Category Archives: Thrillers

‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ (1923)

This story was first published in Issue 1580 of The Sketch (9 May 1923) and was reprinted the following year in the collection Poirot Investigates. In it, Poirot and Hastings try to uncover the answer to the apparently trivial question of how exactly the Robinsons managed to bag a furnished flat in London’s Knightsbridge for such a low rent. The answer is far-fetched, but makes for a Poirot story that’s different from anything published in the Sketch series to this point.

 One of the main differences is in the tale’s structure. As Hastings explains:

 So far, in the cases which I have recorded, Poirot’s investigations have started from the central fact, whether murder or robbery, and have proceeded from thence by a process of logical deduction to the final triumphant unveiling. In the events I am now about to chronicle a remarkable chain of circumstances led from the apparently trivial incidents which first attracted Poirot’s attention to the sinister happenings which completed a most unusual case.

Actually, this isn’t as unusual as Hastings seems to think – the ‘apparently trivial’ is always at the heart of Poirot’s cases. But we get the point. Coincidentally, The Murder on the Links, which was published in the same month as this story, also begins not with a crime but with Poirot’s being furnished with a reason to suspect that a crime is imminent (albeit a much more tangible reason than he is given here). I also love Hastings’s choice of words here. ‘The final triumphant unveiling’ makes it sound amusingly like Poirot is performing a sort of striptease – an alarming image perhaps, but an apt one for a detective whose methods often work by stripping away the sensational aspects of a case to reveal the essentials of what ‘really’ happened.

 Another major difference from Poirot’s cases hitherto (and a very welcome one at that) is the way in which the story opens with a proper conversation that real people might conceivably have. The opening dialogue, in which Hastings attends a friend’s party, is much more realistic than the usual ‘I say, what a lot of bond robberies there have been lately!’ style of opening, much more realist than the crudely functional dialogue that usually constitutes the infodump which usually characterises the opening of a Christie short story. While such openings stretch to the limit our credulity as to how people might actually speak, simply in order to get across the facts of the puzzle as quickly as possible, we are here provided with a timely reminder that Poirot and his ‘associates’ are real people actually engaged in conversation with some other people (as opposed to cyphers for relaying information that will be important later). This courtesy is extended to secondary characters as well. After one particularly lengthy sentence, Mrs Robinson ‘paused for some much needed breath’ before continuing – a neat disguise for what is, formally speaking, merely a device for relaying the central puzzle. Moreover, Mrs Robinson’s story is itself triggered by the presence of another of Hastings’s friends, the habitual house-hunter, Parker – a character who doesn’t appear again, and who is introduced solely to add richness to the idea that this is a real group of friends with real lives beyond the purely functional purpose of their role in the mystery plot. It also provides a welcome opportunity to see what sort of a life Hastings leads when he isn’t hanging out with his Belgian friend. Apparently, he’s affable, popular and has a reputation in his circle as a ‘criminal expert’ and ‘a great unraveller of mysteries’. Again, it helps us to imagine Hastings as a rounded character – a real person rather than a disembodied voice chronicling Poirot’s activities. It also means that when Hastings rejoins Poirot after the party scene the contrast allows us to see that his role as a cypher is thrust upon him by his friend’s brilliance. It’s as if his own personality only comes to the fore away from Poirot – only then does he have a personality (defined by the social relations of the realist text), rather than simply a role (defined by the constraints of genre fiction).

This characterises the almost metafictional relationship in which this story appears to stand to the rest of the Poirot stories so far. It’s as if Christie is commenting, not only on Hastings as a character and a narrator, but also, by extension, on her own habitual techniques as a storyteller. For example, Hastings’s predilection for women with auburn hair is mentioned and will become important in Murder on the Links, which Christie was probably writing or had completed around the same time as this story. Yet, Poirot’s comment on his friend’s powers of description is surely a sly self-deprecating comment on Christie’s own tendency to provide the briefest of character sketches: ‘Yes, there are hundreds of these average men – and anyway, you bring more sympathy to your description of women.’ Hastings has also developed a Tommy-and-Tuppence-esque tendency to comment on his own dialogue:

‘That’s them,’ I declared in an ungrammatical whisper.

Later, when the narrative takes a turn for the sensational, Poirot seems to signal his awareness of the fact that he is engaged in events ripe for the detective genre (‘Hastings, shall I recount to you a little history? A story after my own heart and which will remind you of your favourite cinema?’) which seems like Christie wraning her readers of what to expect as the apparently mundane mystery of the Robinsons suddenly takes a turn for the wildly improbable: ‘There are reasons for believing that she was in reality an accomplished international spy who has done much nefarious work under various aliases.’ To cap it all off, when a comedy Italian gangster appears on the scene, Hastings unintentionally voices what must surely be in all of our heads when he exclaims: ‘My God, Poirot, this is awful.’

Yet Christie’s talent as a crime writer (what raises her above the broad strokes of an Edgar Wallace) is that the sensational story she’s just unfolded is not the point of the tale. The most important detail, it turns out, isn’t the spies or the aliases or whatever, but the fact that ‘The official description of Elsa Hardt is: Height 5 ft 7, eyes blue, hair auburn, fair complexion, nose straight, no special distinguishing marks.’ The fact that this is also the description of Hastings’s friend is, of course, a crucial red herring – but the wider red herring here is the whole cannon of crime fiction, of the kind Poirot likens to Hastings’s ‘favourite cinema’. It encourages us to dwell on the ‘awful’ accoutrements of the spy genre in order to draw our attention away from what’s really going on.

