28 July 2007

Book Review: The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

The Secret Adversary Prudence (‘Tuppence’) Cowley and Tommy Beresford are two young friends down on their luck after the end of the Great War has left each of them out of a job. Signally failing to live up to her real name, Tuppence suggests the formation of Young Adventurers, Inc., and the placement of an ad offering themselves to go anywhere, do anything, for sufficient money and thrills. Afterward she gets only a few blocks from the cafe before being accosted by the mysterious Mr Whittington, who looks set to make her an offer she can’t refuse. But her choice of alias produces a most unusual effect; he becomes quite keen to buy her off and the next day, both he and his Esthonia Glassware Co. have vanished.

Tommy and Tuppence decide to switch their attention to learning more about the real Jane Finn, and why her name should so alarm Whittington. Their request for information receives two answers; one from Jane’s tycoon cousin Julius P. Hersheimmer, the other from the Intelligence man who calls himself Mr Carter. He hires the pair himself, in the hope that they might succeed where others failed. For there are revolutionaries at work in Britain, planning an overthrow of the government, and Carter suspects they will gain the support of the populace by producing a draft treaty made during the war - a treaty that, although scrapped, will make the government look very bad indeed. The sole copy was to have been brought to England aboard the Lusitania; and it was thought that, as the ship was sinking, it was passed to Jane by the courier in the belief that a woman would have a better chance of reaching shore. That assumption proved correct; but as soon as she reached England Jane vanished, and the treaty with her. Aided by Julius, and by Sir James Peel Edgerton, K.C., the Young Adventurers plunge headlong into all the excitement - and more than the danger - they dreamed of.

Tommy and Tuppence are among my favourite Christie creations, and it was fun to return to their first appearance (and that of the faithful Albert). It worked quite well as a re-read, although I did remember what had become of Jane Finn and I made an early deduction as to the identity of the seemingly invisible Mr. Brown. Or perhaps it was more of a recollection; there was more than one candidate for the rôle of leader of the revolutionaries, and the (first-time) reader gets neatly suspended between the two; there’s clues against each. And my brain can’t be that brilliant because I overlooked the full significance of the piece of evidence which clinched it.

The two amateur detectives work well together, with Tuppence providing energy (though not as much as the perpetually hustling Julius) and flashes of ingenuity, and Tommy the solid common sense. There were several other characters I liked a lot, but I can’t really say who without spoilers. The villains were plausible and the good guys and bad guys took turns outsmarting each other; they were well-matched. But there was one aspect I was somewhat ambivalent about: the precise nature of the treaty is kept vague. It’s something that would have been advantageous five years ago, but would now turn popular sentiment against its makers ... and that’s really all you find out. This approach meant no belief-stretching scenarios - you get to imagine what you like - but it does make it a little hard to see the urgency that it creates.

Rating: B+

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776