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Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., 1924

October 11, 2012

BOOK REVIEW

Agatha Christie and The Secret Adversary (1922)

It’s Agatha Christie Week at Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase. Hop over and read other reviews, analyses and perspectives on the Queen of Crime and her immortal mysteries.

“I found myself making up stories and acting the different parts. There's nothing like boredom to make you write,” Dame Agatha Christie said in an interview on BBC Radio in 1955. “So by the time I was 16 or 17, I'd written quite a number of short stories and one long, dreary novel. By the time I was 21, I had finished the first book of mine ever to be published, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.


The writer
An Agatha Christie Week is an imposing challenge. Can you say anything new about a writer who has probably been written about more than most writers of her period and whose books have plausibly been reviewed more than those of her contemporaries? While I visit fifty-odd blogs through the course of the week, not to mention dozens of literary websites, rare is the blog or site that hasn't glorified the Dame and her Detectives in some way or the other. Her presence, both online and offline, is overwhelming in a pleasant kind of way. 

The Queen of Crime, arguably, the most famous mystery writer of the last century, has penned nearly seventy novels out of which I have, happily, read less than half. Yet, there is little that I don’t know about Christie’s work or her life in the public domain. She was a very private woman and rarely ever gave interviews. I expected to read at least one in The Paris Review, no luck there either.

She did appear on BBC’s radio programme, though. You will find Agatha Christie: A look at the life and craft of the world's most successful crime writer at BBC Archive rather fetching. It includes a 2.42-hour interview on How to write a best-selling novel (1955) as well as a 5-minute talk by her archaeologist-husband Sir Max Mallowan who recalls his wife, “the talented archaeologist” (1977).

Christie was as prolific a writer as she was a woman of few words, speaking of which her most famous quote concerned her marriage to her second husband, Mallowan. She says, wittily, “An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets the more interested he is in her.” They had a common interest, archaeology, and set up their matrimonial camp next to the many digs she accompanied him on, which might explain why their marriage lasted forty-eight years, until her death in 1976. 

I think she retained her first husband Archibald’s last name because she had already written some half-a-dozen novels and numerous short stories as ‘Agatha Christie’ during their fourteen years of marriage. Probably, she didn’t want to switch to ‘Agatha Mallowan’ and risk being forgotten in the early stages of her literary career. I don’t know if she ever wrote anything as ‘Agatha Christie Mallowan’ which, if you think of it, sounds oddly familiar.

The book
You cannot write about Agatha Christie without writing about her books. The real Agatha Christie challenge lies in reviewing her novels and not so much her life and its colourful vicissitudes. I said before that I had read less than half of her novels, so I don’t have much to go on. I, therefore, decided to pick the last novel I read—The Secret Adversary. Only the second of her sixty-six mysteries, it has received highly favourable reviews on hundreds of blogs and websites.

You would expect Christie to stick to the formula behind her hugely successful first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which introduces Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective with the egg-shaped head and handlebar moustache. Instead, she reaches into her box of mysteries and pulls out something different entirely. The Secret Adversary, I suspect, might have been part of an experiment by Christie to try out new characters and storylines early in her writing, and have some fun while she was at it. 

The Secret Adversary is a well-written novel about a young couple, Tommy Beresford and Tuppence ‘Prudence’ Cowley, looking for work in London at the end of World War I. Instead of finding conventional jobs, they go hunting for adventure and to prove they are earnest they even call themselves The Young Adventurers Ltd. Their youthful and reckless exuberance lands them in a serious mess rather than in a harmless adventure with a little money at the end of it: in the middle of a sinister conspiracy that threatens to topple the British government and shake the foundations of democracy on both sides of the Atlantic.

This is the only book where I guessed correctly, and very early on, the identity of the elusive Mr. Brown, the mastermind behind the secret plot to unleash a Bolshevik-type of revolution in Britain.


Bring out your knives. In my opinion, The Secret Adversary is not a serious mystery, in the mould of Christie’s cracking whodunits. It lacked the panache, intellect and intensity of Hercule Poirot and his methodical investigation of crimes and murders. In the main, it’s a nice adventure, in the mould of YA fiction, involving two friends out to have some fun which is what they have in spite of being cornered and caught by the mysterious Mr. Brown's cronies and later by Mr. Brown himself. It’s also a love story, with a dose of Wodehousian humour initially, as Tommy and Tuppence realise their feelings for each other even as they are on the trail of the Bolshevik conspirators and vice-versa. Lastly, I'm not sure political conspiracy, especially on such a grand scale, was really Christie’s forte: in spite of the bold plot, it wasn't convincing enough. 