There’s also a really nice moment where Christie uses a French idiom to comment on Poirot as a foreigner – someone whose ‘otherness’ to the quotidian routine echoes the otherness of that routine from the detective genre itself. When he decides to break into the Robinson’s flat in order to ascertain what might be amiss, Poirot points out:

‘No one will observe us. The Sunday concert, the Sunday “afternoon out”, and finally the Sunday nap after the Sunday dinner of England – le rosbif – all these will distract from the doings of Hercule Poirot.’

Le rosbif is (obviously) not the French translation of ‘roast beef’. It is, in fact, a mocking piece of French (sorry, Belgian) slang which refers to the English character in general. But I like to see this story as expanding the reach of the idiom. Le rosbif might also be understood here as referring to the quotidian round, the realist mode; and Poirot, being placed outside of both, is able to take advantage of the complacency of those within it. No-one expects the Belgian inquisition!

Despite these metafictional shenanigans, the solution itself strikes me as clever but very, very far-fetched. Ultimately, this mix of the quotidian and the improbable doesn’t quite gel and the transition from one to the other isn’t a smooth one. Yes, Robinson is a common surname, yes a fair-haired Mrs Robinson was bound to appear sooner or later – but it does seem like an unbelievably risky plan. Also, the weird ending is disconcertingly abrupt. Presumably the intention was a sort of ‘all’s well that ends well’ – we’ve caught the culprits, the Robinsons are safe and now we can all breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy a good laugh. Instead, it reads like Christie suddenly reached the end of her word count and quickly inserted some seriously bizarre comedy business with a cat. But then, perhaps this is fitting, given how singular this story seems compared to those that precede it.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Poirot Investigates (1924), Short Stories, Short Story, Thrillers

Re-Watching Agatha Christie: The Man in the Brown Suit

The Man in the Brown Suit (1989)

Directed by Alan Grint

Screenplay by Carla Jean Wagner

Cast:

Stephanie Zimbalist, Edward Woodward, Rue McClanahan, Tony Rnadall

I didn’t think I’d be able to review this film as part of my trawl, due to its being very hard to come by on DVD and (as far as I can see) also unavailable on a certain popular video-streaming site. Fortunately, it popped up on ITV over Christmas, so I was able to watch it after all.

I must admit, I’d never had any inclination to seek out this adaptation of the novel before now. Its characters’ nationalities (the good guys at any rate) have been pointlessly transformed from British to American and the action transposed to the late 1980s. The novel is so very much a product of 1920s Britain that I just didn’t feel any desire to watch a version of the story updated in this way. Just… why would you do that? Why? To be honest, I’m still not sure. But I was very pleasantly surprised by this film, which turned out to be delightful – not least in the inventive ways it remained faithful to the story and spirit of the source material.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the way that, even given the late-1980s setting, the story is left almost totally intact, the biggest change being that Anne starts her adventure having already embarked on her travels; and that the affair that sparks off her amateur sleuthing is a car accident rather than death-by-tube. This removes any of the ambiguity from the opening incident – here, it very much is an accident. The meaning of the ‘7 1 22’ riddle is also slightly different, given that there’s now no way this could read as a date in the year 1922.

Another change (for me at least) was that Anne is much, much more endearing here than in the novel, although I’m really at a loss to explain why. It must be down to the actress playing her, since the character herself is largely unchanged. The references might be updated slightly, with mentions of The Perils of Pauline replaced by mentions of Charlie’s Angels, but Anne herself is still a sucker for the conventions of the thriller and is as self-aware of her position in a film as Anne in the novel is of her position in an exciting book. At one point, half-way through proceedings, she exclaims stubbornly ‘You don’t expect me to just up and walk out in the middle of the picture?’ Cleverly, the last line is also ‘I always did love a movie that ended with –’. So yeah, I suppose part of the remedy is the way in which the film itself is intensely aware of its status as a film while, in the novel, it’s only Anne herself who acts quixotically as if she’s in a thriller. Of course, she actually is in a thriller, but the book does less than the film to signal that thriller’s own ridiculous adhesion to generic rules – the metafictional dialogue has been noted, and another example would be the ostentatious diamond-shaped zoom (it’s hard to describe) that signals the frequent cliffhangers. As a result, where the book appears just as annoyingly quixotic as its main character, the film version ensures that Anne is perfectly right to imagine herself a part of an exciting thriller, whilst also signalling its apprehension of just how ridiculous such thrillers can be – signalling to the audience, that is, that there is absolutely no reason here to take either Anne or the film seriously. And it’s all the more enjoyable for that.

The other difference might lie in the show-don’t-tell attitude of the visual medium. In the absence of any long disquisitions in the first person, Anne simply doesn’t seem so irritatingly pleased with herself as in the novel. That, and the fact that the film wisely ditches the whole ‘I love a man who might beat me’ make her a much more fun person to be around (in this version, Anne just really fancies Lucas, whose main flaw isn’t his latent primitive thuggery but merely his arrogance).

As I said, credit must also go to loveable Stephanie Zimbalist, whose naïve charm reminds me of Laura Linney in the TV version of Tales of the City. Sir Eustace is also brilliantly realised by Edward Woodward, who nails the knight’s endearing pomposity to a tee. The film also neatly manages to sidestep the sleaziness that attends the character in the novel, although it does manage to slip in a knowing reference to the book version’s unhealthy fascination with Anne’s legs. The only disappointment is that Sir Eustace doesn’t attend the costume party as a teddy bear – one of my favourite jokes from the novel, which I would have loved to have seen realised onscreen. Perhaps disappointingly, Colonel Race (a balding, middle-aged CIA agent in this modern version) is nothing like the handsome young officer of the novel – although this sort of makes sense given the fabulous older lady who plays Suzanne and who provides an almost-love interest for him.

