Monday, 9 March 2015

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie


published 1922


Secret Adversary



Tuppence was ushered into a room on the right of the long passage. A woman was standing by the fireplace. She was no longer in her first youth, and the beauty she undeniably possessed was hardened and coarsened. In her youth she must have been dazzling. Her pale gold hair, owing a slight assistance to art, was coiled low on her neck, her eyes, of a piercing electric blue, seemed to possess a faculty of boring into the very soul of the person she was looking at. Her exquisite figure was enhanced by a wonderful gown of indigo charmeuse. And yet, despite her swaying grace, and the almost ethereal beauty of her face, you felt instinctively the presence of something hard and menacing, a kind of metallic strength that found expression in the tones of her voice and in that gimlet-like quality of her eyes.
 
 
observations: Like all serious crime fiction fans, I am a big fan of Margot Kinberg’s Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog, and of one of her regular features, the short video’ed Crime Fiction News Breaks. Margot, in her humble way, sometimes pretends this is a simple do-it-yourself job with minimal production involved, but secretly I believe it to be an Oprah-style operation with a team of technicians, researchers and stylists, and a studio audience in attendance.

Anyway, Margot rounds up news from all over the world – she is a global superstar brand after all - but still I was astonished to hear from her as she sat in her mega-studio complex, sorry I mean her home office, in California that there was going to be an Agatha Christie production playing thousands of miles away from her, but within a half hour drive of my house. I knew nothing of this. You see how she looks after her adoring fans? So I immediately booked tickets to see it.

Secret Adversary 2
This wasn’t one of Christie’s own plays, but it has been very cleverly adapted from the book by Sarah Punshon and Johann Hari. A small cast plays multiple parts, using a most effectively-designed set, and lots of props – and the actors also provided the music, including some songs. The whole thing is very funny and entertaining and professional, and if anyone can get to it I suggest they should – this is the website. (Fly there in your private jet, Margot.) These pictures from the production give a very good impression of the show!


Secret Adversary 4
Secret Adversary 3


The book (which naturally I re-read after seeing the play) was Christie’s second, and introduced us to Tommy and Tuppence, her occasional sleuths. One of my good blogfriends calls this genre ‘the flapper adventures’, and that’s about right – Christie wrote several of them before concentrating on straight detective stories. They featured  annoyingly arch young people, being frightfully amusing, and hiding their strong principles and morals under an air of joking nonchalance.

This one starts – unusually for Christie - with a real-life event: the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. It then departs from the real world totally, with a ridiculous plot based on the fact that ‘a Labour Government would be a grave disability for British trade’ and that the Bolshevists are poised for a takeover. Tommy & Tuppence must search for some missing documents, a missing woman, and the mysterious Mr Brown – the man behind the Bolshevists. None of this stands up for a moment, there is no logic to it at all, but the plot rattles along, and it’s moderately entertaining in a light-hearted way. However the introduction of the name Jane Finn into the plot has not been thought out properly, and is one of Christie’s memorably bad moments. In the current play they change it to Jane Fish and give it slightly more solidity, and they also try to do something satirical with the politics of the book - but that's a lost cause. 

The Secret of Chimneys, on the blog here, is a similar farrago, though without Tommy and Tuppence (good thing or bad thing? Hmmm). Christie's spy thriller N or M?, here on the blog,  features T&T in wartime.

Curtis Evans has a splendid review of Secret Adversary on his Passing Tramp blog here.

The main picture is a 1922 evening dress from the NYPL. The blank features seem to suit the wicked (not exactly a spoiler given the description above) Mrs Vandermeyer.

Minority interests: Charmeuse – one of my favourite obscure fabric descriptions – is a silk fabric with a satin finish, apparently particularly suitable for ‘lingerie, flowing evening gowns, and drapey blouses’ (Wikipedia). Tommy and Tuppence meet up at Dover St Tube station in central London, which is now known as Green Park Tube station.

And finally, thank you again to the great Margot for pointing me in the right direction. I hope you can find something equally good for me in your next Crime Fiction Newsbreak, Margot. 









