Note: contains spoilers for this novel and for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The ABC Murders.
This is the first of Agatha Christie’s ‘thrillers’. I’ve always found the absolute distinction that people make between Christie’s ‘thrillers’ and her ‘mysteries’ to be an odd one, since there’s usually some mystery lurking at the heart of her thrillers and (admittedly less often) some element of the thriller lurking at the hear of her mysteries. I suspect what people mean when they make the distinction is that the story doesn’t involve the usual enclosed setting where one character is bumped off and a group of suspects is lined up to be questioned by the novel’s resident detective. If this describes Christie’s archetypal mystery-plot, then her thriller plots tend to err on the more colourful and exotic – details which lend colour to the central puzzle in her mystery stories become foregrounded in these narratives of spies, master-criminals and chases. In this particular novel, childhood friends Thomas ‘Tommy’ Beresford and Prudence ‘Tuppence’ Cowley unexpectedly run into each other again at Dover Street tube station. Over a cup of tea and a plate of toast, they discuss the dreariness of civilian life and lament the impossibility of getting a job now that the recently-ended war has flooded the market with potential employees, whilst also having robbed most of the conscripted men and women of England of the chance to gain experience and training. Finding themselves to be not only unemployed but also unemployable, they decide to advertise their services as adventurers for hire. After Tuppence is accosted by the mysterious Mr Whittington, whose fishy offer of a job on the continent she immediately rejects, the duo suspect that something is up. Sure enough, their activities soon bring them to the attention of Mr Carter, civil servant and plot expositor, who informs them that Whittington is part of a gang of Bolshevik terrorists headed by the terrible Mr Brown – a sort of teatime Keyser Soze, whose identity no-one has been able to determine.
The brilliant thing about this novel is how truly and utterly ridiculous it is and, what people often fail to consider, how ridiculous it is meant to be. It is dedicated ‘To all those who lead monotonous lives in the hope that they may experience at second-hand the delights and dangers of adventure’. Something I’ll talk about at great length in a moment is how this (for me at least) excuses quite a lot of the novel’s absurdities. A friend of mine recently informed me that the idea that those fleeing the torpedoed Lusitania allowed the women and children to go first – an idea on which the whole plot is founded – was a complete misnomer. Apparently, the ‘women and children first’ rule was only ever invoked twice in naval history – and the Lusitania was not one of these. Granted, Christie could have got over this by using a fictional ship instead, but I honestly don’t think that this inaccuracy matters. The point is that this isn’t a real situation, but an attempt to imagine ‘at second-hand the delights and dangers of adventure’. It is those imagined ‘delights and dangers’ that matter – not the reality.
Having said that, readers do need identifiable characters to offer them a way into this game which they are being invited to play – and Tommy and Tuppence are really very endearing and very convincing characters, in whose creation Christie’s use of natural-sounding dialogue again comes to the fore. They are absolutely typical of their time and must have been very easy for beleagured post-war twentysomethings to identify with. Perhaps surprisingly, World War I is more of a presence in this novel (set five years after armistice day) than it was in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which was written and set during that conflict. Tommy and Tuppence are both out of work and finding it hard to adjust after being demobbed – he as a Lieutenant and she as a nurse. The situation is clear:
And for ten weary months I’ve been job hunting! There aren’t any jobs! And, if there were, they wouldn’t give ’em to me. What good am I? What do I know about business? Nothing.
It’s the same for Tuppence, who fears having to return to the country home of her father, a poor clergyman: ‘I don’t want to go back, but – oh, Tommy, what else is there to do?’ As with Tuppence’s background, so is Tommy’s family history very effectively and economically sketched. Apparently, he has a rich uncle ‘who is more or less rolling, but he’s no good’. Tuppence asks him why:
‘Wanted to adopt me once. I refused.’
‘I think I remember hearing about it,’ said Tuppence slowly. ‘You refused because of your mother –’
‘Yes, it would have been a bit rough on the mater. As you know, I was all she had. Old boy hated her – wanted to get me away from her. Just a bit of spite.’