There are moments when the film has a lot of fun with the inherent ridiculousness of some aspects of the source material, courtesy of a device usually silently omitted from screen versions of Christie – specifically, the unlikely transvestism of one of the novel’s villains. You can get away with this in a novel (just) because the reader can’t actually see the person described, so is a little more willing to accept the idea that no one notices a rather burly man passing himself off as a woman. Here though, the fake female steward who tries to gain entry to Anne’s cabin is so obviously a man dressed up it’s hilarious, as is the case with Sir Eustace’s new secretary later. Please note: I’m really not having a go at transvestism as a practice – rather, I’m lampooning its inherent ridiculousness as a plot device in mystery novels, which is also what I believe this film to be doing. Even more hilarious than Chichester in drag is the idea that anyone would actually think such a disguise would actually work – an idea emphasised hilariously by the flashbacks, which allow us to see the erstwhile vicar side by side with his feminine alter egos, thus emphasising for the viewer (in a way the novel does not) the degree of levity which is the only really appropriate response to these proceedings – think Psycho but less grim. And when all’s said and done, neither of these women looks like the Reverend Chichester, which means that, as an element in the mystery plot, the device still works.

So all in all, this film greatly surpassed my expectations. It doesn’t always stay true to the precise spirit of the book – which is no bad thing when one considers some of the novel’s more unsavoury aspects. What it does do, however, is convey a sense of the spirit in which this breezy thriller can be enjoyed, transforming it into exactly the kind of escapist fun the book aims for but (for me, at any rate) doesn’t quite achieve. That it also manages to transfer the plot sixty years forward in time whilst staying utterly true to the best aspects of the novel is also no mean feat.

Leave a comment

Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), Thrillers

The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)

NB: Contains major spoilers for this novel and for Taken at the Flood (1944) and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)

This, along with They Came to Baghdad (1951), is one of only two of Agatha Christie’s novels that I have neither read, nor seen/heard as a radio, film or TV adaptation. I’ll be honest – it’s not one of her best. It’s another of her ‘thrillers’ (not necessarily a bad thing in itself, of course). As usual there’s a whodunit element, although since this is another novel that turns, like The Secret Adversary, on the identity of a master criminal, perhaps ‘whoisit’ would be a more apposite description.

The protagonist is Anne Beddingfield, an orphaned daughter of a professor of anthropology. Anne has moved to London in search of a job, but really longs for the kind of adventures she sees enacted in the weekly serials exhibited at the local cinema. Her dreams begin to come true when she witnesses what appears to be a fatal accident at Hype Park Corner tube station. Her investigations reveal a link to the murder of a young woman on a country estate and the impending voyage of the liner Kilmorden Castle, bound for South Africa. Having secured a passage on the vessel, Anne finds herself embroiled in a sinister plot overseen by the shadowy master criminal known only as ‘the Colonel’.

In a perverse way, I do love the almost self-parodic awfulness of the prologue, whose ridiculous opening line suggests that Agatha, as well as Anne, harbours an unhealthy addiction to cheap movie serials:

Nadina, the Russian dancer who had taken Paris by storm, swayed to the sound of the applause, bowed and bowed again.

This is followed by a baffling exchange which purports to explain why fellow Russians appear to be conversing in English, but which ends up confusing the reader:

‘Compatriots though we are, we will not speak Russian I think,’ she observed.

    ‘Since neither of us know a word of the language, it might be as well,’ agreed her guest.

     By common consent, they dropped into English, and nobody, now that the Count’s mannerisms had dropped from him, could doubt that it was his native language. He had indeed started his life as a quick-change music-hall artiste in London.

But… why do they drop from Russian into English ‘by common consent’ if neither of them can actually speak Russian? This could have been a nice little joke – but Allo Allo did it better. But then, Allo Allo is, sadly, also a much better spy thriller.

It doesn’t end there, as we are then served an awful description of the mysterious ‘Colonel’:

‘He has organized crime as another man might organize a boot factory. Without committing himself, he has planned and directed a series of stupendous coups, embracing every branch of what we might call his “profession”. Jewel robberies, forgery, espionage (the latter very profitable in war-time), sabotage, discreet assassination, there is hardly anything he has not touched. Wisest of all, he knows when to stop. The game begins to be dangerous? – he retires gracefully – with an enormous fortune!’

I know that this kind of book requires a suspension of disbelief – but this is an infodump too far. Granted I haven’t met many nefarious anarchists. For all I know they may make a habit of peppering their speech with unlikely parentheses for the benefit of anyone who happens to be writing it all down. But I somehow doubt it.

As soon as the narrative proper begins, however, things improve hugely. The story is told in the first person by Anne and Sir Eustace Pedler MP. Now, a large part of my lack of enjoyment of this novel stems from the fact that I really don’t like Anne. As I’m afraid I’ll have call to mention more than once in this post, she’s selfish, arrogant, annoying and has a disturbing attitude to relations between the sexes.

