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9th June
2009
written by Steph
AKA "The Not-Very-Well-Kept Secret Adversary"

AKA "The Not-Very-Well-Kept Secret Adversary"

Since 2009 is the year that I’m rediscovering my love affair with the mystery novel, I decided that I would like to reacquaint myself with the Queen of Mystery – Agatha Christie.  I read a bunch of her books when I was in middle school/highschool, but my memory for the titles I did read is absolute rubbish, so I figured it might be fun to start reading the books in the order they were published.  I haven’t made much headway in this personal challenge (challenge is perhaps the wrong word – long-term goal, is probably more apt), as The Secret Adversary is just Christie’s second book.  And as much as I love Dame Christie, it shows! Christie wrote  about several detectives, and The Secret Adversary is the novel in which she introduces her sleuthing duo, Tommy & Tuppence.  The basic premise is that the two longtime pals meet up in London following WWI, both down on their luck and swiftly running out of money.  Tuppence announces over tea (bizzarely and hilariously, in my opinion) that the only cure for it all is for them to become adventurers (?).  Following the meal, Tuppence is approached by a man who overheard her and says he might have just the ticket for her.  He wants her to go to Paris and pretend to be someone, but when he asks her her name, Tuppence throws out the name “Jane Finn” on a whim, which enrages the man, who asks how much of the scheme she already knows, and ultimately dismisses Tuppence from the office, telling her to come back the next day… only for him to have vanished upon her return!  And so Tuppence and Tommy wind up embroiled in a scheme to overthrow the British government – one that will succeed unless they can track down the real Jane Finn, who was given some national documents prior to the war that would be most damaging if they fell into the wrong hands.  Will these green sleuths be able to outwit one of the most elusive criminal masterminds to challenge the Empire, the sinister Mr. Brown?  And how is it that he always seems to be a step ahead of them? Initially, I wasn’t very impressed with The Secret Adversary.  The writing felt somewhat lackluster and overly simplistic (I’m not saying that Christie normally writes dense and impressive prose, but this felt very watered down).  It was fine for reading poolside, but initially I had a hard time getting interested in the story, and the whole thing felt overly jocular and trivial.  At times there were moments of intended humor that I appreciated, but a good deal of the time I wound up laughing at the unintentional (I presume) hilarity of the writing.  There was so much over-the-top 1930s slang (a lot of “Gee!” and “Shucks!” happening), and a good portion of the time the characters didn’t talk in ways that were all believable.  Here is my absolute favorite line from the book:
“But I should like to know if you are acquainted with a Mrs. Vandemeyer?” “Mrs. Vandemeyer, of 20 South Audley Mansions?  I know her slightly.”
It just cracks me up that someone would know someone’s address by heart but then claim to know said person only “slightly”.  Once I got over the fact that highbrow literature this ain’t, I was able to enjoy the story a lot more.  I still found Tommy & Tuppence inconsistently drawn (they have moments of dazzling brilliance when it suits the story, but other times they are shockingly dense… many characters actually go out of their way to point out how dumb Tommy actually is.  Clearly a detective in the making!  And Tuppence I found quite puzzling, because sometimes she’s a spitfire, but other times she comes across as vapid and lazy.), but I was able to embrace this as a fun little read-in-a-single day mystery. The story was good, but I do have to admit that the unthinkable did happen: I cracked the case well before Christie reveals the answers to us!  There were plenty of red herrings peppered throughout, but I did feel that this was not as complex and convoluted a plot as has been crafted by Christie in other mysteries; I felt you could really see the gears turning here, rather than having the writing process veiled. There were a lot of "so-and-so felt that this person looked vaguely familiar, but dismissed the thought as folly", which should immediately get your antenna up.  This really was the kind of mystery that can be solved just by using common sense, which I suppose was enjoyable in its own right.  I read avidly after I made my guess to see whether I would be vindicated, and was pleased to find that I was. Overall, I felt this was pretty clunky by Christie’s standards, but I did have fun with it.  Tommy & Tuppence grew on me, and I came round to the more farcical vibe to the story and their interactions.  I liked their playful spirit, and I enjoyed the burgeoning romance between the two that develops throughout the course of the novel.  I will be curious to see whether I can keep pace with Christie and crack the next novel on my own.  Next up is Murder on the Links, a Hercule Poirot mystery, so I suspect my little grey cells will be taxed aplenty.  I’m really interested to see how she evolves as a writer, not simply in terms of the writing itself but in terms of plotting and ingenuity. For Christie completists and enthusiasts, this is required reading, but for the casual mystery reader, this one is perhaps too flimsy to offer sustained entertainment. Rating: 3 out of 5

