I'm not sure exactly when this took place, but it's sometime after the sinking of the Lusitania and the end of World War I. Prudence Cowley (known as "Tuppence" to her friends) and Thomas Beresford (Tommy) are two childhood friends who meet after a bit of time apart. Tuppence was, among other things, a nurse, while Tommy was in the military. Both are now at loose ends and more than a little strapped for cash.
Tuppence sees a man named Mr. Whittington about a job that sounds a little too good to be true. When she tells him her name is "Jane Finn," a name Tommy told her he'd overheard, Mr. Whittington angrily retracts the job offer, and Tuppence inadvertently becomes his blackmailer. Tuppence hopes to continue getting more money out of Whittington and maybe find out more about Jane Finn and why she's so important, except Whittington vanishes. Tommy and Tuppence put out an ad asking for anyone with information about Jane Finn to contact them, which is how they get into contact with Mr. Carter and Julius Hersheimmer.
Mr. Carter, an important man in British intelligence, tells Tommy and Tuppence a little more about Jane Finn. Apparently, in 1915 America and England drew up a secret draft treaty. Danvers, an American, was aboard the Lusitania, responsible for taking the document to the American Embassy in England. When the Lusitania was torpedoed, he gave the document to an American girl, Jane Finn, reasoning that a woman would be more likely to get a spot on a lifeboat than himself. He was right.
Although there was evidence that Jane Finn survived, no one was ever able to find her and the document was never recovered. After the war, Jane Finn was forgotten about, but now someone wants the document in order to discredit a few English statesmen and add fuel to the current Labour unrest. Mr. Carter's people have been unable to find the document or Jane Finn, so he hopes that Tommy and Tuppence will have a fresh way of going about things. He, of course, offers to pay them and provide them with whatever funds they require to get the job done, but, if they are caught by the enemy, they can expect no help from him.
Julius Hersheimmer turns out to be a filthy rich American who claims to be Jane Finn's cousin, looking for her so as to give her a fair share of his inheritance. Julius, Tommy, and Tuppence team up to try to find Jane Finn and the document, but they find themselves facing a terrifying and brilliant foe: Mr. Brown.
I was 10 pages into this book when I almost quit reading it. It wasn't at all what I expected. Granted, I haven't read many of Agatha Christie's books – one Miss Marple and one Poirot, I think – but what I've read was enough to make me at least expect a mystery starring an interesting detective/amateur detective. Tommy and Tuppence didn't seem particularly interesting to me.
I'm glad I continued reading, though, because The Secret Adversary turned out to be a lot of fun. While I've seen the book referred to as a detective novel and as a mystery, now that I've read it I consider it more of a thriller.
As I've already said, I didn't consider Tommy and Tuppence to be all that interesting at first. A particularly dangerous moment made them and the story more exciting. Up to that point, I think Tuppence viewed their attempts to find the document as an exciting adventure, like something out of a dime novel. I don't think she really took it all seriously until Tommy disappeared, possibly hurt, captured, or even killed (readers know he hasn't been, since there are more stories, but Tuppence didn't know) by Mr. Brown's people. I liked that, for a period of time, she had to continue on without Tommy's help and support and, although she was upset and frightened, she didn't fall apart.
Tuppence was more energetic, imaginative, and adventurous than Tommy. As individuals, I found her to be more interesting right from the start, but, like Tuppence, Tommy also became more appealing after real danger entered the story. Tommy managed to talk his way into being captured, rather than immediately killed, and Tommy was also the one who arranged things so that Mr. Brown did not get the better of them all in the end.