This is a nice little scene and it’s deftly referenced again later when Tuppence suggests that she might take a rich husband while Tommy might find a wealthy spinster to adopt him. Tommy’s pitiful response – ‘I don’t want to be adopted’ – recalls a childhood ordeal without descending into cheap melodrama. It all rings true in a beautifully understated way (though it’s a shame about the pay-off, where even this brutish misogynistic uncle is allowed to celebrate with the heroes, problematically legitimising an establishment whose intrinsic goodness the novel does much, elsewhere, to undercut). The banter between the pair is always mentioned as one of the most pleasurable things in the T&T novels, but scenes like this demonstrate how this isn’t just a good attempt to imitate P.G. Wodehouse. Rather, it’s an effortless recreation of how characters like of T&T’s age and background might have behaved and spoken, and is evidence of how skilfully Christie uses dialogue to tell us everything we need to know about her protagonists (something which, strangely, seems more in evidence in her novel than in her plays). Other character traits, such as Tuppence’s endless squealing and the pair’s almost unceasing appetite to consume as much food as possible at every opportunity are less endearing – although the latter does remind me of the young protagonists in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, who similarly seem to spend the time exchanging flippancies and stuffing their faces.
The first time I read this book I enjoyed it greatly and I enjoyed it again this time around as well. Although, being only about sixteen when I first read it (I’m twenty-eight now) I have to say that Tommy and Tuppence’s situation strikes a more personal chord on re-reading. Granted I’ve never been through a war (and hopefully I never will) but the way in which the duo find themselves suddenly up against it after a protracted period of security really reminded me of how I felt, at their age, having just left university after my BA. Now, this sounds like a horribly insulting comparison to make – insulting, that is, to the memory of the thousands who fought and died in WWI. Yet, I think it’s precisely in these more general terms that the novel should be read – what’s more, it’s how Christie invites us to read it. Tommy and Tuppence seem more than unscathed by their wartime experiences. Compared to the dullness of peacetime these wartime adventures seem infinitely superior. The whole novel is aimed at those who, like them and for whatever reason, want something more than the quotidian. Yes, to invoke WWI as a pleasing antithesis to the daily round is an odd move, but it’s the kind of manoeuvre on which the whole spy thriller genre has always been based – to imagine adventure as a pleasurably exciting escape not only from the complexities of daily life, but also from the horrors of ‘real’ danger.
Indeed, it is precisely in terms of their generic heritage that the duo’s adventures are presented. During their first interview with the American millionaire Julius P. Hersheimmer, for example, Tuppence ‘plunged boldly into the breach with a reminiscence culled from detective fiction’. Later, when Tommy is shadowing the villainous Mr Whittington, we find that he is ‘familiar with the technicalities from a course of novel reading’. Note that Tommy has worked in intelligence during the war, but is only familiar from his readings of novels with the kinds of activities we all imagine to govern such work – novels like this one presumably. This whole self-aware detective thing is taken to its logical conclusion later in Partners in Crime, a series of Tommy and Tuppence short stories in which the duo (and their creator) set out consciously and avowedly to parody other literary detectives – including Hercule Poirot himself.
Stylistically too the novel is self-referential:
‘Remember that if Mr Brown is all he is reported to be, it’s a wonder that he has not ere now done us to death. That’s a good sentence, quite a literary flavour about it.’
‘You’re really more conceited than I am – with less excuse! Ahem! But it certainly is queer that Mr Brown has not yet wreaked vengeance upon us. (You see, I can do it too.) We pass on our way unscathed.’
That’s escapism for you. If children get it from the adventures of Enid Blyton’s child-detectives, then adults get it from tales of espionage and wartime heroics (precisely the thing for which the novel is nostalgic). In both cases, the point is not the nature of the adventure, so much as the promise of something more wonderful than boring real life: ‘It’s – it’s so lovely to speak of things – and then for them really to happen!’ Indeed, the scene where Tommy overhears Whittington discussing plans with another man in a café, catching only a few choice words, but nevertheless getting the gist that some sort of evil plan is afoot, is hilariously reminiscent of The Comic Book Presents… spoof of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories. In that send-up, the baddies wander past murmuring ‘blah blah blah… secret plan… blah blah blah… third world war’. This is basically what happens here, not only in this scene, but in the whole novel.
The TV series Beautiful People offers the definition of camp as ‘doing as if’ – performing rather than simply ‘doing’ a task, undertaking every action self-consciously and in character. If so, then camp is what is happening here. Hence Carter’s suggestion that Tuppence, when entering Mrs Vandemeyer’s service in order to spy on her, should ‘represent yourself to be what you are, a former V.A.D., who has chosen domestic service as a profession.’ Chapter 9 is called ‘Tuppence Enters Domestic Service’. Of course, Tuppence has been in domestic service before, so why isn’t it ‘re-enters’? Probably because she is now only playing at being a servant, just as Tommy is now only playing at being a spy. This time it’s unofficial – since official is equated not only with reality, but also with reality’s quotidian dreariness. As I said, the whole thing is geared to escape not just the relentless dreariness of the quotidian, but also the complexity and horror of the real dangers of espionage. Allowing the reader to enjoy the characters ‘doing as if’ also allows them to escape the consequences that inevitably accrue to ‘doing’ anything in reality.
