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the secret adversary

16 july 2020

Lately I've been on a completist mission to read each of Agatha Christie's novels as it rises into the public domain. Since it now takes 95 years for American publications to do this, I will not live to finish the project. It will be 2072 before all of Christie's novels are public domain – and that's assuming no law intervenes before them to keep some of them under copyright.

And even catching up to 95 years ago has taken some scrambling. I've just gotten that far by reading The Secret Adversary, Christie's 1922 introduction of Tommy and Tuppence, her husband-and-wife adventurers whose career lasted almost as long as that of Hercule Poirot, and longer than Miss Marple's.

Tommy and Tuppence, though well enough known to Christie buffs, are orders of magnitude less famous to casual mystery fans. They have never had the cinematic appeal of Poirot or Marple, and their adventures – at least to judge by The Secret Adversary – aren't the kind of puzzle-whodunit that such a large readership craves. Yet the pair was important to her creator, or she wouldn't have kept them around for a half-century. Tommy and Tuppence seem to embody a certain rhetorical enthusiasm for monogamy that Christie found lacking in her first marriage but (again to judge from her own rhetoric) was amply satisfied with in her long second marriage to the Indiana-Jones-like Max Mallowan.

Tommy and Tuppence … well, let's let the spymaster Mr. Carter explain their dynamic.

Outwardly, he's an ordinary clean-limbed, rather block-headed young Englishman. Slow in his mental processes. On the other hand, it's quite impossible to lead him astray through his imagination. He hasn't got any—so he's difficult to deceive. He worries things out slowly, and once he's got hold of anything he doesn't let go. The little lady's quite different. More intuition and less common sense. They make a pretty pair working together. Pace and stamina. (Chapter 22)
Tuppence has been a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse during the first world war; Tommy has been an officer in the trenches. Childhood friends, they are on their uppers in unemployment-wracked postwar London, when they meet and resolve to make money by seeking adventure. Of course when you do this in an adventure novel, it actually works, and the pair are soon on the track of vital documents that disappeared when the Lusitania went down. It isn't quite clear what these documents are – don't worry, I don't imagine Agatha Christie had any but the vaguest ideas what they were supposed to be – but the upshot of it is that if they fall into the wrong hands, a conspiracy of all sorts of bad elements ‐ Russians, Germans, Irishmen what have you – will smash the UK and use its Labour Party as a pretext to seize control. Christie has one of her bad guys reflect:
They must have no inkling that we are using them for our own ends. They are honest men—and that is their value to us. It is curious—but you cannot make a revolution without honest men. (Chapter 8)
It's a neat rhetorical sidestep. Christie locates the Other as the source of all Britain's problems, but then neatly exonerates British collaborators (while remaining skeptical of the Irish, it seems). Labour supporters are bad for the country, but they are simply mistaken, not essentially villainous.

Tommy and Tuppence have many larks in the course of tracking down those documents, and they nearly get knocked on the head once or twice, but they persevere. The Secret Adversary is a surprisingly good, simple adventure story, without the fussiness of the early Poirots, better crafted than The Man in the Brown Suit. But now it will be 17 years before the next Tommy & Tuppence novel is free for Kindle.

Christie, Agatha. The Secret Adversary. 1922. Kindle Edition.