The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

tommyTommy and Tuppence are the perhaps lesser known detectives created by Agatha Christie (Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie, Lady Mallowan 1890 – 1976),  and although they might not be huge characters like Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, they are just as quaint.

They do actually intersect with Marple in By the Pricking of my Thumbs, although she doesn’t appear in it.

Unlike Marple, who is always portrayed as an elderly woman, both Poirot and the Beresford’s age in real time in the novels and short stories.

The Secret Adversary is the first novel the duo appear in. Tommy and Tuppence are portrayed as a young, decadent and adventurous couple. They are the Upstairs in the Upstairs and Downstairs equation. Ever so posh and full of affectations, they actually start their ‘careers’ as amateur sleuths off as accidental blackmailers, but find the path of sleuthing far more entertaining in the long run.

Once again this is a complete turnaround when you compare the two with the rigid personality of Poirot and the sharp-witted spinster Marple, who loves to pretend to be a doddering old lady. Essentially Christie lets the usual suspects or extra players in the book become the detectives, because the Beresford’s are usually the type of characters who play the dead, the suspects or the villains of her literary work.

The tale starts on board the RMS Lusitania after she was struck by a German torpedo in May of 1915. There was an unexplained second explosion in the hull and the ship subsequently sank. During the panic and disembarkation of passengers a man approaches a young girl and asks her to carry some important papers to safety.

I’ve got to trust some one—and it must be a woman.””Why?””Because of ‘women and children first.’

He asks if she is American, appeals to her patriotism and asks her to help her country. Before he hands them over he leaves the girl with instructions.

I’ll advertise in the personal column of the Times, beginning ‘Shipmate.’ At the end of three days if there’s nothing—well, you’ll know I’m down and out. Then take the packet to the American Embassy, and deliver it into the Ambassador’s own hands. Is that clear?”

On a side note the Lusitania sank that day and 1198 lives were lost. She was sailing as a commercial ocean liner, a non-military ship. The Germans always insisted that the ship was a legitimate target because she was carrying tons of ammunition and had been fitted with 6 inch gun mounts. The German embassy in the United States actually went as far as to publish a written warning about sailing on board the ship. I would say that is fair warning about what they intended to do.

TRAVELLERS intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
Washington, D.C., 22 April 1915.

Although the British government has always denied using the Lusitania for transporting war ammunition, when it came to the ship being salvaged the British Foreign Office had to admit in the 1980’s that it was deemed a risk to salvage due to the large amount of ammunition inside the wreck. Needless to say the British government put the Lusitania and its passengers knowingly in the line of fire.

Tommy and Tuppence encounter each other after years of going their separate ways, and discuss, in a way only the truly affluent can and do, how to make enough money so the two of them and stay independent. Tuppence really doesn’t want to return home to the rigid views of her father.

He has that delightful early Victorian view that short skirts and smoking are immoral.

They also discuss the advantages of either or both of them marrying a rich girl or boy. Apparently those are in high demand and yet hard to find at that particular moment in time. So they decide to be adventurers instead. Like you do. Although I’m not sure it means what they think it means.

“That’s the difficulty. If we could make ourselves known, people might hire us to commit crimes for them.”

It doesn’t take long for them to hook a client. Tuppence is asked to pretend to be a certain young woman, the ward of their client, for the duration of three months in the city of Paris. Thinking herself clever enough to outsmart the man, Tuppence decides to say her name is Jane Finn. A name that Tommy just happened to mention during tea.

“Anyway,” snarled Whittington, “you knew enough to come in here and plump out that name.” “It might be my own name,” Tuppence pointed out.”It’s likely, isn’t it, then there would be two girls with a name like that?” “Or I might just have hit upon it by chance,” continued Tuppence, intoxicated with the success of truthfulness. Mr. Whittington brought his fist down upon the desk with a bang. “Quit fooling! How much do you know? And how much do you want?”

Which is how Tuppence accidentally ends up becoming a blackmailer and making a profit. What ensues is a veritable cat and mouse game for the inadvertent amateur detectives. Their privileged behaviour, interactions, appearance and even the way they speak is comical, and yet quaint and eccentric at the same time.

I’ve often wondered whether this was Christie’s way of taking the proverbial piss out of the society she lived in and the people she associated with. Portraying the upper echelon of society, especially the British with their pompous and elitist attitudes, as characters in her books. She was rather clever at being able to present the worst vices and let them appear to be nothing more than bumbling affectations, delightfully outlandish character traits or simple faux pas of the rich and famous.

I will leave you to figure out what the secret documents are all about and how the dubious duo manages to go from potential criminals to crime fighting solvers of mysteries.

Download and read The Secret Adversary, The Death on the Nile, And Then There Were None at the Internet Archive or read The Secret Adversary or The Mysterious Affair at Styles at Feedbooks.

Read Saying Goodbye to Suchet’s Hercule PoirotMirror Mirror on the Wall, Who is the best Miss Marple of the them AllAnd Then There Were NoneThe Mysterious Affair at StylesFather’s Little Dividend, Decadence without Difficulty, Roads of Destiny, The Capture of a Slaver, The Ghost Train, How it Feels to Die, by One Who has Tried It, Mysticism and Logic, The Scarecrow of Oz, Sharks Attack the Public Domain, Dressed to Kill, The Silence, the Solitude and the Shame of Oscar Wilde or Twelve Stories and a Dream right here on the blog.

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