Even so, I will say in Agatha Christie’s defence that I’m fairly certain that we’re not really supposed to like her – or at least that we are meant to laugh at her ridiculousness. Certainly, she isn’t a fantasy version of Agatha herself, in the way Tuppence appears to be, for all that she’s sometimes used as a mouthpiece for Agatha’s thoughts (Christie herself having had her first taste of world travel shortly before writing the book). There’s also some very nice commentary on the way in which novels and the cinema contrast with the more prosaic routine of everyday life, as well as Christie’s trademark self-referentiality – once more, her characters seem to be very much aware of their predicament as an exciting narrative, and of the way in which this narrative seems to live up to or diverge from generic expectations. The first chapter opens, for example, with Anne telling us that her former maid-of-all-work, upon hearing of her (now past) adventures, exclaims: ‘Lor, miss, what a beyewtiful book you might make out of it all – just like the pictures!’ The last part of that sentence is also a historical indication of the way in which, at this point in popular culture, the pictures and the popular press are very much extensions of each other.

It strikes me that Anne resembles an inter-war Catherine Morland, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Just as Catherine expects her life to conform to the gothic novels she consumes, so Anne can’t help looking at everything in terms of how it resembles (or conspicuously fails to resemble) the plot of her favourite novels and movies:

The village possessed a lending library, full of tattered works of fiction, and I enjoyed perils and love-making at second hand, and went to sleep dreaming of stern silent Rhodesians, and of strong men who always ‘felled their opponent with a single blow’. […] There was the cinema too, with a weekly episode of ‘The Perils of Pamela’. Pamela was a magnificent young woman. Nothing daunted her. She fell out of aeroplanes, adventured in submarines, climbed skyscrapers, and crept about in the Underworld, without turning a hair. She was not really clever, The Master Criminal of the Underworld caught her each time, but as he seemed loath to knock her on the head in a simple way, and always doomed her to death in a sewer-gas-chamber or by some new and marvellous means, the hero was always able to rescue her at the beginning of the following week’s episode. I used to come out with my head in a delirious whirl – and then I would get home and find a notice from the Gas Company threatening to cut us off if the outstanding account was not paid!

I like the way the notion of ‘gas’ progresses here from the sensational to the mundane – the cinema making exciting use of a common element in daily life, which in turn encourages a disappointing reminder of the way in which daily life is far from sensational. In the cinema, gas is the weapon of a vicarious, fantastical enemy. In quotidian reality, it is a boring commodity like sugar, tea or bread.

The medium then, be it the cinema or real life, has the power to transform, for better or worse, the way everything is seen – it can make anything at all either exciting or dully ordinary. Later, when Anne’s father dies and the very unromantic middle-aged Doctor asks her to marry him, she is surprised because: ‘He was not at all like the hero of “The Perils of Pamela”, and even less like the stern and silent Rhodesian.’ She doesn’t love him and tells him so. His reply:

‘You don’t think – ?’

‘No, I don’t,’ I said firmly.

There’s a nice double meaning here. Anne certainly ‘doesn’t think’ – in more ways that one. But the question is so thoroughly conventional that it also doesn’t even need to be completed before she is able to give her answer. That is, not only does Anne ‘not think’ (in the sense of being impulsive), but she also doesn’t need to think because of the dull conformity that surrounds her.

Anne combats this dullness by viewing life as if it were the cinema. She even attempts to dress the part of the orphan, creating an ‘effect that pleased me much’:

‘Anna the Adventuress,’ I said aloud, nodding at my reflection. ‘Anna the Adventuress. Episode I, “The House in Kensington”!’

This ends the chapter and Agatha Christie (and, perhaps the older Anne who is writing the narrative in retrospect) is clearly having a laugh at her heroine’s expense when she begins the next chapter: ‘In the succeeding weeks I was a good deal bored.’ The novel’s short chapters and light tone, in their resemblance to a story paper, add to Anne’s self-delusional attitude to herself as an ‘adventuress’ – I also love the irony of the newspaper serialisation of the novel being called ‘Anne the Adventuress’ despite Christie’s protests.

Reading Agatha Christie’s books in chronological order, it already strikes me that these thrillers are all subtly different – this is very much not The Secret Adversary, whose protagonists already have some experience of exciting times. Anne is a dreamer pure and simple and her fantasies are acknowledged to be more than a little silly. She certainly isn’t Tuppence – if anything she’s more like a female equivalent of Albert, who devours cheap mass-media thrillers and expects life to follow suit. Accordingly, our respect for her is, I believe, proportionately lower.

Certainly, there are moments where she is endearing – most notably the way in which the trivialities of real life keep getting in the way of the sensational narrative she hopes to create for herself. I do love the bit where, having determined to air her suspicions about the tube station incident to the authorities, she complains:

My request took some time to understand, as I had inadvertently selected the department for lost umbrellas, but eventually I was ushered into a small room and presented to Detective Inspector Meadows.

Again, there is a sense that real life will resolutely fail to live up to our attempts to self-dramatise:

I had a half-formed plan in my head when I went to Scotland Yard. One to be carried out if my interview there was unsatisfactory (it had been profoundly unsatisfactory).

That final parenthesis is priceless.

Yet, Anne’s cavalier approach to reality as if it were a detective story (again resembling Catherine Morland’s approach to Gothic fiction in Northanger Abbey) also leads her to make irresponsible and silly decisions, based on snap judgements about people. She may be resourceful, but she also comes over as naïve and spoiled, what with her ‘theory that one always gets what one wants’ and her stubborn withholding of important evidence from the authorities:

‘I went there to do so this morning. They persisted in regarding the whole thing as having nothing to do with the Marlow affair, so I thought that in the circumstances I was justified in retaining the paper. Besides, the inspector put my back up.’