Of course, one problem with such consummate escapism is that it seldom escapes the clutches of its own historical context. Just as the recently-ended war provides the antithesis that defines the particular dreariness of these characters’ present, so the politics of the time provides the adversary necessary for any adventure. Presumably, had she written the novel today, the villains would be a network of terror cells threatening to overturn our very way of life. This being the twenties, however, the threat is a Bolshevik uprising here in England!!!! This recalls the rather depressing fact that the Daily Mail is and always has been with us. In the novel’s defence, however, I would state that a lot of this political backdrop is only there to make the plot function. Thus, the actual substance of the document which the protagonists spend the entire novel in search of is actually less important than the adventure it makes possible – the search itself. Hence the very vague terms in which it is described:
It will be sufficient to say that in the early days of 1915 a certain document came into being. It was the draft of a secret agreement – treaty – call it what you like. […] The war entered on another phase, the diplomatic aspect changed accordingly, and the treaty was never redrafted.
As well as apparently sparking another war (vaguely stated as being ‘not with Germany this time’) this is as nothing to the real danger:
Bolshevist gold is pouring into this country for the specific purpose of procuring a Revolution. And there is a certain man, a man whose real name is unknown to us, who is working in the dark for his own ends. The Bolshevists are behind the labour unrest – but this man is behind the Bolshevists. Who is he? We do not know. He is always spoken of by the unassuming title of ‘Mr Brown’. But one thing is certain, he is the master criminal of his age.
The distrust of socialism is an obvious indicator of the author’s political leanings, but it isn’t the case here (as it definitely is later in Passenger to Frankfurt) that Christie actually believes any such conspiracy theory, any more than G.K. Chesterton believes in an anarchist group headed by a master criminal called Thursday. Moreover, Mr Brown himself is not only decidedly apolitical, but we also
have every reason to believe he is an Englishman. He was pro-German [in the war] as he would have been pro-Boer. What he seeks to attain we do not know – probably supreme power for himself, of a kind unique in history.
In fact, although one certainly couldn’t argue that the novel is politically unbiased, it does its best to create an apolitical space in which the adventure itself can take place. By making Mr Brown a pillar of society and a monumental egoist who plays with the politics of nations only for his own pleasure and for his own ends (and not to any ideological purpose) it’s as if Christie is deliberately pointing to the fact that none of this has much to do with ‘real’ politics – whatever the political situation and whatever one’s political sympathies, Mr Brown would always be a villain. Hence, at the meeting on which Tommy spies, the Russian says of their contacts in the Labour party and in the trades unions: ‘They must have no inkling that we are using them for our own ends. They are honest men.’
All this might go some way towards explaining improbable ability of the novel’s characters to spot at first glance not only a person’s country of origin, but also their political affiliations and the precise degree of their villainy. Tommy’s face, for example, is ‘unmistakably the face of a gentleman and a sportsman’, but his is only the first of many ‘unmistakable’ visages in the novel. Later, one of the villains has ‘a weak, unpleasant face, and Tommy put him down as being either a Russian or a Pole’. When Tommy follows Whittington’s co-conspirator into ‘the mean streets of Soho’ it is to ‘a particularly evil-looking house’ guarded by a ‘villainous-faced man’. Having gained entry and concealed himself behind a convenient curtain, he observes a parade of recognisable depravity arrive on the scene. One man ‘was obviously of the very dregs of society. The low beetling brows, and the criminal jaw, the bestiality of the whole countenance were new to the young man, though he was of a type that Scotland Yard would have recognized at a glance.’ In another visitor, Tommy recognises, inexplicably, ‘an Irish Sinn Feiner’.
