Imperial fiction: The Secret Adversary

‘It’s all the war. Upset things terribly, it has.’
Agatha Christie, The Secret Adversary (1922)

To all those who lead monotonous lives, in the hope that they may experience at second-hand the delights and dangers of adventure.
Agatha Christie, dedication to The Secret Adversary (1922)agatha christie - secret adversary 1

It was billed at the time as a detective novel, and in interviews to promote it, Agatha Christie described herself ‘a writer of detective stories’. But The Secret Adversary, her second book, isn’t really anything of the kind. It’s an escapist thriller in the John Buchan mould. More particularly, I think it’s Christie’s response to Sapper’s novel Bulldog Drummond, of which more in due course.

Thomas ‘Tommy’ Beresford and Prudence ‘Tuppence’ Cowley are friends from childhood, but have rather drifted out of touch, what with the disruptions of the War and everything. They did bump into each other in 1916 – he was recuperating from wounds in the London hospital where she was a volunteer skivvy – but when he was deemed fit to return to the front, they lost touch again. Which makes their chance encounter in the summer of 1920 all the sweeter.

Unfortunately, neither of them is finding peacetime Britain a welcoming place. ‘For ten long, weary months I’ve been job hunting!’ explains Tommy. ‘There aren’t any jobs! And, if there were, they wouldn’t give ‘em to me.’ And Tuppence is in the same boat. Unable to find work in London, she’s contemplating returning to the Suffolk home of her father, an Archdeacon who ‘has that delightful early Victorian view that short skirts and smoking are immoral’. The prospect doesn’t excite her: ‘It’s awful! All housework and mothers’ meetings!’

So, largely on her initiative, they decide on one last, desperate long-shot. They’ll put an advertisement in the newspapers, offering their services in pretty much any capacity: ‘Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere. Pay must be good. No unreasonable offer refused.’

As it happens, the advert isn’t necessary. Their conversation – over tea, buns and buttered toast in Lyon’s, Piccadilly – is overheard by someone looking for assistance, and before you can ask the waitress for the bill, they’re plunged into a proper adventure with the future of the country at stake.

The ensuing story is wonderfully implausible. Our adventurers are told by Mr Carter, a senior figure in the security services, that back in 1915 ‘a certain document came into being. It was the draft of a secret agreement – treaty – call it what you like.’ A copy of this document went missing and, now that circumstances have changed, it’s political dynamite, because it ‘implicates a number of our statesmen whom we cannot afford to have discredited in any way at the present moment’. Should it become public, it could bring down the government.

And the result of such a development might well be the coming to power of the Labour Party. That’s the best outcome, though, Carter warns them grimly: ‘a Labour government at this juncture would, in my opinion, be a grave disability for British trade, but that is a mere nothing to the real danger.’ Because the country is teetering on a precipice:

Bolshevist gold is pouring into this country for the specific purpose of procuring a Revolution. And there is a certain man, a man whose real name is unknown to us, who is working in the dark for his own ends. The Bolshevists are behind the Labour unrest – but this man is behind the Bolshevists. Who is he? We do not know. He is always spoken of by the unassuming title of ‘Mr Brown.’ But one thing is certain, he is the master criminal of this age. He controls a marvellous organization.

Tommy and Tuppence, therefore, are charged by Carter with recovering the document, uncovering the identity of the mysterious ‘Mr Brown’, and foiling the dastardly plot. It seems a pretty tall order for an unemployed couple in their twenties with no experience of crime or espionage, but maybe, thinks Carter, it’s time for the amateurs to have a go: ‘My experts, working in stereotyped ways, have failed. You will bring imagination and an open mind to the task.’agatha christie - secret adversary 4

And we’re off.

Just to be clear: the secret treaty business is fictional (though it’s a nice inverted premonition of the Zinoviev Letter) and the evil mastermind is bunkum, but the concerns that Carter is expressing were genuine ones. Britain was indeed in a precarious state in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. There was mass unemployment, a rise in industrial disputes, and a war in Ireland. And, lurking in the background, there was the fear that the example of the Russian Revolution might inspire similar sentiments here. In 1919 Winston Churchill warned that there were groups in the country who wanted ‘to provoke an outbreak in the form of a mutiny or general strike, or preferably both together, in the hope that a general smash and overthrow of society may result’.

In fiction and in reality, these forebodings were based on the belief that the leaders of the Labour movement were essentially sound men, but that they were being exploited by others. ‘They are honest men – and that is their value to us,’ says a Russian conspirator in Christie’s novel. ‘It is curious – but you cannot make a revolution without honest men. Every revolution has had its honest men. They are soon disposed of afterwards.’