And yet, like Catherine Morland, however, she does turn out not to have been entirely wrong:

Of course! I must visit the ‘scene of the crime’. Always done by the best sleuths! And no matter how long afterwards it may be they always find something that the police have overlooked.

Sure enough, this silly prediction turns out to be exactly what happens. After all, despite the narrative’s mockery of its heroine’s quixotic attitude, Anne is still the star of a ‘beyewtiful’ thriller. Indeed, her very fallibility leads to one of the most convincing ‘working out’ of a piece of evidence in all of Christie’s books, precisely because Anne constantly gets it slightly wrong. I refer, specifically, to the way that the ‘Kilmorden Castle’ puzzle is gradually solved:

17 1 22 – I had taken that for a date, the date of departure of the Kilmorden Castle. Supposing I was wrong. When I came to think of it, would anyone, writing down a date, think it necessary to put the year as well as the month? Supposing 17 meant Cabin 17? and 1? The time – one o’clock. Then 22 must be the date, I looked up at my little almanac.

Tomorrow was the 22nd!

Yet what Anne takes for a dot between 17 and 1 is actually a flaw in the paper. So, going purely by the figures, she alters her guess as to their meaning:

‘1 71 22.’

‘You see,’ said Suzanne. ‘It’s the same, but not quite. It’s one o’clock still, and the 22nd – but it’s Cabin 71! My cabin, Anne!’

This infallibility helps the reader to swallow the more improbable coincidence of Anne being in the precise travel agency that operates the Kilmorden cruise just when she suddenly has her eureka moment as to what the name means.

As the novel progresses, the sense of its being a sort of game that has to be played out according to the rules of literary genre are again apparent (as in so many of Christie’s thrillers) and are given a clever twist here: Anne’s constant play-acting and her frequent recourse to literary and cinema thriller tropes as a way of seeing the world actually help to make her a formidable match for villains who see the world in precisely the same way. Anne Suspects Mr Chichester because he is ‘a little too much like a stage clergyman’. All the other clergymen she’s known ‘had been human – he was a glorified type’. Sir Edward remembers reading F. Marion Crawford’s classic ghost story ‘The Upper Berth’ and associates this with his secretary’s aversion to a particular cabin as an office, commenting dismissively ‘we’re not going to sleep there, so I don’t see that it matters. Ghosts don’t affect typewriters.’ The remarks, on the part of the heroine as on the part of the villain, reveal a similarly heightened consciousness of the way in which fiction informs the way reality is perceived.

Another thing that pleased me about the novel is the way in which Pagett’s mysterious visit to Italy throws it open to a queer reading. Obviously, Agatha Christie probably didn’t intend this sub-plot to be read in this way – but it’s in the spirit of queer theory that this won’t stop me from reading it in this way. Indeed, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a queer subculture that associated Italy with homoerotic pleasures impossible in Britain (the work of Thomas Mann and John Addington Symonds are notable examples) and classical and Renaissance art was often put forward as containing the ideal of male physical beauty. Pagett’s effeminate character and his obviously suspicious trip to Florence certainly contrasts with the ideal of masculinity propounded by the novel’s centre of consciousness (Anne), which is located in the muscularity and brutish strength of primitive man – a total contrast to the elegant perfection of classical and Renaissance models. Blackmail was also something that was almost automatically associated with the possibility of queerness, the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act (which criminalized ‘gross indecency’ between men) often being referred to as the ‘blackmailer’s charter’ – and Pagett certainly seems like a target for blackmail.

So, with this in mind, I couldn’t help but read something very queer indeed into the suspicions that haunt Pagett’s trip:

Whenever Italy is mentioned, he goes to pieces. If I did not know how intensely respectable he is – I should suspect him of some disreputable amour

And, again, with his apparent confession that he only consorted intimately with the kinds of people most frequently implicated in sodomy trials and blackmail cases:

‘I suppose you speak Italian?’ I resumed.

‘Not a word, unfortunately. But of course, with hall porters and – er – guides.’

Of course, this makes it all the more brilliant a red herring when Pagett’s actual secret is that he is a happily married man with a couple of kids and more on the way – and that it is with this family that he has been holidaying whilst purportedly in Italy.

Yet while it’s just about possible to read that episode as a joke about inter-war models of male sexuality, the novel’s most prominent treatment of questions of sexuality and gender is less satisfying. Anne’s worship of violent, primeval machismo is very unsettling – although, again, I’m not sure Christie is putting this forward as ‘what all women want’. In general, I think it’s supposed to fit in with Anne’s interest in prehistoric man, rather than as something we’re meant to agree with as a universal truth. Indeed, Anne’s description of Colonel Race as ‘one of those strong silent men that lady novelists and young girls always rave over’ may well be a covert way of alerting the reader to Agatha Christie’s own preferences when it comes to men. Even with this in mind, however, it’s hard to swallow passages like this one:

‘He might have killed her. He may even have followed her there with that idea in mind. But he wouldn’t take a bit of black cord and strangle her with it. If he’d done it, he would have strangled her with his bare hands.’

Suzanne gave a little shiver. Her eyes narrowed appreciatively.

 ‘H’m! Anne, I am beginning to see why you find this young man of yours so attractive!’

And this:

I said nothing. I laughed. And yet I knew that the danger was real. Just at that moment he hated me. But I knew that I loved the danger, loved the feeling of his hands on my throat. That I would not have exchanged that moment for any moment in my life.

