Tuesday, November 3, 2015

"The Secret Adversary" by Agatha Christie

Like many of you, I'm sure, I gobbled up Agatha Christie mysteries, one after another, when I was a teenager.  The details of the plots faded as the years went by, but I remembered the books fondly. My favourites were not the adventures of Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple (although dh & I watched "Poirot" with David Suchet on PBS faithfully for years), but the lesser-known husband & wife team, Tommy & Tuppence Beresford -- aka "Partners in Crime."

Unlike some fictional characters, Tommy & Tuppence aged as the series progressed through four novels and one collection of short stories: the first Tommy & Tuppence book, "The Secret Adversary," was Christie's second novel -- published in 1922 and set in contemporary post-WWI Britain;  the final volume, "Postern of Fate" was Christie's final book, published in 1973 and set some 50 years after the events of the first book.

I was delighted to read, earlier this summer, that the BBC was bringing some of the Tommy & Tuppence mysteries to life in new adaptations. The new series recently started showing on Bravo here in Canada (and on Acorn in the U.S), and I thought it was timely to revisit these two old friends, some 40 years (eeekkk!!) after I first read about their adventures. The first three episodes of the BBC series are an adaptation of "The Secret Adversary," so I decided to start with that. (The second set of three episodes adapt "N or M?" and further episodes are in the works.)

"The Secret Adversary" (the book) begins with the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania. Women & children are being evacuated first, and a young woman accepts & agrees to deliver an important package from a desperate British agent.

Cut to post-World War One London, as Miss Prudence Cowley (aka "Tuppence") runs into a childhood friend she nursed during the war, Tommy Beresford. Both are at loose ends, looking for work and for excitement, and decide to go into business together, calling themselves "The Young Adventurers." They get a little more than they had bargained for, as they are drawn into the search for the missing woman from the Lusitania and her precious cargo. And, of course, there's romance.

The dialogue is horribly dated ("Tuppence, old thing!" "Tommy, old bean!"), and I found myself rolling my eyes over Christie's idea of how an American would talk. The plot is likewise dated and a tad melodramatic, involving a Bolshevik plot to overthrow of the British government -- and I had a pretty good idea fairly early on as to who the mysterious villain "Mr. Brown" might be. But there were still enough twists and turns to keep me interested. It's a fun, light read with an engaging hero & heroine and I finished it with a smile. 

The new three-part BBC adaptation of "The Secret Adversary" sets the story in 1950s Cold War Britain.  Tommy & Tuppence are already married and have a son (briefly seen before he heads to boarding school). The program LOOKS gorgeous, with keen attention to period detail. As Tuppence, Jessica Raine, with her pixie haircut and red lipstick, reminds me a little of a young Elizabeth Taylor, and her wardrobe is to die for.

While Tommy & Tuppence the book characters are certainly amateurs who stumble into a mystery, they tackle their task with gusto. The TV characters, however, are obviously in way over their heads, and the script plays up their ineptitude. It makes for some laughs, but ultimately feels unsatisfying. I read one review that wondered whether the writers had trouble making up their minds whether to play things for laughs or thrills, and so the story winds up being a bit of a mishmash. There are some slightly gruesome scenes with the bad guys that seem at odds with the lighter stuff. It also doesn't help that Tommy & Tuppence here are a long-married, somewhat sedate couple in their late 30s or early 40s, instead of the energetic Bright Young Things described in the book. Tommy in particular comes across as a slightly henpecked, bumbling husband.

It's entertaining in its own way (and I still haven't seen the third & final episode) -- but I felt like it could have been better, and I wish it had followed the book a little more closely. I'm willing to give "N or M?" a viewing, though (and hope to read that book before it starts!).

What's your favourite Agatha Christie book/character? Have you read or seen "The Secret Adversary" yet? Thoughts?

This was book #22 that I've read so far in 2015 to date. (I actually read one other book before this, but that review is still to come & will be counted then!)


  1. I love Agatha Christie. I was a die hard Miss Marple fan. She's easier to find (I've actually never heard of Tommy and Tuppence) but still less ubiquitous than Hercule Poirot. It's funny that you mention the depiction of Americans in her books. I've had the same thought in other books, too (Murder with Mirrors is one of them, I think). I would wonder if she'd ever actually met an American before. Seems like maybe not. :)

    1. Agatha Christie's father was an American. Her autobiography is fascinating and the story of how her parents met and married is delightful. The Tommy and Tuppence books were always my favorites it's just recently that I've started reading Hercule Poirot novels. I'll have to keep my eye out for the new tv series, I wonder how they compare with the tv series from the 80's,

  2. Ooh, I must look out for this TV series. I don't think it has been on here yet, but I must do some research. I read some Agatha Christie when I was younger, but I don't think I read the Tommy and Tuppence books.

  3. Believe it or not I've never read a Agathe Christie book. I'll have to look for them!

    1. They can be a little old-fashioned -- but since she practically invested the modern mystery novel, I think they are worth reading. And they are fun!