One of my New Year resolutions is to finally wrap up the Agatha Christie re-readathon I started back in 2018, so onward we go with this Tommy and Tuppence spy adventure published almost exactly a century ago.
The Secret Adversary was in fact Christie’s second novel following The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the first to feature her detective couple, Tommy and Tuppence, who depending on your taste are either adorable or overly cutesy. In this book, Mr Thomas Beresford and Miss Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley are yet unmarried and have just met up in 1919 London. The two childhood friends are both recently demobilised, flat broke and desperate for a job, and so they decide to start up a new joint venture under the name of the Young Adventurers Ltd.
Their conversation is overheard by a certain Mr Whittington, who makes Tuppence a suspiciously generous offer. When asked her name, Tuppence pulls a name mentioned by Tommy in their recent conversation, who in turn happened to randomly hear it on the street. For some reason, the name Jane Finn provokes a volcanic response in the unpleasant Mr Whittington, who seems to be under an impression that Tuppence is blackmailing him. He gives her some hush money, then disappears without a trace.
Jane Finn, it turns out, is the name of a young American survivor from the ill-fated RMS Lusitania torpedoed by the Germans during First World War. Just before she was evacuated, Jane was handed a certain document that, five years later, could have catastrophic consequences for the British government and lead to a Bolshevik takeover in the UK. Aside from the British Intelligence, another party eager to employ the services of Tommy & Tuppence is Julius Hersheimmer, Jane’s millionaire cousin from the States. And just who is the mysterious Mr Brown, the devious mastermind behind this plot to cause anarchy in the UK?
The breathless, fast-paced plot sees Tommy and Tuppence face all sorts of dangers in their attempts to track down the elusive Jane Finn: wicked criminals of all varieties from sophisticated to brutish, a beautiful ageing femme fatale with no soul, kidnappings and threats of imminent death, car chases and bullets. The duo are never sure who they can trust, and even some of their closest allies are not above suspicion. It is all rather silly, improbable and extremely heavy on coincidences, but considering some of Christie’s later dire stabs at the spy thriller, her very first attempt is a decently fun, light adventure. I’m probably more forgiving of the clunkier writing in this one since it’s a book by a young writer still finding her voice.
I’ve never been very fond of Tommy and Tuppence and here I rolled my eyes at their oh-so cool, modern and edgy banter (I guess young people just never cease to be annoying in any century). I still wasn’t entirely immune to the story of two childhood friends realising that they’re in love with each other, after the prospect of losing one another cracks some of that British reserve. There’s also a romantic triangle going on with Julius Hersheimmer, who’s a fun energetic character despite being a bit of a stereotypical brash, gun-toting American.
P.S. The Tommy and Tuppence love story is at the very least way better than the secondary romance of the novel, which is rushed as hell and for me crosses over into an unpalatable territory, though I’m aware that the opinion on the matter differs around the world.