Not only is this deeply unpleasant, it’s also nonsensical – what does that last sentence mean exactly?

Such passages make it really difficult to warm to Anne, yet it’s also very difficult to warm to any of the other characters. This isn’t something I always require from fiction. After all, one of my favourite novels is Wuthering Heights and that has one of the most unlikable pair of protagonists in the literature. It’s just that I kind of get the impression here that we are meant to find these characters engaging, if seriously flawed. Unfortunately, I just find most of them really irritating. Almost everyone in this novel is selfish, masochistic, or egomaniacal. Suzanne is shallow and seems only to care about her husband’s money. Sir Eustace masquerades for most of the novel as a dirty old man who takes every available opportunity to comment leerily on Anne’s ‘extremely nice legs’. This is eventually  revealed to be part of the Colonel’s disguise – his failure to notice the pistol conspicuously concealed in the ankles of Anne’s tights demonstrating how little attention he actually pays to her legs. Yet, this doesn’t make Sir Eustace’s fake persona any more palatable – and it is, after all, this less charming persona with which we are stuck for most of the story. The story’s hero Rayburn, for all that he has been done wrong to, is basically a thug. And as for Anne herself – quite apart from her constant self-obsession (even above and beyond the understandable reaction of someone newly an orphan) she has a masochistic tendency that we are apparently meant to find exciting, rather than simply disturbing. At one point, she makes a crack about how everything appears vile to the psychoanalyst. Amidst such an unsavoury bunch the irony, intentional or not, is palpable.

It also strikes me that while Anne’s quixotic approach to the situations in which she finds herself are meant to be (and sometimes succeed in being) endearing, the fact that she keeps explaining how real life isn’t like the films, yet continues to treat life as if it actually were film-like just ends up making her seem a fool. Before reading the novel, I’d come across what I’d taken to be a spoiler for the story, which suggested that Anne’s narrative would be revealed as posthumous. I can’t help but feel that this would have been a more appropriate end to the story, given her ridiculously cavalier attitude to the differentiation between life and fiction.

The novel also utilises several clever plot twists, which will be better-employed in Agatha Christie’s later novels. The more sustained use of the ‘first-person-narrator-is-actually-the-villain’ trick is breathtaking in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but seems somewhat anti-climatic here – even though I confess I didn’t guess the Colonel’s identity. The trick of the initial ‘murder’ actually turning out to be an accident is re-used as the central plot twist in Taken at the Flood (1948), where it makes all the more impact by becoming the focus of the puzzle. Here, its ingenuity is lost amidst the tiring sub-D.H. Lawrence twaddle of the romance plot.

The novel’s attitude to race is also problematic. When Anne and Suzanne arrive at Bechuanaland, Sir Eustace says cogently ‘I am rather afraid that Mrs Blair may run amok [among the native gift stalls]. There is a primitive charm about these toys that I feel will appeal to her’. Given Anne’s more major obsession with primitivism in actual human beings, this idea of Africa as a continent in which one can still encounter the primitive is not altogether unreasonable – in a more enlightened form it’s still a feature of modern anthropology. It is, in any case, entirely appropriate as an idea that Anne herself would entertain as exciting. On balance though, the way this idea escapes the confines of Anne’s own point of view to become the general implied point of view of the novel itself is another of Christie’s well-intentioned attempts at sophistication that totally backfires – thus Colonel Race’s unfortunate and patronising definition of Africa as ‘Simple, primitive, big’ simply echoes the way it (and, indeed, Rayburn) appears to Anne:

By and by the character of the country changed. Great boulders appeared, piled up into fantastic shapes. I felt suddenly that I had got into a primitive era. [note: ‘that I had’, not ‘as if I had’ – this is still a ‘primitive era’, at least here] Just for a moment Neanderthal men seemed quite as real to me as they had to Papa.

I suppose the best we can say about this is that we never actually encounter any ‘Neanderthal men’ – the Africans themselves are never described as exhibiting traces of racial degeneracy, which makes the novel immediately more palatable than most early-twentieth-century thrillers set on the African continent. Indeed, only the whites are described as degenerate and unpleasant. But then, only the whites are described at all and we are still confronted with Christie’s patronising inability to take revolutions at face value (as in The Secret Adversary). Here, this bias towards working-class unrest is also racially inflected of course, with the natives being robbed of any agency, any real grievances – the poor dears simply don’t know any better:

‘It is not the strikers themselves who are causing the trouble. There is some organization at work behind them. Arms and explosives have been poring in, and we have made a haul of certain documents which throw a good deal of light on the methods adopted to import them.’

A more troubling aspect of Anne’s interest in primitivism is the point at which it tips over from her well-informed remarks on the anthropological development of human physiology into very dubious pseudo-psychology about the atavistic origins of the relations between the sexes. Again, comparison with other Christie novels reassures me that this is either a dry run for ideas that she would come to abandon, or simply a way of creating an interesting intellectual background for her protagonist. Either way, however, it doesn’t work – if their Christie’s own views, then they’re just repugnant; but if they are Anne’s, then they hardly help us to warm to our heroine.

