“The Secret Adversary” is the first Tuppence and Tommy book. (I know everyone else says Tommy and Tuppence but I like my way better.) It’s my favorite T&T story, but I’m hardly alone there. Most readers like this book best.
The second book in Agatha Christie’s bibliography is a lot of fun. Published in 1922, the story is set in 1919. Tuppence (real name Prudence) and Tommy are both recently de-mobbed from WWI. Flat broke, unable to find employment, the two childhood friends run into each other and grab a spot of tea. They haven’t seen each other since Tommy was wounded in the war. Tuppence served as a nurse and cared for Tommy during his recovery.
Tuppence hits upon the idea of hiring themselves out as adventurers. Before you know it, they’re smack in the middle of mystery and intrigue. Fascist agitators are operating in England. They’ve kidnapped a girl named Jane Finn. She was on the Lusitania during its fateful voyage and all parties – the government and the agitators – believe she holds an important document that could ruin England were it made public.
The story includes American millionaires, the plucky heroine, stolid English boy, mysterious and power-hungry gangs, and secret government offices. To say more would be to spoil the fun.
What’s Great about T&T
So, the first thing you notice about T&T is that it’s fun. The banter between Tuppence and Tommy is a joy. And, based on other books I’ve read from the time, the way Christie wrote the dialog seems to be accurate for the era. I have to admit… I have a weakness for the self-narrative thing you see in some of these books. Maybe because I do that same kind of thing in my own mind (but rarely out loud).
I also like the way their personalities complement each other. They may both be out for adventure, but where Tuppence is a fairly impulsive type, Tommy is more purposeful and methodical. He isn’t timid, although it could seem like that when viewed from the outside. That’s where Christie’s third person omniscient POV is great.
The side characters are well-drawn, too. Julius, the American millionaire, is obviously fun. Especially the way he procures the Rolls Royce. Like most of Christie’s books, though, there isn’t a great deal of time spent on developing characters. She was always more about plotting than character. Kind of odd I like her books so much when you know that well-developed characters are usually what draw me into a world.
Screw the Critics
Most reviewers were favorable, but some critics complain that Ms. Christie abandoned her usual formula with this book. I disagree. First, it’s only her second book. She can hardly be accused of having a “usual” formula, can she?
Second, even if you look at it through the 20/20 vision of hindsight, Christie often abandoned the whodunnit format. (Full disclosure, I particularly enjoy those titles – they’re so innocent.) And who can blame her? No artist wants to create the same thing over and over. (Maybe that’s why I’m so bored with my job – I need to remind myself it isn’t art, it’s work.)
The BBC Translations
I’ve seen both BBC versions of “The Secret Adversary” but neither really gets it right. (I would LOVE to see the silent German film from 1929 but that doesn’t seem likely.)
The 1983 version…
“Partners in Crime” was a BBC show that debuted in 1983. This show gets the tone right. It’s fun and the actors have a great chemistry that feels like watching two old friends.
Where it fails madly is in casting. Francesca Annis plays Tuppence. I love her (she was in Krull!) but she was 38 at the time she made this series. James Warwick as Tommy was 36. Both actors look every second of their age and they’re supposed to be playing characters in their early twenties.
It reminds me of every version of “Hamlet” I’ve seen where the actor playing Hamlet obviously has a mortgage and 2.4 children. In other words, not some college kid. If “Stranger Things” can find five amazing child actors, you can find one twenty-something to play Hamlet. (Although Branagh’s version was insanely good.)
The 2015 version…
The second televised version of “The Secret Adversary” came out in 2015. For some reason, they pushed the action ahead to the 1950s and completely changed the plot. What’s the point? If you aren’t going to use the source material except for character names, just write your own damn story. At least then you don’t piss off Christie die-hards.
If you’re going to completely change the story, you have to make it so good that the viewer stops comparing it to the book. For example, I have zero desire to watch the Amazon version of “The ABC Murders.” It looks like utter garbage. John Malkovich has a GOATEE. And I don’t know what accent that is, but it isn’t Belgian. They leave out Hastings, who has a major role, and kill off Japp!!!! I’m almost willing to give it a try because they cast Rupert Grint (who did such an amazing job bringing Ron Weasley to life). I had hoped they’d cast him as Hastings – that would have been a blast. But no, they cast him as some minor character, beefed up the role, and acted like Hastings never existed. Gag.
How to do it right…
For Christie-based movies that are more aptly described as “inspired by” than “based on,” look at the Peter Ustinov Poirots – especially “Evil Under the Sun.” That film is a BLAST! It has both Dame Maggie Smith AND Dame Diana Rigg. Both women devour their scenes together as former showgirls who loathe each other. Roddy McDowall is also delicious as, I don’t know, Roddy McDowall, I guess. (Full disclosure: I’ll watch just about anything with Roddy McDowall in it.)
Another fun one from the same era is “The Mirror Crack’d,” which has a stunning cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Angela Lansbury, Kim Novak, Tony Curtis, and even a VERY young Pierce Brosnan in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role. These movies are prime examples of how to honor the source material in a way that’s so much fun, you don’t care that they’ve substantially changed things.
This is a fun book that does a great job keeping you guessing about which character is Mr. Brown (the mastermind bent on world domination). If you’ve never read it, remember that it was written in the 1920s by the same woman who created Miss Marple. Don’t go into it expecting the grittiness of a Dashiell Hammett book, even if it does have ruthless gangs of fascists who thought Hitler had some pretty good ideas.