Rating: 3.5 out of five
Year of Publication: 1922
Motive for Murder: Identity/Betrayal
Plot: At the end of the Great War the political map in Europe alters a great deal. A wave of change swipes across Britain; the Labour is growing from strength to strength and the economy is bleak.
It is five years after Germans torpedoed the Lusitania in the Atlantic. Among the dead passengers was a British agent, who had brought with him a draft of treaty from the US. Such document would have been beneficial to Britain at the war time. Now it will easily be used to topple the incumbent government.
As a result, the hunt for the document continues. For both opposing sides have realised that before the agent died, he had handed it over to a young American woman, Jane Finn, who was rescued and arrived safely in England.
Apparently her memory has been affected by the shock: she cannot remember anything before 7th May 1915, the day the Lusitania sinking. Consequently, nobody can retrace the document until she recovers.
In the meantime, a mere chance of having heard scraps of conversations on the street leads the young Tommy Beresford and Tuppence Crowley to be involved in the ‘Jane Finn Affair’. When they accept the assignment from Mr. Carter to get the document, little do they know of what their enemies are capable. Despite Mr. Carter’s warning on their ruthlessness, the pair are determined to carry out their plan. Time is essential, for Tommy and Tuppence just have a fortnight: they have to hand it in to Mr. Carter before the Labour Strike on 29th.
But beforehand they must find who Mr. Brown is.
The second novel of Christie’s sees the making of Tommy and Tuppence. They formed Young Adventures, Ltd. after bumping into one another on a tube station. Over tea and toast they were lamenting about the gloomy prospect for romance and job and therefore being ‘self-employed’ to take tasks to find ‘anything’ sound s like the most suitable option presently. The rest is the couple’s respective adventures to find out where Jane Finn is and reveal the identity of Mr. Brown.
I fancy Prudence Crowley as the young Christie herself; Tuppence’s hastiness, temper, wittiness and indomitable spirit. For a number of engaging dialogues in the book seem to have a natural flow and lighthearted . In spite of discussing serious issues, the carefree attitude of Tuppence’s of discussing the convenient option of marrying a rich husband and her having no qualms criticising her ‘war time experience’ as an ex-V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment) to Tommy is refreshing. Unlike Christie, the future Mrs. Beresford is not shy; her being forthright is not quite Victorian, bearing in mind that she an Archdeacon’s daughter. I imagine Christie would not have allowed herself to air her personal views liberally – even in a circle of friends. Be that as it may, the opportunity for revelations await in her heroine. Quite what writing stories are all about.
Furthermore, I wonder if some details about Tommy Beresford might have derived from Archibald Christie, the ex-husband. Moreover, Tommy and Tuppence’s partner in crime Julius P. Hershemmeir, the American millionaire who claims to be Jane Finn’s cousin, is the authoress’s fond memories of her late father.
Christie is apt to catch the mood of her readers. The political upheavals in Europe, Russia and Turkey provide the background for the plot with blossoming romance in between. At any rate the book is a clean break from her debut, written during the Great War; in which her words are more guarded and subtle in delivering refugee issues and war heroes. Although there is no criticism about the British Judicial System – that a suspect cannot be trialled twice- in Tommy and Tuppence’s first case but quick pacing and twists that makes it a page turner.
After the first reading I am intrigued as to what Mr. Christie thought of his being portrayed as a jobless war hero and whether he read the manuscript. Personally I believe his wife meant well; her wish that their marriage should have been a sport and partnership was a wonderful notion. The dynamic in their relationship is fantastic, as their personality appear to complement one another. On the one hand, Tuppence is frustrated about Tommy’s ‘slowness.’ On the other, she admires his cool-headed personae under a great pressure while acts accordingly when his plan is mature.
The plot speaks volumes about the authoress’s growing confidence in her voice. Yet I notice that there seems to be quite a few coincidences that guide Tommy and Tuppence through the investigation. To begin with, it was a Mr. Whittington, one of the gang, who gave the clue about Jane Finn and Rita. Next, Mr. Carter, a senior figure in British politics answers their advertisement about ‘information about Jane Finn.’ What was the chance that a small advertisement found its way to a high-rank politician? Thirdly, Sir James Peel Edgerton turning up at Rita’s abode; during which Tuppence played her undercover part as a domestic help in the flat. Sir James, a famous King’s Counsel, became Tommy-Tuppence-Julius’s invaluable ally. Nevertheless, did it ever occur to one of them how did he know Rita? Fourthly, their introduction to Mr. Hersheimmer, who also responded to their advertisement. Tommy and Tuppence appeared to have easily taken a stranger’s story without a background checking. Supposing he was indeed a millionaire; but when the American claimed to be Jane Finn’s cousin, weren’t the pair amateur sleuths ought to have checked his story first? What do you think, readers?
The most interesting scene to my mind is when Tuppence has managed to stall Rita disappearing from her flat with the help of Albert. Afterwards Rita has a heart attack and Tuppence, Mr. Heinsheimmer and Sir James have to stay in the flat overnight to take care of her. Meanwhile, Tuppence is told to get some sleep but refuses. As the night draws on, she says to Sir James: ‘I can’t help it. I know Mr. Brown’s somewhere in the flat! I can feel him.’ He responds: ‘With due deference to your feelings, Miss Tuppence, I do not see how it is humanly possible for anyone to be in the flat without our knowledge.’