11 Comments

  1. 06/09/2009

    Definitely doesn’t sound like anything I will be running out the door for, but it’s only her second book. She wrote so many, maybe she got really good through lots of practice.

    i read her back in high school too and I found a few of her stories to be downright creepy. Especially Ten Little Indians. But I wonder if I would find them so now.

  2. 06/09/2009

    I definitely think Christie was just finding her voice and developing her style with this one. The one prior to this (The Mysterious Affair at Styles) is another example of a good, not great, mystery…

    I honestly can’t remember which of hers I’ve read and which ones I haven’t. I think I remember reading 10 Little Indians, and finding it creepy, but really, I can’t wait to revisit it. The great thing about not really having a memory for plot is that after enough time, most books are like reading them for the first time! 😉

  3. 06/09/2009

    Sorry you didn’t love this mystery. It definitely isn’t one of her best. Tommy and Tuppence aren’t my favorite characters, but I always appreciate the stories that don’t involve Marple or Poirot. The first one I ever read was “And Then There Were None” (better known to you as “10 Little Indians”) and I’ve been hooked ever since. I just love it! I enjoyed “Murder on the Links”, but I had no problem cracking the case. I look forward to your future reviews!

  4. 06/09/2009

    Even though this wasn’t the top Christie mystery I’ve ever read, it was still fun. I think I’ve told you my favorite sleuth is Poirot, so I was surprised at how much I liked Tommy & Tuppence. I am generally not a Miss Marple fan, and I haven’t read anything with the other dude (whose name escapes me at the moment). Not sure when I’ll get to Murder on the Links (probably whenever I return this book to the library), but I’ll see if I can solve it!

  5. 06/11/2009

    I haven’t read this series, more familiar with detective Hercule Poirot. He is my favorite sleuth as well. So of her landmark mysteries, like Murder on the Orient Express and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, I can read over and over again. They’re very “fresh” reads that I don’t remember the any of the twist and enjoy myself all over again.

  6. 06/11/2009

    @ Matt: if I give myself enough time, I’m sure I could re-read most Agatha Christie’s again, since I tend not to remember most plot details. But this one, since I solved it so early on, I doubt would have much re-read value.

  7. Eva
    06/12/2009

    I didn’t enjoy this one all that much, but a later Tommy & Tuppence book, By the Pricking of My Thumbs, is AWESOME. Like, my spine tingled at one scene because it was so creepy. On the other hand, The Postern of Fate (another T&T one) is the worst Christie I’ve ever read.

  8. 06/12/2009

    I did think that Tommy & Tuppence had potential to become a fun detective pair. I doubt they could eclipse my love for Poirot, but few could! So now I will look forward to By the Pricking of My Thumbs and will fear The Postern of Fate. Don’t get me wrong, I intend to read both, but at least I will be prepared for awesomeness and awfulness, respectively.

  9. 06/12/2009

    I have always wanted to read an Agatha Christie mystery, but it doesn’t sound like this is the best place to start. I might actually start with By the Pricking of my Thumbs. Now that I think of it, I think I did see a television adaptation of one of her stories, but I don’t remember much about it. I think it was a PBS mystery special, if I remember correctly.

  10. 06/12/2009

    Yes, I would recommend you start elsewhere. I can’t remember many of her stories that I’ve read previously, though I can tell you that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is fantastic. Also, Then There Were None/10 Little Indians is really good too. I really enjoy the television adaptations of the books – at least the ones featuring Hercule Poirot! (We once started to watch A Caribbean Mystery featuring Miss Marple and it was pretty terrible.)

  11. […] of you longtime readers may recall that when I reviewed my last Christie read, I crowed over having deduced the identity of the criminal mastermind well before the grand reveal. […]

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