The Secret Adversary was Agatha Christie’s second novel, first published in 1922. It is also the first novel to feature the duo Tommy and Tuppence. Tommy and Tuppence are no doubt the least successful of Agatha Christie’s fictional sleuths –as they feature in only four novels and a collection of short stories. The secret Adversary is an engaging little story – full of 1920’s silliness it I suppose of its time and it is an early Christie novel, written long before those novels which really made her name. I read this while away on holiday in Devon, and it was when I was about halfway through the book that I paid a visit to Greenway – the beautiful riverside holiday home of Agatha Christie which is now managed by the National Trust. Greenway of course was bought by Agatha Christie many years after she had written The Secret Adversary – but it seemed appropriate to be reading her when I was paying a visit there.
“Money, money, money! I think about money morning, noon and night! I dare say it’s mercenary of me, but there it is”
In 1919 Tommy and Tuppence are reunited after the end of the war, old friends Tommy is a demobilised soldier, Tuppence a former VAD nurse. They are both out of money and decide to fall back on to their friendship and Tuppence’s brains by becoming private enquiry agents. They are immediately (and somewhat unbelievably) drawn into a mystery involving a missing girl Jane Finn who was a survivor of the Lusitania in 1915. Jane Finn, a young American, was handed a packet of secret documents just moments before she boarded a life boat – by a man who feared he wouldn’t make it off the ship – but was relying on the tradition of “women and children first” to save the girl and with her the documents he so desperately wanted to get out. However Jane Finn then disappeared, her name on the list of survivors the only proof of that she made it off the stricken vessel. In 1919 in London Tommy and Tuppence are soon surrounded by people who are also on the trail of Jane Finn and the missing documents that have the potential to bring down the government. A cold ageing beauty in whose home Tuppence manages to wangle herself a job as a maid – a sinister Russian, an American millionaire and an intelligence officer among others. Both Tommy and Tuppence face dangers as they delve further into the mystery of Jane Finn.
The mystery is really rather improbable – but although a little silly it is readable and Tommy and Tuppence are really rather delightful in their silly old way. By the time the mystery is settled (and I was pleased that I guessed who “the secret adversary” was) Tommy and Tuppence have woken up to their feeling for one another and their partnership is sealed.
“Marriage is called all sorts of things, a haven, and a refuge, and a crowning glory, and a state of bondage, and lots more. But do you know what I think it is?’
‘And a damned good sport too,’ said Tommy.”
A quick word about Greenway – it was probably the nicest day of my week in Devon. Agatha Christie apparently called it “the loveliest place in the world” and I can see why. Only taken over by The National Trust a few years ago – it still has the feel of a family home. There are bookcases filled with Agatha’s books – Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Ellory Queen, Conon Doyle, PG Wodehouse among others, photo frames filled with family pictures, and cases and cases of the china and other things that she and her husband Max Mallowan collected in the years they had together including some of their archaeological finds. There are even a few examples of Agatha’s clothing hanging in an upstairs cupboard. I was reminded strongly of the setting for Dead Man’s Folly while I was there – and following a conversation on Facebook later I discovered that Greenway was indeed the inspiration for the house in that book. If you love Agatha Christie and you haven’t been to Greenway – then if you find yourself in the area make sure you take time out of your day to visit, the grounds alone with views over the river are worth it.