The Secret Adversary (by Agatha Christie)

While most of my favourite novels are character-based family sagas, I like reading light crime fiction from time to time. Agatha Christie was one of the originators of this genre, and wrote an astonishing number of clever books. We have a large collection but I still haven’t read them all. A week ago I embarked on ‘The Secret Adversary’, which, I later learned, was Christie’s second published book.

Rather than being a standard crime story, this one is more of a thriller, although there is still something of a mystery to solve. But we first meet two young people: Tommy, who was a soldier in the first world war, and his old friend Prudence, usually called Tuppence. Both are struggling to make ends meet in post-war London, and decide to embark on a business together, solving problems or going on adventures.

Tuppence is approached on her way home by someone who wants to employ her, but when she meets him, she mentions a name which she has heard, almost at random, and clearly startles him. She is given some money and told to come back the following day…

This starts a train of events which leads both Tommy and Tuppence into very serious danger. They become entangled with a gang, mostly political, who want to undermine the country. Their leader, known as ‘Mr Brown’, is apparently ruthless. A young American woman called Jane Finn is known to have had some important documents prior to the loss of a big passenger ship; these documents, if found, would cause immense problems for the current government.

Much of the political intrigue went over my head; almost 100 years ago political leanings weren’t quite the same as they are now anyway. But the search for Jane, and the documents, and the mystery of Mr Brown’s identity made for a very exciting storyline. Various other characters are introduced gradually, some obviously unpleasant, others presumed to be on Tommy and Tuppence’s side.

I had guessed who Mr Brown was by the time I was about half-way through the book, although for a while I assumed I was probably wrong; Agatha Christie was, after all, brilliant at laying false trails. But my hunch didn’t spoil the story at all - indeed, it made it all the more tense.

Having finished, I have to acknowledge that the story is somewhat unrealistic; the young pair and their friends are remarkably lucky. Both are able to talk or bluff their way out of what would have been quite terrifying situations. The gang members and their leader show no mercy; yet at times they are easily fooled.

Unusually for Agatha Christie, there’s a low-key romance running through the book (indeed, there are two of them by the end). I’m not sure that all the relevant conversations are entirely believable, but perhaps the upper middle class people of a hundred or so years ago did speak like that. There’s some light repartee which is quite amusing, and some ironic asides here and there, which were welcome light touches in an otherwise quite heavy storyline.

A book like this doesn’t make the best bedtime reading, and by the time I was half way through, I could barely put it down.

Definitely recommended if you enjoy this genre of gore-free early 20th century crime fiction.

This book is still in print in the UK, widely available at second-hand or charity shops, and also free to download in various formats from Project Gutenberg.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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