My e-reader came with 100 books, mostly classics out of copyright. It was a surprise to see one of Agatha Christie’s novels included and after an operation on my eye, when I wanted something light I could read in quite large type, I decided to check out The Secret Adversary.
It is terrible – not the worst book I have ever read, but thrusting strong at the finish line. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the owners of Dame Agatha’s rights just didn’t bother to hang on to this lamentable effort, or sold it very cheaply into a package.
The Secret Adversary was Christie’s second novel, after The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which was only published after she agreed to change the ending. Styles introduced the world to Hercule Poirot, an enduring character through television and films. The Secret Adversary featured “Tommy and Tuppence”, and is something like one would imagine an Enid Bylton adventure to be but very slightly more adult. Christie went on to write another five featuring this silly duo, while adding Jane Marple and others to her stable of detective heroes. In all she wrote 66 detective novels as well as short stories, romances under another pseudonym, and some enduring plays, The Mousetrap – still in production – and Witness for the Prosecution.
Her estate claims she is the third most published writer in history after Shakespeare and the Bible and one of her mysteries, And Then There Were None, has sold over 100 million copies. Another, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was just a few years back, voted by fellow Crime Writers as the greatest detective novel ever. In all, her works have sold 2 billion copies.
For me two of these stood out – Ackroyd, by common consent a pathbreaker, and Crooked House, one of Christie’s own favourites.
Christie’s genius – and it was genius – was to script very easy-reading puzzle stories. There is typically little if any attempt to be realistic in her novels; they attract for their intellectual dimension of figuring out “whodunnit” before she, he or them is revealed. Secret Adversary has next to no description; it relies heavily on dialogue and action, and that is part of how she did it. It is a kind of trick and a good one, and I have learned from it in my own writing. Once a reader understands it, “whodunnit” is typically not hard to figure out. The “secret adversary” was obvious from first appearance to me, though reviewers at the time were fooled right to the end.
There is something else that pops up with this novel that casts a sly sidelight on Christie’s life. With Christie, art imitating life is never far away as she used the upper class milieu of her own life in her books. But four years after Secret Adversary, she reversed things in spectacular fashion.
One of the characters in Secret Adversary, a young American woman, feigns amnesia for years to deceive kidnappers who want her to reveal the whereabouts of a dangerous document that could – yes – end life as we know it by ushering in “Bolshevist” rule in Britain. The character has a background story not entirely unlike Christie’s own.
When her husband asked Agatha for a divorce in 1926*, amnesia seems to have appealed to her. Col Christie, for it was he, took off to spend a dirty weekend with his new love, and Agatha disappeared after leaving a note to say she was heading for Yorkshire. Her car was found near a lake but she was nowhere to be seen. A hue and cry that involved a thousand police and 15,000 volunteer searchers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Home Secretary was played out through the media until she was turned up in a Yorkshire hotel under another name – why, the surname name of her husband’s new lover! Two doctors confirmed she was suffering from amnesia.
Agatha Christie never said. When she wrote her autobiography, she did not even mention the drama. Attempts to make her disappearance a contrived publicity stunt have been met by the estate with unsuccessful lawsuits. The natural and more likely explanation (to me) is that she wanted to embarrass her husband and was herself embarrassed by the publicity.
Still, it never hurt her career. Agatha later married an archaeologist named Mallowan, but kept her first married name for most of her fiction. The colonel and his new missus actually seem to have lived happily ever after.
For many people – certainly for me – Christie’s books lose their appeal with age. By my early 20s their lack of realism and predictability palled enough that I stopped reading her, along with others in the genre she so successfully dominated – Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh. Detective stories still flourish by using more realistic characters while not abandoning the puzzle element she made her own. It is perhaps ironic that Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest, appeared in 1929, three years after her acknowledged masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Raymond Chandler, in his famous essay “The simple art of murder”, showed how Hammett undermined the Christie style puzzle story, giving murders “back to people who commit them for reasons, not just to provide a corpse”.
Hammett had advantages Christie did not. He had been a detective, a real one, so had to hand a cast of characters based on real people and he had a school of writing, so called “objectivism” to employ that suited the genre. Like Christie he was phenomenally successful, but ran out of steam after five novels in five years and afterwards had other things to worry about.
Modern detective masters have split into a range of sub-genres: “police procedurals” which rely on the detail of crime investigation, which can include forensics, almost a sub-genre on their own, adventure, psychological thrillers, and more. Yet Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple have ploughed on through the decades especially in television and film. British actor David Suchet not too long ago retired as the Belgian detective after a mere quarter century reprising the role. The Dame endures, if The Secret Adversary does not.
* The other woman and the colonel met while travelling the world promoting the “British and Empire Exhibition” to be held in London in 1924-25. Agatha and she were on a committee designing a children’s feature for the exhibition. On this trip Agatha and her husband were introduced to surfing, and claimed to have been among the first Europeans to stand up on a surfboard when visiting Hawaii. Sadly, Agatha never made this a feature in her novels or stories; she missed a trick there!