Given how well read I like to think I am, it may come as a shock to some to hear that I’ve never once wandered the literary landscape of Agatha Christie (Gasp! Horror!). Sure, I know well enough of her literary output but I’ve never read any of her books, simply because I’ve always considered Agatha Christie – all without foundation may I add – to be a bit stiff collared and stuffy for my tastes (says the man who laps up Tolstoy and Hamsun et al. :)). Well, I now have egg well and truly plastered all over my face because Christie’s The Secret Adversary turns out to be one heck of a fun read, and there’s not a hint of starchiness to be found anywhere.
To recap, I picked up The Secret Adversary for no other reason than it featured as one of the primary literary publications of January 1922. For those who don’t know, I’m working my way through Kevin Jackson’s most excellent Constellation of Genius (Hutchinson) right now. It’s a book in which Jackson tracks 1922 in chronological order, charting key events, publications and cinema releases etc. and all under the premise that this was the seminal year in which modernism established itself. So far in January I’ve watched and reviewed Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives, and to back this up and give myself a better flavour of this same month in 1922, I also set about reading Agatha Christie’s second novel.
Young Adventurers, Ltd.
So, stiff collared and stuffy The Secret Adversary most certainly isn’t. Set in the UK after the First World War when suspicions and fear of Bolshevism were rife, the novel is fast moving and engaging, coming with more twists and turns than Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s Big Dipper (which incidentally opened in 1923, the year after the publication of The Secret Adversary, so apt that I refer to it :)). It all begins in 1915 aboard the Lusitania, when a mystery man hands important papers to a young American woman called Jane Finn just before the ship sinks. A handful of years pass and it appears that these papers will threaten the safety and stability of the British government if they fall into the wrong hands, and so they have to be recovered. Problem is, nobody knows the whereabouts of the mysterious Jane Finn, or where these important papers might be. Enter the Young Adventurers Ltd, a crime-busting duo – Tuppence and Tommy – who start the novel as childhood friends and end it as lovers.
A myriad of interesting characters
Introduced in The Secret Adversary, Tuppence (real name, Prudence Cowley) and Tommy (demobbed soldier, Thomas Beresford) are characters that Christie will revisit time and time again during her writing career (the duo feature in three other novels and a collection of short stories), and for good reason. They are superbly well realised characters who are as dynamic and dashing as they are daring and clever (to a point. Their naivety and impulsiveness could do with being kept in check at times :)). There’s a special and rare charisma surrounding this duo, and one cannot help but root for them and will them out of the sticky situations they invariably find themselves in. The novel also contains a myriad of other interesting characters – the overly eager Julius Hersheimmer, the quietly chilling Mr. Brown, the abrasive Mrs. Vandemeyer, the lovable Albert – who are as expertly painted as the main characters and combine to make The Secret Adversary a genuinely enjoyable crime novel that’s both jaunty and uncomplicated, but never without depth.
A book to be read under covers with torch
The plot as I said takes many twists and turns. One never knows (most of the time) where one is being taken, but it’s a thrill ride because the pace never holds up. It may sound a little juvenile to say, but while reading The Secret Adversary I kept thinking of it as a grown-up version of Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five or The Secret Seven, but with fewer adventurers and without the lashings of ginger beer. I’m not demeaning Christie by saying this. I was a HUGE fan of Blyton in my boyhood so I think of this as being one the biggest of compliments. I consider Blyton’s books to be THE books that you read at night time under the covers with a torch (even as an adult :)), and The Secret Adversary is another that I’d add to that list. It’s a really enjoyable read, and in the warmest of ways.
A flavour of a world turning more modern
Is The Secret Adversary a work of modernist literature? Well, of course it isn’t. Its roots are very much in the traditional, yet it does gives a flavour of a world turning more modern. The use of independent free-thinking women as lead characters perhaps provides the biggest pointer to this, but the dynamism of the novel itself, with its fast moving action and free movement of characters hints at a world picking up pace and heading towards a new era. There’s even a comment made by Christie on the growing impact of cinema and its desire to dazzle its audience. One of the characters makes an over the top suggestion to recreate the sinking of the Lusitania, and responding to others thinking his suggestion ludicrous he responds, “I’m not crazy. The thing’s perfectly possible. It’s done every day in the States for the movies. Haven’t you seen trains in collision on the screen? What’s the difference between buying up a train and buying up a liner? Get the properties and you can go right ahead!” A fleeting reference I know, but one that’s suggestive of the dawning of a new world; a world where media and culture are, for a time at least, at the forefront.
Is The Secret Adversary an essential publication of 1922? Absolutely. It adds a small but noticeable flavouring to the modernist soup of this remarkable year. I’m thrilled to have read it – as I’m sure readers in 1922 were – and I’ll be less inclined to view Christie as a strait-laced writer in future. That this be a lesson to me. And let this be a lesson to you too. If you’ve ever considered Agatha Christie to be dry and starchy then give The Secret Adversary a try. Like me, you may well be surprised.
This novel was read and reviewed as part of my journey through Kevin Jackson’s Constellation of Genius. The book charts the important social and political and cultural events that flavoured the year 1922, believed by Jackson to be ‘year one of modernism’. Throughout 2014 I will be mirroring this seminal year of modernism, reviewing key publications and cinema releases on or around the anniversaries they would have occurred. To find out more about this journey, please visit this post.