tea (“and mind the tea comes in separate teapots,” Tuppence warns the server), and that partnership continues throughout the series. Although their later adventures bow a bit more to social conventions—Tuppence masquerades as Tommy’s secretary in 1929’s Partners in Crime, a collection of stories that makes up the second book in the series—here they discard gender roles as outdated in the new and modern England. Contemporary readers may be surprised by how blithely, in this fresh first outing, the two face danger as a team. Tommy may trail a Russian spy, but it is Tuppence who wrestles a gun from a suspect and places herself in danger when she believes that Tommy has been taken captive. Although a light flirtation runs throughout the book, Tommy and Tuppence relate first and foremost as colleagues. Her quick wit sparks his more stolid take, and his steady demeanor balances her more impetuous actions, but neither takes the lead. When they do agree, ultimately, to marry, it is on their own terms.
“Marriage is called all sorts of things,” says Tuppence, “a haven, and a refuge, and a crowning glory, and a state of bondage, and lots more. But do you know what I think it is?”
“And a damned good sport, too,” says Tommy, concluding their first adventure, and launching one of Christie’s more endearing teams into the world.
Clea Simon is the author of three nonfiction books and the Theda Krakow mysteries. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and may be reached through her website at http://www.CleaSimon.com.
1. Agatha Christie, Agatha Christie: An Autobiography (New York, NY: Berkley, 1991), p. 265.
2. Ibid, p. 266.
3. Robert Barnard, A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie. (New York, NY: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1980), p. 204.
4. Christie, p. 267.