Housekeeping: As most of Agatha Christie’s novels will be familiar to many readers, and because I find it hard to write much without spoilers, I will be doing two versions of each post. One will be without spoilers, and the other will be exactly the same, but with a spoiler section, no holds barred, tacked onto the end. Please remember which version you are reading when making comments. Spoilers will only refer to the particular book under review, so please make sure your comments do as well. Let’s get started…
You’ve written a successful debut country house mystery novel, with a memorable detective, so obviously you start on the sequel, right? Wrong! Agatha Christie instead chose to create a pair of new characters and write a detective thriller.
Tommy Beresford and Tuppence Cowley, childhood friends, both young and unemployed following demobilisation, meet by chance in London. With poor job prospects, they decide to form a joint venture “The Young Adventurers, Ltd”, but before they can place an advert in The Times, Tuppence is offered work by a man who has overheard their conversation.
This ultimately leads them into the hunt for a young woman, Jane Finn, who may have been entrusted with a secret document when the Lusitania was sunk five years earlier. On their side a senior figure in the British Secret Service, Jane’s cousin (the first of Christie’s American millionaires), and a member of the Cabinet; against them a secret international organisation, headed by the mysterious Mr Brown.
Coincidences abound, and there is slightly too running around, capture and escape, but it is quite entertaining, with a properly clued outcome, so not just a thriller such as The Thirty Nine Steps.
Whilst enjoying reading it as part of my ongoing project, it wouldn’t be one that I would definitely come back to in the future.
Recurring character development
Thomas “Tommy” Beresford
Has a “shock of exquisitely slicked-back red hair” and “unmistakably the face of a gentleman and a sportsman” and is in his early twenties.
Earned the rank of lieutenant serving in World War I. Was wounded in France, before spending time in Tuppence’s hospital. Returned to France, working in Intelligence at some point and meeting Mr Carter, then served in Mesopotamia where wounded again, then posted to Egypt until the Armistice.
Prudence “Tuppence” L. Cowley
Has “no claim to beauty, but there is character and charm in the elfin lines of her little face, with its determined chin and large, wide-apart grey eyes” and is also in her early twenties.
Fifth daughter of Archdeacon Cowley.
During the war worked in a hospital, then moved onto driving a trade delivery van, motor-lorry, and a young general, before ending in a Government office.
Signs of the Times
The sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine could have brought the USA into the First World War two years before they did declare war. Although mainly being used as a passenger liner, the ship also carried small arms ammuntion and (only admitted to salvage teams in 1982) some larger munitions, and was therefore considered a legitimate military target by Germany. 1,198 out of 1,962 on board lost their lives, including 128 out of 139 Americans. The first line of the book states that two torpedoes hit the ship; although the passengers on board may have believed that to be the case, only one torpedo was fired, with a second explosion occurring on board. Published only seven years after the event, this does raise the question of how long a gap is appropriate before making use of a historic tragedy in a work of fiction.
The story is set in August 1920.
At one point Tuppence asks for quiet and Tommy says “Shades of Pelmanism”. Pelmanism was a system taught via correspondence course to expand “mental powers in every direction”.
The Prime Minister who appears briefly, although not named, has to be David Lloyd George, who served from 1916 – 1922.
Tommy visits an ABC Shop. These were self-service tea rooms, operated by the Aerated Bread Company, with first opened in 1864. The brand continued until 1982.
They both visit Lyon’s, probably a Corner House, which was more upmarket than an ABC Shop. They existed from 1909 – 1977.
Mr Carter is worried about the possibility of a Labour government. The first Labour government came to power three years after the story is set, and one year after its publication. There are also concerns about the possibility of a General Strike, which whilst being headed off at this time, did come to pass in 1926.
Mr Brown’s organisation includes a Bolshevist, successful in the 1917 Russian Revolution, and a Sinn Feiner, committed to an independent Ireland (partition of Ireland took place in 1921 following a two year guerilla war), and would probably have appeared extremely frightening to readers of the time.
Dover Street underground station was renamed Green Park in 1933
The ASE, mentioned when trades unions are discussed, were the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, which traced its origins back to 1826. In 1920 it merged with other unions to became the Amalgamted Engineering (AEU), then in 1992 following another merger became the Amalgamted Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU).
Garnaby Williams, Boy Detective sadly appears to be a book within a book, unless anyone has a copy they can produce.
Tuppence consults Bradshaw (published 1839 – 1963) and an ABC (published 1853 – 2007), both railway guides containing timetables. She also looks up an address in the Red Book, but I can’t find out specifically what that is.
References to previous works
Inspector Japp, who appeared in “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” is the CID officer who meets with Julius to get a copy of a photo of Jane Finn.
Vintage Reading Challenge
Agatha Christie is “An author you’ve read and loved before”.
Having read this before, when Mr Carter appeared I thought he was Mr Brown (in the vein of the senior agent who can’t trust his own people and has to hire someone from outside to get the job done – of course he can’t trust his own people because they are the good guys and he needs someone else to do his dirty work!), but as soon as Sir James appeared – he just happened to know about Jane Finn already – very convenient! – I remembered that it was definitely him, it just seemed so obvious.
However, I had already thought it was odd that Julius referred to burglary as “Bill Sikes business”, a reference to Oliver Twist, which seemed unlikely to come from an American – perhaps it was deliberately done to help plant seeds of doubt in the reader’s mind, to support the doubt that was later cast on his identity.
The hiding place for the document was quite good, as was Jane’s clue to Tommy, although in reality wouldn’t the organisation have pulled her room to pieces? It is unclear whether the pictures on the wall have some sort of caption, because for them both to have recognised Marguerite in the Faust scenes seems unlikely – it certainly didn’t crop up in my education.