The trigger for the British revolution is intended to be a general strike that’s been called for a fortnight’s time, adding to the pressure on Tommy and Tuppence to save the nation. But still there’s hope that – so long as that pesky document isn’t revealed – the iron might yet be pulled out of the fire:

There were rumours of dissension among the Labour leaders. They were not of one mind. The more far-seeing among them realized that what they proposed might well be a death-blow to the England that at heart they loved. They shrank from the starvation and misery a general strike would entail, and were willing to meet the Government half-way. But behind them were subtle, insistent forces at work, urging the memories of old wrongs, deprecating the weakness of half-and-half measures, fomenting misunderstandings.agatha christie - secret adversary 2

Which is why a German conspirator argues – presumably in reference to J.R. Clynes, then leader of the Labour Party – that ‘Clymes must go. He is too far-seeing.’

All of this is terrific stuff, and Christie moves the plot along at a cracking pace, never letting any of it get too serious. It’s ‘a rattling good story of the breathless kind,’ as one reviewer put it at the time.

Much of it is a steal from John Buchan, and particularly from The Power-House, even down to the detail of someone being steered into danger in the midst of a crowded place:

I tried to get into a carriage with people that looked all right, but in a queer way there seemed always to be a crowd round me shoving and pushing me just the way I didn’t want to go. There was something uncanny and frightening about it.

Christie also echoes Buchan’s breezy and brazen celebration of chance. ‘I’ve often noticed that once coincidences start happening they go on happening in the most extraordinary way,’ says Tuppence. ‘I dare say it’s some natural law that we haven’t found out.’

But there a couple of excellent variations on the theme. One is that – even at this early stage in her career – Christie is firmly wedded to the big reveal ending. So the identity of the evil mastermind ‘Mr Brown’ is kept concealed for three hundred pages. We see the methods, but not the man. We only learn of his thinking posthumously, from a note-book he’s been injudiciously keeping. When we do, there are no great surprises – he is the same kind of Nietzschean super-villain as Charles Lumley in The Power-House:

The power I dreamed of was absolute! An autocrat! A dictator! And such power could only be obtained by working outside the law. To play on the weaknesses of human nature, then on the weaknesses of nations – to get together and control a vast organization, and finally to overthrow the existing order, and rule! The thought intoxicated me … I saw that I must lead two lives. A man like myself is bound to attract notice. I must have a successful career which would mask my true activities … I succeeded in my false career. I was bound to succeed. I shall succeed in the other. A man like me cannot fail.

It’s not really a shock to find that he’s a big fan of Napoleon: ‘He and I have much in common.’

The fact that this is withheld till the very end, though, means that the attention is kept firmly fixed on our two heroes. And they’re really rather endearing.

Tuppence is very much a post-war gal:

[She] had no claim to beauty, but there was character and charm in the elfin lines of her little face, with its determined chin and large, wide-apart grey eyes that looked mistily out from under straight, black brows. She wore a small bright green toque over her black bobbed hair, and her extremely short and rather shabby skirt revealed a pair of uncommonly dainty ankles. Her appearance presented a valiant attempt at smartness.

She’s a new character in the thriller genre, the thoroughly modern, self-confident young woman who’s capable of holding her own, no matter what scrapes she gets into. She also knows how to play an older generation of men; she disarms Tommy’s uncle, an ‘old misogynist’, and when in the presence of her father: ‘She forbore to cross her legs, set a guard upon her tongue, and steadfastly refused to smoke.’

All this will become a cliché soon enough, but there’s a freshness and joy here that survives very well. ‘Money, money, money!’ she laments. ‘I think about money morning, noon and night! I dare say it’s mercenary of me, but there it is!’ It’s a recurring motif. She’s terribly pleased when Carter offers to pay them for their services: ‘How lovely. You are kind. I do love money!’

Tommy is, for me, even better. He has a ‘shock of exquisitely slicked-back red hair,’ and his face is ‘pleasantly ugly – nondescript, yet unmistakably the face of a gentleman and a sportsman.’ He’s ‘one of those young Englishmen not distinguished by any special intellectual ability, but who are emphatically at their best in what is known as a “tight place”’. This is how Carter describes him (to the prime minister, no less):

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.

He’s so slow and methodical that even Tuppence is sometimes ‘shaken with doubts as to whether anyone so simple and honest as he was could ever be a match for the fiendish subtlety of the arch-criminal’. We, of course, have no such doubts. We recognize a thoroughly good egg when one’s served up to us, and we’re confident that our hero and heroine will win through. We’re also confident that by the end they’ll have found a way of articulating their love for each other.

Agatha Christie (small)

Agatha Christie in 1922

The reason I find Tommy fascinating is that, to return to my original point, I think he’s Christie’s take on Bulldog Drummond, the hero of Sapper’s best-selling novel from 1920.

Drummond had been an instant success, the first fictional superstar of post-war Britain. There were multiple reprints of the book and, at the time Christie was writing The Secret Adversary, a stage version of the story – starring Gerald du Maurier in the title role – was running in the West End. Elsewhere, a racehorse named Bulldog Drummond was running in the Breeders’ Stakes at Newmarket (and coming in first at 100–8).

