Not the best beginning

Recently the BBC did a smashing adaptation of Agatha Christie's early Tommy and Tuppence novels. I'm not a huge fan of the husband and wife team, with the exception of their last novel By the pricking of my thumbs which is as creepy and effective a murder mystery as you can hope to read (see my earlier post "How not to re-invent the wheel"), but I adored the BBC adaptation. David Walliams was unexpectedly brilliant as Tommy, and although there were a few nods to modern sensibilities which I think made the period setting (moved to the 1950s) slightly less effective, I thought it was cleverly done. In fact it was all a lot better than I remembered it. Could I have been mistaken about Tommy and Tuppence?

Then I discovered that I had an old copy of their first outing, The secret adversary, which had been sitting on a shelf for many years; so of course I had to read it. The novel was actually a very early Christie - published in 1922, and set in 1920. As such, it is very much a child of its period - although there are some surprises. Christie aficionados will be familiar with the "reds under the bed" novels of her later period, but I was surprised to discover that this must  be one of the first novels anywhere that is set around the idea of a Communist plot, and threats to destabilize western civilization.

As is quite usual with Christie when she gets on to one of her favourite topics, it's all a bit hysterical. Tommy has more lives than Felix, and manages to be both the most intelligent and the stupidest man in Britain. While anyone who doesn't vote Conservative is deemed to be suspect. It's all very silly. In fact the only really good thing about it is that it undoubtedly was a major influence on Dorothy L. Sayers' first Lord Peter mystery Whose body?

It certainly isn't my favourite Christie, and I don't think it's a particularly good example of her work. Having said which, it influenced both Sayers - who used elements of the story much more effectively - and Dennis Wheatley. And it's also innovative, this sort of conspiracy novel would soon become commonplace, but when Christie was writing it was anything but.

The secret adversary is a must read for any Christie fan, for anyone else it's a fascinating read as a period piece, but for Christie at her best look elsewhere.


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