My Rating: 7/10
Setting: Mostly London, with a few excursions into the countryside; immediately post Great War, 1919.
Detection by: Thomas Beresford (TOMMY) and Prudence Cowley (a.k.a. TUPPENCE)
Final Body Count: 2
Method(s) of Murder: POISON – death #1 from an overdose of chloral , and death #2 by cyanide
100 Word Plot Summary:
Who is Jane Finn, and why has she vanished after escaping from the sinking Lusitania with a secret document entrusted to her by its doomed courier? That paper could have changed the course of the war, but why is the British Secret Service still keen to recover it now, 5 years later? Why the competing hunt by a group of Bolshevik anarchists, led by the mysterious “Mr Brown”? Tommy Beresford and “Tuppence” Cowley, newly demobbed and desperate for jobs, join forces and market their services to Jane Finn’s rich American cousin, whose interest in her seems just a little overenthusiastic…
Agatha Christie’s second published work is a slightly more ambitious story than The Mysterious Affair at Styles; and it’s changed in style as well: dramatic thriller rather than sedate country house murder mystery. The tone is breathless, the plot improbable, the villains all degrees of wicked (urbane to thuggish), and the “women in question” suitably mysterious – as well as stunningly beautiful. What a grand little period piece of colourful writing, silly though the whole scenario is.
Here’s the devious (and exotically lovely) Mrs Vandemeyer, who, incidentally, knows more about “Mr Brown” than is healthy for her long-term survival:
A woman was standing by the fireplace. She was no longer in her first youth, and the beauty she undeniably possessed was hardened and coarsened. In her youth she must have been dazzling. Her pale gold hair, owing a slight assistance to art, was coiled low on her neck, her eyes, of a piercing electric blue, seemed to possess a faculty of boring into the very soul of the person she was looking at. Her exquisite figure was enhanced by a wonderful gown of indigo charmeuse. And yet, despite her swaying grace, and the almost ethereal beauty of her face, you felt instinctively the presence of something hard and menacing, a kind of metallic strength that found expression in the tones of her voice and in that gimlet-like quality of her eyes.
Gimlet eyes and indigo charmeuse; obviously up to no good. Beware!
Young adventurers Tommy and Tuppence are a rollicking change from the pompous Poirot and sober Hastings of her first novel; Agatha Christie was to follow The Secret Adversary with four other books featuring the pair, spaced throughout the years, with the characters aging appropriately.
Though I found this an amusing enough read, with plenty of nostalgia value, I couldn’t quite buy into the whole Bolshevist plot side of things; too many vagaries and improbabilities. (Even at my first reading as a young teenager, I recall a feeling of cynical disbelief; this was never one of my favourite Christies.) But so much scope of course for all sorts of shenanigans – secret identities, people vanishing, other people being tied up in windowless rooms, threats of torture, beautiful girls, invisible ink, car chases, shots fired that just miss our heroes – it’s all in here.