There is an interesting point about otherness and recognition here though. Because while most of the villains are easily identifiable as villains, the inability easily to categorise Mr Brown as such causes great consternation – not only for the heroes, but also for the baddies. As one of the villains says: ‘We look at each other – one of us is Mr Brown – which? He commands – but also he serves. Among us – in the midst of us. And no one knows which he is…’ The fact that there has to be a figurehead – someone behind the revolutionary leader we thought we knew – simplifies the political reality, but the fact that this person turns out to be a pillar of the establishment also complicates it at the same time. It means that the novel has it both ways. In generic terms it fulfils the promise, set forth in the dedication, to give the reader exactly the excitement that the thriller demands and along exactly the stereotypical lines that the reader can hope to expect. At the same time though, Mr Brown’s easy ability to pass for hero and villain alike (he is simultaneously the novel’s main establishment figure and its main emblem of disestablishmentarianism) means that we can also be reminded that the really terrible villainy is that which transcends the political affiliations that the novel otherwise simplifies for the sake of the plot and which permeates all political situations – even, potentially, the author’s beloved conservative English government.
Mr Brown, able to disguise himself so successfully as a reliable establishment figure, is also emblematic of the main fear underlying the novel. Namely, that the easy recognition of villainy and virtue that empowers the plot and allows good to win through in the end might break down. It is, in fact, only because ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are so easy to recognise that ‘good’ can easily triumph – but what if the ‘good’ characters couldn’t recognise the ‘bad’? How would they know who to fight? How would they know if they and their cause were ‘good’? In this sense, Mr Brown’s ability to disguise himself, from the good and the bad characters alike, represents what the repressed terror that haunts both the novel’s nominally heroic and its nominally villainous protagonists – their own amorality. After all, the criminals and the heroes are both beyond the law in this story. Tommy and Tuppence, we are reminded, are unofficial operatives. Tommy, when he escapes from the house in Soho, hopes to rely on the police for protection – but the police regard the dishevelled, unshaven hero with suspicion, unable to recognise the goodness that, the narrator assures us, had been so easy to detect not long before. Police are a part of the world, and a useful part, which Tommy ‘rather believe[s] in’. Yet they also represent the rules (the dreariness of authority, the quotidian routine and the official way of doing things) whose transcendence makes adventure, excitement and escapism possible – represent, indeed, just the kind of thing that escapism is an escape from. Little wonder that Mrs Vandemeyer’s willingness to sell out her colleagues for a large sum of money shocks and unsettles Tuppence, who feels ‘for the first time […] a horror of her own money-loving spirit’ and gives her ‘a dreadful sense of kinship to the woman fronting her.’
But all of this feeds into the central adventure/mystery plot very well and I was amazed, on re-reading, to find how obvious Mr Brown’s identity seemed. It really is a very different reading experience when you know Mr Brown’s identity – the bit where Mrs Vandemeyer faints, for example, seems like such a giveaway. Yet, on first reading, it’s really hard to decide who Mr Brown might be – even though it can only be a straight up fifty-fifty choice between Julius and Sir James.
Yet the novel’s main strength, for me, is as a thriller. It is, as all good pulp fiction should be, ‘so exactly as one expected’ – just as all effective escapism is. Of course, it turns out to have been a little too perfectly staged at times – and this is what makes Christie’s thrillers and mysteries, with their wry relationship to the genres in which they operate, a cut above. Sir James trying to incriminate Julius via an old crime fiction device (and via the whole fake Jane Finn nonsense) prefigures many examples in Christie of the murderer playing a narrative game. It’s as if the murderers have recognised the camp nature of the genre they are operating in and are blindsiding us by using our expectations of that genre in order effectively to disguise themselves. This reaches its logical conclusion with Roger Ackroyd, but the Styles murderers’ play-acting and the fake serial killer in The ABC Murders are other examples. The thriller genre might be full of easily identifiable criminal types, simplifying the reality from whose political complications it provides a consummate escape. But I think we might read these easily-identifiable types as one of Christie’s most effective use of genre subversion to misdirect the reader. In the end the ridiculous simplification of what criminals are actually like empowers the escapist plot but is also a massive red herring. In the end, the pantomime foreign stereotypes that Tommy and Tuppence come up against might as well come from any number of dime novels (as the narrative keeps reminding us) and their place in this one is meant not only to appeal to, but also to unsettle, the implied reader steeped in that kind of literature. As the unsettling revelation of Mr Brown’s identity reminds us, however, real villains come in all shapes and sizes and real villainy is centred in an egotistic power-complex that has little to do with one political creed or another. Mrs Vandemeyer and Mr Whittington might look like criminals, acting resolutely according to what we expect the thriller villain to look like – but it is the egotistical misuse of power by those firmly ensconced in the British establishment that we really need to fear.