For those who like a bit of romance in their stories, The Secret Adversary has some of that as well. It takes a while to show up: Tommy and Tuppence come across as nothing more than really close friends during the beginning of the book, and it's not surprising that at least one character thinks they're related. In fact, I probably wouldn't have expected any romance if I hadn't been alerted to it by some stuff I read online about the two characters. Anyway, when Tommy goes missing, Tuppence worries about him, but it doesn't occur to her that she's actually in love with him until Julius proposes to her. Tommy, I think, realized he loved Tuppence well before Tuppence realized she loved him. I really enjoyed Tommy's reaction to Julius telling him that he'd proposed to Tuppence, as well as his reaction when he though Tuppence might be dead.
Speaking of Julius, he was a fun character. He waved great wads of money at practically everything and everyone, to the point where I sometimes wondered if he might not possibly go broke. My favorite “Julius gets stuff done with money” moment was when he bought a Rolls-Royce. Julius had asked Tuppence what kind of car she liked and then left to go get one, leaving her stunned and certainly not expecting what happened next.
“Thirty-five minutes had elapsed when Julius returned. He took Tuppence by the arm, and walked her to the window.
'There she is.'
'Oh!' said Tuppence with a note of reverence in her voice, as she gazed down at the enormous car.
'She's some pace-maker, I can tell you,' said Julius complacently.
'How did you get it?' gasped Tuppence.
'She was just being sent home to some bigwig.'
'I went round to his house,' said Julius. 'I said that I reckoned a car like that was worth every penny of twenty thousand dollars. Then I told him that it was worth just about fifty thousand dollars to me if he'd get out.'
'Well?' said Tuppence, intoxicated.
'Well,' returned Julius, 'he got out, that's all.'"Oh, I do love that part.
When this book was first published (1922), the sinking of the Lusitania and the end of World War I was recent history. I don't know if it's that I'm a modern reader, not very good with history, or both, but I had problems keeping in mind what Tommy and Tuppence were hoping to find and why it was so important. I didn't really feel the tension of the impending deadline for finding the document the way I'm guessing a 1922 reader would have. I loved reading about Tommy and Tuppence running around and trying to outwit Mr. Brown, but I had to keep reminding myself that they weren't doing all of that just because.
Speaking of Mr. Brown, that aspect of the story was tons of fun, even though I giggled a little almost every time his name was said, because it was almost always said super-dramatically. A few examples:
“'We look at each other – ONE OF US IS MR. BROWN – which?'”There was so much drama, Mr. Brown might as well have been a monster that hid under secret agents' beds.----------“'I am directed by – Mr. Brown, to place the summaries of the reports from the different unions before you.'”----------“'I am accountable to no one. I take my orders only from – Mr. Brown.'”----------“'You feel - as we all feel - THE PRESENCE OF MR. BROWN. Yes" - as Tuppence made a movement - "not a doubt of it - MR. BROWN IS HERE.....”
I guessed who Mr. Brown was well before his identity was revealed, although I admit to not figuring out the clue Agatha Christie left. To be precise, I recognized the clue as a clue (she might as well have attached a neon sign to it that said “CLUE!”), but I was too into the story to want to take the time to try to puzzle it out.
My grade for this book: B+.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar (book, anthology) by Maurice Leblanc - If you'd like more exciting, fast-paced, somewhat melodramatic stories, you might want to try this, which, like The Secret Adversary, can be downloaded for free via Project Gutenberg. I have written about this book.
- Kindaichi Case Files (manga) story by Yozaburo Kanari, art by Fumiya Sato - This series feels more like classic mysteries than thrillers. I've added it to the list for those who don't mind trying out another format and would like more exciting, fast-paced stories. From what I've been able to tell, it is, for the most part, not necessary to read the volumes in order. I have written about a few volumes of this series.
- The Lady Vanishes (live action movie) - As I read The Secret Adversary, I was reminded a little of this Alfred Hitchcock movie, which also has plenty of suspense.
- A Man Lay Dead (book) by Ngaio Marsh - The first in Marsh's Inspector Alleyn series. I haven't read this or any of Marsh's other books, but, from the descriptions and reviews I've seen, it sounds like this might be good for those looking for another exciting and twisty story.