In early May 1915 the British luxury liner Lusitania was struck by two German torpedoes and quickly sank 15km off the western coast of Ireland. The prologue of THE SECRET ADVERSARY begins with an American on the Lusitania who is carrying important papers for the American ambassador in London handing these over to a young American girl to complete his mission. Her name is Jane Finn.
The story then jumps to a chance meeting near Picadilly in London early in 1919 between Miss Prudence Cowley (Tuppence) and Major Thomas Beresford (Tommy). Both have been involved in the war effort, but the war ended in late 1918 and so did gainful employment.
Tuppence and Tommy were childhood friends and met up briefly in 1916 when Tommy was hospitalised and Tuppence was working as a nurse. Over afternoon tea they decide to form a business partnership trading under the name of the Young Adventurers.
They decide to place an advertisement in the daily papers saying they are willing to do anything, go anywhere. After they go their separate ways, Tuppence is walking across St. James' Park when a man, who had overheard their conversation in the tea shop, approaches her with the offer of a job.
The next morning Tuppence follows up the job offer even though she doesn't particularly like the man making the offer. Unwilling to give her proper name, she gives the name Jane Finn, a name she had heard Tommy refer to on the previous afternoon, simply as a strange name he'd overheard some people discussing. At that the tone of the interview changes and the interviewer, Mr. Whittington, quickly gives Tuppence a large amount of money and arranges to meet her the next day. When Tommy and Tuppence go to keep the appointment the next day, Mr. Whittington has scarpered. Tommy and Tuppence decide to advertise for information about Jane Finn and so the plot gathers pace.
This is Agatha Christie's second novel, and the first featuring Tommy and Tuppence, who feature in four other Christie books and one collection of short stories written throughout her writing career.
The First World War is still very fresh in people's minds. And now in the political mix is the Russian Revolution in late 1917, the Tsar and his family executed, and the Communist Party came into power. Russia was amongst the victors of the war, and a party to the peace negotiations. The British Labour Party has a lot of sympathy with the Russian communists and is looking for anything to discredit the government. There are strikes in Britain at the end of 1918 and threats of strikes in 1919, problems with Ireland too, the period during which THE SECRET ADVERSARY is set.
I didn't feel this was as well written as THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES. It all felt a bit too "jolly hockeysticks" for me, rather like an adult version of Enid Blyton's Famous Five. There's a lot of fairly stilted dialogue, and, in a modern novel, both Tommy and Tuppence would probably have come to a fairly sticky end early on.
I think Christie was probably reflecting contemporary paranoia with Bolshevism and secret agents and conspiracies, but somehow the scenarios don't have a lot of depth.
However, in terms of whodunnit, I was tricked by a few red herrings, and changed my mind a number of times about who the "real secret adversary" actually was. I'm glad to say I was actually right in the end.
The last couple of chapters though are taken up with explanations for poor readers who didn't solve the puzzle. This is when we learn that we, the readers, had been kept a bit in the dark at times, so if we didn't work it all out, there were reasons why.
Here are other pointers of interest about THE SECRET ADVERSARY
- it shows a political awareness that we don't often give Agatha Christie credit for.
- There's not a lot of romance in Christie novels, but here we have the love affair of Tommy and Tuppence, although it is pretty tame by modern standards. I think though that the way she handles this, in a pretty understated fashion, that she doesn't "do" romance particularly well.
- there is a mention (just one) of Inspector Japp of the London Metropolitan police, who also appeared in THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES.
- There are observations about the social dislocation caused by the war. This something we also saw in THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES.
Further note on THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES.
From the front end paper of THE SECRET ADVERSARY I read that STYLES "had the unique distinction for being a first book of being accepted by the Times as a serial for its weekly edition." I followed that up and learnt that STYLES was written in 1916 and was first published by John Lane in the US in October 1920 and in the UK by The Bodley Head (John Lane's UK company) on February 1 1921.