Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie – Book Review

My Christie re-readathon keeps coming up with pleasant surprises. I’ve never read these loosely linked short stories before, but the last Tommy and Tuppence book on my list turned out to be the most enjoyable one in the series.

Six years after The Secret Adversary, our young adventurers are now happily married. Tuppence however is bored and restless, yearning for the excitement that their comfortable and monotonous life can’t provide. The timing is perfect for Mr Carter, their old friend from British intelligence, to arrive at their door with an intriguing proposition: he’d like the two young daredevils to take over Blunt’s International Detective Agency, whose owner Mr Blunt was caught spying for the Russians. Tommy and Tuppence are to pose as Mr Blunt and his trusted secretary Miss Robinson, and intercept the enemy messages coming through. In the meantime, they’re allowed to run the agency however they like.

Though Christie of course never intended so, Partners in Crime feels like it was written as a season for a crime TV show. There’s an overarching spying storyline running in the background that finds a resolution in the finale, but most episodes are self-contained and deal with a separate case every week. Personally I thought that this format worked for Tommy and Tuppence much better than a conventional novel. I didn’t exactly look forward to this book in my least favourite Christie series, but it turned out to be light, frothy and perfectly charming.

With a bit of luck, pluck, ingenuity and doggedness, our young duo acquit themselves admirably in their new roles as brilliant detectives, taking on cases that involve stolen jewels, mysterious poisonings and disappearances, nefarious gangs circulating fake banknotes, and buried treasures. Occasionally they’ll face a disappointment, or find themselves in a genuinely life-threatening situation, but their youthful enthusiasm and optimism will always see them through. There’s plenty of humour and a couple of running jokes, such as Tommy pretending that he can just spare some time for a new client in between servicing the nobs and meeting the chief of Scotland Yard.

In order to have even more fun with their task, T&T decide to solve every case in the style of their favourite fictional sleuths. To borrow the TV analogy again, every TV show from years back comes with dated cultural references that elude the modern audience, and so is the case here. Outside of Christie, my own knowledge of early 20th century crime fiction doesn’t extend beyond Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown, so the majority of nods and parodies sailed over my head. I was amused to discover that Hercule Poirot is in fact just another fictional character in the T&T universe, with Christie sending up her own creation, “little grey cells” and vegetable marrows and all.

Some stories are stronger than others; predictably I was least fond of the ones that followed the main international spy thriller storyline. The nods to the fictional detectives do pay off in my personal favourite, The Man in the Mist. Apart from the obvious references to Father Brown (the plot has Tommy wear a guise of a Catholic priest), it channels some of the atmosphere and eeriness of G.K. Chesterton’s startlingly original detective stories. It made me wonder what layers I was missing out on in the other stories, where I was clueless about the references.

Somehow, the case-of-the-week structure made me like the partnership of Tommy and Tuppence more than in any other book. They work together more closely here than in other novels, where they’re often split up and sent off on separate adventures. I enjoyed their easy comfortable banter, bickering and teasing, and they do complement each other well, in between Tommy’s good solid common sense and Tuppence’s flashes of intuition. It made me wish Christie didn’t put an end to their careers as detectives just yet, with a very different adventure that most married couples eventually embark on.

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