Dialogues aside, Christie’s idea about ‘women’s instincts’ is at the heart of the matter. ‘Heart’ versus ‘head,’ which one to believe in a situation? More importantly, Tuppence’s objection for sleeping. For she senses that something unfortunate might happen due to sleeping (and oversleep – more common the case is). This notion is fascinating as it might have emanated from some old literatures, which sees sleeping as an opportunity to relinquish power. Particularly if it is a figure of power who is asleep. For instance, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Caliban promises that Prospero’s afternoon nap is the right moment in which to murder him and seize his books. Likewise, the downside of sleeping is also highlighted in the children’s tales (Sleeping Beauty, anyone?).
On the whole, the Secret Adversary works a magic for a feel good factor to Christie’s growing readers. In spite of having just a dead body, the touch of espionage, betrayal and over-ambition play more significant aspects in the plot. Tuppence is the first of Christie’s adventure-seeking young female protagonists while Tommy is a laid-back male character who watches and wraps things up nicely in the end.
-Rita Vandermeyer dies from overdose of sleeping tablets the next morning
-Tommy and Julius’s retracing document see that it has been replaced by two blank sheets of paper by Mr. Brown
-Julius keeps the photograph of Annette in his room; she is a French girl who helps Tommy escaped from the gang’s house in Soho
-Julius proposes to Tuppence.
-Tommy gives Mr. Carter a note that can only be opened in the eve of the Labour Strike on 29th
-Tommy is shown a note with Tuppence’s handwriting but the sender’s name is ‘Twopence’
-A black pocket book is found in Sir James Peel Edgerton’s coat following his death
-Jane Finn’s screaming about going back to ‘Marguerite’
Cast of Characters:
Albert (Tommy and Tuppence’s ally, the boy that works in South Adley Mansions, a block of flats in Mayfair where Rita Vandermeyer lives)
Boris Ivanovitch (a.k.a. Count Stepanov, Rita’s friend, part of the gang)
Mr. Carter (a handler of the Young Adventurers, a senior figure in British government)
Sir James Eel Edgerton (a famous King’s Counsel, Mr. Carter’s old friend)
Jane Finn (a.k.a. Annette, to whom Davern trusted the draft of treaty to be handed to the Ambassador of the US in London)
Julius P. Hersheimmer (Jane Finn’s cousin, an American millionaire)
Rita Vandermeyer (a.k.a. Margueritte, ex-actress, on board of the Lusitania with Jane Finn and is part of the gang with the knowledge about Mr. Brown)
Prudence Cowley (a.k.a. Tuppence – the heroine, Tommy’s partner in the Young Adventurers, Ltd)
Tommy Beresford (a war hero, Tuppence’s partner)
Mr. Whittington (part of the gang)
The Most Fascinating Character: Rita Vandermeyer
She happens to be on board of the Lusitania with Jane Finn. Allegedly, she saw the British agent Danvers had approached Jane Finn and suspected that he had passed the document to the young woman at that time. After their arrival in England Vandermeyer took Finn under her wing and placed her in a nursing home owing to Finn’s memory loss and severe trauma.
With the aid of passenger list supplied by Mr. Carter, Tuppence is then able to trace Rita’s address. Tuppence is able to penetrate into the other’s flat by way of Albert’s recommendation as a maid. A few days later Tuppence’s cover is revealed. ‘Are you going to poison me?’ she asks Rita. ‘Perhaps.’ ‘Then I shan’t drink it (a glass of water )….’ ‘Don’t be a little fool! Do you really think I want a hue and cry for murder out of me? If you’ve any sense at all, you’ll realize that poisoning you wouldn’t suit my book at all. It’s a sleeping-draught, that’s all….’
In her brief presence in the book, Rita’s remarks say a lot about her. She does not seem to be a ruthless woman, for her intention to just sedate Tuppence instead of killing her. Furthermore, I believe her being involved in the gang is because of Mr. Brown – the Mastermind himself. Besides, her motive is money. No sooner has Tuppence offered Mr. Heishemmer’s £100,000 to betray the gang than she accepts.
The mystery lies in her relationship with Mr. Brown. She knows who he is – unlike Boris Ivanovitch and Mr. Whittington. It is not clear how they met; yet I gather they have known each other long before the Lusitania (I wonder whether Mr. Brown ‘planted’ her on the liner to watch Danvers’s movement).
From Tuppence’s point of views readers understand his charisma and power and therefore his control over someone. Rita seems to be under his spell; she would do whatever he asked. More importantly, she loves the man. She is not a fool and might have realised the fact that he had used her to his own advantages. But love has blinded her. And just as Jason Rudd (The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side), she protects him. She has masked his identity, even to her friend Boris.
Perhaps he is right about her. ‘You are a clever woman, Rita; but you are also a fool! …Be guided by me, and give up [the different name of Mr. Brown].’ It is intriguing how instinct works without someone realising it.
If there are traits of her character in Christie’s later books, Louise Leidner (Murder In Mesopotamia) and Marina Gregg (The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side) are the exemplary examples.
Annette’s screaming (to Tommy Beresford):
‘This is a terrible house. I want to go back to Marguerite. To Marguerite. To Marguerite!’
Boris Ivanovitch (to Rita Vandermeyer):
‘Money – money! That is always the danger with you, Rita. I believe you would sell your soul for money. I believe-,’ He paused, then in a low, sinister voice he said slowly:’Sometimes I believe that you would sell –us!’
Prudence Cowley (to Sir James Peel Edgerton):
‘I can’t help it. I know Mr. Brown’s somewhere in the flat! I can feel him.’
Rita Vandermeyer (to Boris Ivanovitch):
‘You forget, Boris, I am accountable to no one. I take my orders only from – Mr. Brown.’
‘Reassure myself, my dear Boris. He (Sir James Peel Edgerton) suspects nothing. With less than you usual chivalry, you seem to forget that I am commonly accounted a beautiful woman. I assure that is all that interests Peel Edgerton.’