For these reasons, I’d have enjoyed The Secret Adversary more than I did had Len Deighton or John le Carré written it.

Christie on Poirot
If this has left a bitter taste in your mouth, here's a sweetener in the form of Christie's unflattering view of her famous detective. As the Queen of Crime churned out mysteries like annual reports, she increasingly found Poirot "insufferable" and a "detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep." She must have been in a pretty foul mood to tick off poor Poirot.

In a long-lost essay she wrote for the UK government in 1945, in praise of British crime-fiction, and first brought to my notice by Sergio Angelini in a post he wrote September 19, 2012, Christie pours more scorn on her creation: "My own Hercule Poirot is often somewhat of an embarrassment to me—not in himself, but in the calling of his life. Would anyone go and ' consult' him? One feels not."

Christie gives the impression that she was tired of Poirot when she says, "Poirot has made quite a place for himself in the world and is regarded perhaps with more affection by outsiders than by his own creator! I would give one piece of advice to young detective writers. Be very careful what central character you create—you may have him with you for a very long time!"

The only reason the endearing Belgian detective survived his creator's verbal onslaught, until 1975, was his popularity among his millions of fans.


"I had the last laugh, mon ami!" 

10 comments:

  1. For me Agatha Christie is a comfort read somewhat similar to Jane Austen and one I go back again and again and again. Love the reads.

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    1. Mystica, my wife feels the same way. She goes back to Christie, Wodehouse and the classics ever so often. As one of the seemingly crazy characters in my current read THE NINTH CONFIGURATION by William Peter Blatty says, "Read the classics. It improves the whole respiratory system."

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  2. Interesting choice there Prashant - I'm not very keen on her espionage thrillers myself and I always get the impression she is not taking them very seriously, though I actually quite like Tommy and Tuppence as characters, especially the fact that they got older as the series went on.

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    1. Thanks, Sergio. I didn't look upon this novel as an "espionage thriller" though the theme and plot suggests that it is. I liked the book for Christie's narrative style if not for substance. Tommy and Tuppence are agreeable characters though, I admit, I have not yet read the other five novels where they feature. Quite a lively pair.

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  3. I should read a good biography on her sometime. An interesting woman.

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    1. She certainly was, Charles. Her autobiography, written over several decades, was published two years after her death in 1976. The official website of her name also has plenty of information about Christie.

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  4. They are not my favorite Christie characters, probably because the first book I had read was PARTNERS IN CRIME, a collection in which T&T used the methods of a different popular fictional detective in each story and I was not familiar with many of them (and I doubt if many of today's readers are). My appreciation of T&T grew over the years, but they remained second-tier characters for me.

    The Secret Adversary is a good example of Christie stretching her early wings, this time trying to put a twist on the thrillers of Edgar Wallace and E. Phillips Oppenheim.

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    1. Jerry, I have read just this book featuring Tommy and Tuppence so I really can't judge them the way I can Poirot or Marple. I look upon them, and some of Christie's other one-off characters, as passing through. I feel THE SECRET ADVERSARY was an experimental work and one that probably came out to her satisfaction. I have never read Oppenheim though I have a few of his ebooks on my hard disk.

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  5. I'm with Mystica. Christie for me, is a comfortable read. I go back again and again, especially when times are tough.

    For reasons I can't figure out completely, I fell in love with Poirot when I was a young girl and never fell out.

    So, unlike his creator, I never got tired of him.

    But I like Tommy and Tuppence too, especially in WHY DIDN'T THEY ASK EVANS? which I almost wrote about today but for whatever reason, didn't.

    I do like her 'thrillers' and reread them all the time with real enjoyment. They are escapist with a capital E.

    Enjoyed your post, Prashant. I liked reading about the personal side of Christie.

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    1. Yvette, thanks for the kind words. I agree, Christie is a "comfortable read" but the only reason I haven't re-read any of her books is because I have far too many first-time books to read. Poirot is an endearing character and fastidious though he may be, annoyingly so at times, he's quite the chivalrous gentleman whose popularity among his women readers will never dip. I haven't read WHY DIDN'T THEY ASK EVANS? and I'm tempted to break the line and pick it up, or some of the other T&T novels, instead of reading Christie chronologically as I'm doing now.

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