Like the ‘pleasantly ugly’ Tommy, he’s not a looker. His ‘best friend would not have called him good-looking, but he was the fortunate possessor of that cheerful type of ugliness which inspires immediate confidence in its owner.’ Like Tommy, he’s ‘a man who believed in simplicity’, a man ‘not too plentifully supplied with brains’. And like Tommy: ‘Under a cloak of assumed flippancy he concealed an iron nerve.’ (It should go without saying that he’s ‘a gentleman and a sportsman’.)

Even the set-up is the same. Drummond is also a veteran of the Great War who advertises his services as an adventurer:

Demobilised officer, finding peace incredibly tedious, would welcome diversion. Legitimate, if possible; but crime, if of a comparatively humorous description, no objection. Excitement essential. Would be prepared to consider permanent job if suitably impressed by applicant for his services.

Thus far, there’s a clear parallel, as Christie hints: ‘There was a certain bulldog tenacity about Tommy that made him slow to admit defeat.’ Like Sapper, she’s extolling the good, honest, solid virtues of the middle-class Englishman as the bedrock of civilization in uncertain times.

But there are also some key divergences. To start with, Drummond’s concept of action always involves violence. He’s a born soldier. He enjoyed the war; at night, he’d venture out into No Man’s Land on his own, seeking out any stray Germans, who he’d kill with his bare hands, leaving ‘no trace of a wound, but only a broken neck’. He surrounds himself in civilian life with ‘a gang of the boys’, old comrades, who follow him in his crusade against communists, anarchists and other ne’er-do-wells, while his man-servant is his ‘square-jawed ex-batman’.

Tommy, however (and the Kipling-esque simplicity of his name is relevant), shares none of this love of killing and comrades. We know little of his war, save that he served in France, Mesopotamia and Egypt, and was wounded twice. Where Drummond was a Captain – and, one suspects, would have risen higher had he not been quite so psychopathic – Tommy is still a Lieutenant come the Armistice. He’s a plodder; not lacking in courage and certainly prepared to do his duty, but not really cut out for the life of soldiering.

Nor does Tommy go in for the hearty bonhomie of Drummond and his crew, the banter that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Remove at Greyfriars’ School. ‘We’re sort of pledged to bung you through the window, old bean, if you talk such consolidated drivel,’ Drummond’s best friend, Algy, warns him, and Drummond grins sheepishly. Tommy does try for a tone of witty badinage sometimes, but only because he doesn’t know how to tell Tuppence that he wants to be more than ‘pals’ – and anyway she’s always wittier than he is.

In his excellent book The Durable Desperadoes (Macmillan, 1973), William Vivian Butler summed up the two dimensions of Drummond’s character:

He is always either massively good-humoured or massively menacing, his ham-like fists ready to sledgehammer you on the back if you are a friend, or close round your throat in a vice-like grip if you are one of Old England’s foes.

Tommy doesn’t take after him in either of these departments. It is possible, Christie is suggesting, to be a decent chap without indulging in behaviour that’s boorish at best, and sometimes downright thuggish. Drummond is, as Cecil Day-Lewis once remarked, an ‘unspeakable public school bully’; Tommy is more like the house prefect who’s kind to the younger boys.

There’s one other aspect where Christie seems to be quietly reproaching Sapper. Tommy is thoroughly English, so that when he’s kidnapped by an evil foreign gang, he adopts a patient, reasonable tone that can’t fail but irritate his captors: ‘Don’t get so excited, my good fellow,’ he says. ‘That’s the worst of you foreigners. You can’t keep calm.’ But that’s about as far as he goes. There’s none of Sapper’s jocular xenophobia on display here. It’s significant, I think, that Carter is certain from the outset that ‘Mr Brown’ is himself an Englishman – for all the talk of foreign forces at work, the evil mastermind is one of our own.artwork-secret-adversary

It’s a very fine book, probably the most pleasurable of all Agatha Christie’s works. It achieves what A.G. Macdonell was aiming at with novels like The Professor’s Poison and The Factory on the Cliff later in the decade: a light-hearted, almost parodic, take on the Buchan blueprint.

It got decent reviews, but it wasn’t a huge hit, certainly not as big as Christie’s first publication, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which had introduced the world to Hercule Poirot (where the influence had been A.E.W. Mason, rather than Buchan or Sapper). And so for her next book, she went back to Poirot.

Tommy and Tuppence did return in a further four volumes: Partners in Crime (short stories, 1929), N or M? (1941), By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968) and Christie’s swansong, Postern of Fate (1973). They’re okay, but they’re more straightforward detective stories, and, judged on that basis, they’re not from her top drawer. The Secret Adversary, though, is something rather better than her norm.

There was a TV adaptation in 1983 with Francesca Amis and James Warwick, which made less impact than either of the big Christie hits of the decade: Miss Marple (1984–92) and Poirot (1989–2013). And there was a 2014 BBC version, which unnecessarily relocated the story to the 1950s and then – to add contempt to injury – cast David Walliams as Tommy, which was a horrible thing to do to the nation; happily, the nation responded in kind, and audience figures plummeted over the course of the series.

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