Anne considers that women are ‘weak’ nowadays. Although this wasn’t always the case: ‘in the beginning men and women roamed the world together, equal in strength – like lions and tigers – […] And of course, underneath, one is still the same – one feels the same, I mean – and that is why women worship physical strength in men: it’s what they once had and have lost.’ Anne is quite adamant about women worshiping physical strength: ‘You think you admire moral qualities, but when you fall in love, you revert to the primitive where the physical is all that counts. But I don’t think that’s the end; if you lived in primitive conditions it would be alright, but you don’t – and so, in the end, the other thing wins after all. It’s the things that are apparently conquered that always do win, isn’t it?’ While this exhibits a decent enough understanding of the Freudian unconscious, it presses it also lends it a dubious social application. There’s an obvious, and distasteful colonial metaphor here – Africa seems conquered, like primitivism in man; but that primitivism, though apparently conquered, will always ‘win’. Africa, again, is the location of the primitive. There’s mileage in this evocative idea as an abstraction (rather than as an actual fact), where it can be used to make a point not about ‘primitive’ but about ‘civilized’ society. But it needs more sensitive treatment than it is given here. Joseph Conrad this most definitely ain’t.

Anyway, it’s definitely physical strength that Anne worships in Rayburn: ‘I felt the strength of him as he set me down and released his clasp. A man of iron, with muscles like taut steel. And again I felt afraid, especially as he did not move aside, but stood directly in front of me, staring into my face.’ And the worship of physical strength is overtly sexualised as well, as in this racy exchange:

‘I slung you across my shoulders like a sack of coal and carried you to my boat. Quite like a primitive man of the Stone Age.’

‘But for a different reason,’ I put in.

He flushed this time, a deep burning blush. The tan of his face was suffused.

 My own take on the matter is that this aspect of physical attraction (wherever men are concerned and whatever the observer’s gender) is Agatha Christie indulging a sexual fantasy, while Anne’s horrible jaunt into the pseudo-psychology of attraction is more experimental – either allied exclusively to her heroine’s character or, as I suggested, perhaps Christie’s way of trying out ideas she herself would soon abandon. At least I hope so. I’d hate to have to reconcile the following with the philosophy of one of my favourite authors:

‘My God! Anne, if you ever marry anyone else but me, I’ll wring his neck. And as for you –’

‘Yes,’ I said, pleasurably excited.

‘I shall carry you away and beat you black and blue!’

‘What a delightful husband I have chosen!’ I said satirically.

What’s disturbing here is the fact that the satire Anne intends is directed towards those women who require ‘delightful’ husbands – as opposed to those who desire domestic abuse. We know from earlier that she suspects all women of secretly desiring such abuse. Frankly, it’s not pretty.

All in all, this is a surprisingly amoral novel, in which everyone is either a potential criminal or someone who relishes brutal or criminal behaviour despite being nominally good. Hence the revelation of Pagett’s hilariously innocuous ‘secret’ comes only half a page before Sir Eustace’s own secret is revealed. So basically, the book seems to celebrate characters that have nefarious hidden depths (whether actively criminal or merely pathological), to the extent that it is somehow Pagett who is at fault, becoming more difficult to admire after his revelation of normality, whilst Sir Eustace’s revelation of amoral brutality actually comes across as charming:

Although I knew well enough the kind of man he was and must be, I could not bring myself to realize it. He had tried to kill me on more than one occasion, he had actually killed another woman, and he was responsible for endless other deeds of which I knew nothing, and yet I was quite unable to bring myself into the frame of mind for appreciating his deeds as they deserved. […] The only parallel I can think of is the case of Stevenson’s Long John Silver. He must have been much the same kind of man.

Pagett’s being in Marlow is an amazing red herring though – it totally distracts your attention from his having seen Sir Eustace there. Moreover, the mention of Long John Silver, a famously amoral figure who destabilises the easy categorisation of Stevenson’s novel as a straightforward jingoistic boy’s own adventure story, makes me think that Christie is actually attempting something similar here. But just as she’s no Conrad, she’s also no Stevenson and it just doesn’t quite work. This is a novel full of irritating self-obsessed bores , rather than loveable rogues who negotiate (or at least expose) the complicated ethical questions the thriller genre usually papers over (something which  Stevenson, at his best, always achieves).  Moreover, it really isn’t a pleasant read. Certainly, it fulfils occasionally the thriller’s remit of providing an exciting frisson of excitements, even sexual excitement, that isn’t legitimate in reality. The problem is that Anne’s ideas aren’t just fantasies, but a fully-formed intellectual system – one which it isn’t much fun to entertain, even hypothetically. Where Conrad and Stevenson challenge us with  ethical conflicts that unsettle because they’re hard to dismiss and thus tend to destabilise our coherent moral and ethical world-view, Christie’s novel simply asks us to contemplate a pseudo-scientific model that no sane person would ever endorse – and which is thus as easily dismissable as it is unpleasant to read about.

Towards the end of the novel, there is an indication that the whole worship of ‘savage’ male brutality is only ever meant to belong to the realm of sexual fantasy. First there’s the negation of Anne’s defensive idea of female sacrifice, which suggests that her theory is actually all talk: ‘I’m not making a sacrifice at all! I wanted to come!’ Then there’s Suzanne’s sensible suggestion that her and Rayburn’s primitivism belongs exclusively to the extended fantasy of the honeymoon: ‘have your honeymoon, dear lunatics, and let it be a long one.’ But this is too little too late and, along the way, we are still asked to entertain ideas which are not challenging, but merely unpleasant and false.

Ultimately, there’s enough Christie magic – the light touch, the self-referential tone of the narrative, clever and convincing deductions and plot twists, humorous use of unreliable narrators – to ensure that this is certainly not Christie’s worst novel. In fact, there are moments of genuine excitement. My favourite of these is the chapter that ends in the revelation of what was in the film case dropped through the window of Suzanne’s compartment: ‘Pebbles? No, Anne, not pebbles! Diamonds!’ This is the kind of innocuous excitement  that Christie at her best excels at – and, as Stevenson himself often argued, there’s no shame in having mastered the art of such excitement – even for a moment. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Leave a comment

Filed under 1920s, The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), Thrillers

Re-Watching Agatha Christie: The Secret Adversary

The Secret Adversary (1983)

Dramatised by Pat Sandys, Directed by Tony Wharmby; 115 minutes

Cast: Francesca Annis as Tuppence, James Warwick as Tommy

This is a one-off feature-length special that acted as a kind of pilot episode for ITV’s ten-part adaptation of Partners in Crime (1929). Shot entirely on film it looks like quite a lot of money was spent on it, with some particularly impressive location work transforming early-1980s London convincingly into the bustling metropolis of 1922, complete with vintage cars, horse-drawn cabs and handsomely attired extras. There are very few deviations from the novel and most of these seem to have been made for logistical reasons, such as changing the setting of a climatic car chase from night time to daytime and significantly altering (and shortening) the plot strand involving the ‘fake’ Jane Finn, presumably as a time-saving measure. Some of the locations are different too. Most notably, Tommy and Tuppence meet for the first time in a park, rather than at the entrance to a tube station. The sudden change of location from the horrors of wartime combat to peace-time London is rendered even more striking by this change of location. An adagio arrangement of the Partners in Crime theme tune playing over this peaceful scene during the opening credits heightens the effect, as well as foreshadowing the fully fledged ‘joint venture’ that won’t emerge fully until Tommy and Tuppence’s engagement at the end of the film (again moved to a parkland setting rather than the back of a cab as in the novel), when the theme tune proper kicks in over the credits. And a splendid theme tune it is too.

Interestingly, the opening sequences, although retaining the novel’s portrayal of the panic aboard the sinking Lusitania, makes no reference to the ‘women and children first rule’, which is erroneously alluded to in the novel. Later, it is said that Danvers believed that Jane Finn would have a better chance of surviving because she was a woman, but it’s never explicitly stated that she survived because of a chivalric approach to boarding the lifeboats.

What’s particularly good about this adaptation is that the story isn’t played entirely for laughs, but nor is it played entirely straight either. Thus, while Carter’s dialogue and the whole political context is hammed up in the extreme, Julius’s stereotyping is considerably toned down thanks to a charming and understated performance from Gavan O’Herlihy. Mr Carter’s dialogue takes a very tongue-in-cheek line with the silliness of Agatha Christie’s plot, and the idea that the country would be thrown into open revolution if a general strike were to occur. It’s as much as the actor can do to stop himself from guffawing into his moustache, and Tuppence’s disbelieving cry of ‘General strike?!’ is priceless.

The film also retains a lot of the novel’s self-referential aspects as well (‘You must sate this longing for vulgar sensation, Tuppence!’ cries Tommy at one point) most notably in Tuppence’s first meeting with Albert. In the film, Annis is wonderful, pretending to be a stereotypical private eye, ranging over different accents to prove herself a master of disguise, whilst simultaneously berating Albert for believing the rubbish he reads in comic books. Albert’s assertion that, in comic books and dime novels, those who ‘have swarthy skin and don’t shave’ are immediately recognisable as ‘bad ’uns’ is also an affectionate dig at the novel’s tendency to make its villains magically recognisable as such. I also enjoyed Tuppence indignantly telling Julius that she’s a ‘special agent pretending to be a menial’, which is entirely in keeping with the play-acting spirit in which her entrance into service is portrayed in the novel – as is the ridiculous wig she sports here. Yet none of these affectionate nods to the absurd escapism of the novel ever threaten your suspension of disbelief.

Physically, Annis and Warwick don’t totally resemble their counterparts in the novel. Annis is more beautiful than the modestly attractive Tuppence, while Warwick’s Tommy has dark hair, rather than red as in the novel (although I suppose ‘good-naturedly ugly’ isn’t a totally unreasonable description of James Warwick). Similarly, Rita Vandemeyer and Albert are both significantly older than in the novel. This doesn’t matter though, especially in Mrs Vandemeyer’s case, as it allows her to be played by the fabulous Honor Blackman. Moreover, Annis and Warwick embody their roles so well that it’s absolutely impossible to imagine anyone else playing the parts. Warwick’s portrayal is just the right side of camp so that you believe that the very deliberate way in which the lines are spoken comes totally from the fact that Tommy (as well as the actor playing him) is enjoying the adventure in which he’s caught up. Meanwhile the pleasing languor that characterises Annis’s acting style and the frantic enthusiasm that characterises Tuppence are an attractive, if unlikely, combination.

Basically, I adore this film. It’s easily one of the very best adaptations of an Agatha Christie novel. Not only is it very faithful to the plot of the book it’s based on, but, more importantly, it totally nails the tone of the original – all the actors seem to be having a whale of a time and it doesn’t hurt that an obviously ample budget has been well-employed in bringing it visually to life in sumptuous fashion.

Leave a comment

Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime (TV series 1983), The Secret Adversary (1922), Thrillers, Tommy & Tuppence

The Secret Adversary (1922)

  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 –’

Tommy flushed.

‘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.

Leave a comment

Filed under 1920s, The Secret Adversary (1922), Thrillers, Tommy & Tuppence