27 comments:

  1. Moira - My goodness! Thank you for the publicity and the kind words! One of my staffers told my assistant that you'd written something nice about the broadcast, and I just had to see for myself. ;-)

    I really do appreciate the kind words; more importantly it's terrific to hear that you had a good time at the play. The stills look terrific. I must admit I like Tommy and Tuppence very much, especially as they get older. This particular novel isn't - ahem - one of Christie's most realistic plots. It is most definitely a 'flapper adventure.' Still, it's fun for all that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, the play was fun in the way the book is fun - skim across the surface and have a good time.
      I have decided that you have a network of agents all over the world reporting back to you with tipoffs for crime fiction news (a bit like Mr Brown in the book/play with his operatives anywhere), and I would like to ask for a special bonus for your south of England agent for giving you this news...

      Delete
    2. I'll definitely pass it along to my staff at our next meeting! ;-)

      Delete
  2. Moira, I didn't like this book as well as some of the Poirot-Marple mysteries that I have read. I think Christie's strong point was always the detective novel and not one bordering on espionage and political machinations.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree with you Prashant, these books are always second best to the Poirots and Marples in my view too, but it did make for a good stage show.

      Delete
  3. Charmeuse is probably better known these days as (lightweight) satin-backed crepe - it was used a LOT for wedding dresses and lingerie.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's such a nice name. In fact the dress above couldn't actually be charmeuse, I think, could it - too stiff and structured? But I liked the look of it.

      Delete
    2. There are some great fabric names out there. You could populate an entire genre of books with people named after fabrics. Georgette, Dimity, Tiffany, Tobine, Rayon...

      Synthetic wise, don't Terylene, Crimplene and Pellon sound like characters from late 20th century Australian soap operas?

      One fabric name I've always thought would make a quite pretty name is Etamine (a kind of light woollen gauze).

      Delete
    3. Love the idea of characters called after fabrics, and Etamine IS lovely! I am intending sometime to do a list of good ones - I know I am not the only reader who spent years being puzzled as to what tarleton is, and always imagining it as having a self-coloured faint criss-cross patters, close to tartan you see.

      Delete
  4. For historical accuracy, Tuppence needs to pull her cloche hat down over her nose - but then I suppose we wouldn't see her face!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Should the brim of the hat be horizontal do you think? I don't suppose the actress wanted to be hidden at all....

      Delete
  5. Charmeuse is one of those fashionable names applied to perfectly ordinary fabrics, in this case what we would call crepe-back satin. The crepe yarn allows the fabric to drape softly, unlike regular satin. Both sides of the fabric are equally attractive and either could be used as the "right" side which also leads to confusion. Dresses often had the reverse of the same fabric used as a contrast of texture. There was an all wool version as well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can't imagine wool charmeuse at all - did it have a shiny finish?
      I am imagining it as the kind of material that negligees in 30s Hollywood films were made of, quite clingy and flowing nicely - is that right?

      Delete
    2. I think the wool version would have had a flat, matte side and a crinkly, textured side.

      Delete
    3. We need touch-variable screens (or 3-d printers) - I need examples of all these lovely fabrics....

      Delete
  6. The play sounds lovely. I like plays where actors play multiple roles. This was the first book I re-read when I started reading Agatha Christie seriously in 2012. Because I remembered liking Tommy and Tuppence. And I still do like the book and the characters. I am having problems with Partners in Crime... just can't get through it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Partners in Crime is short stories in the manner of other detective writers, is that right? I could never get on with that one. Then think of Christie, a young woman trying to do a bit of spare-time writing for pin money, 'oh short stories are a good idea' - she can't ever have guessed that nearly 100 years later we'd be reading them so carefully and trying to make sense of her decisions....

      Delete
    2. Yes, that is the one. I did consider that it was an early set of short stories, but another problem for me is I don't know enough about some of the detectives being spoofed to recognize that is even the case. I am not very far in but I think I started it a year ago and I have got to finish it soon. I would like to get on to N or M this year.

      Delete
    3. I think the problem is that many of the detectives parodied are long forgotten...

      Delete
    4. Motivated by this comment thread, I took the book with me to an appointment and read one and a half stories and the one I finished was the first one in the book that I found appealing. So that's a good thing.

      Delete
    5. Oh good! Perhaps when you review it you will persuade some of us to go back to it.... I haven't been tempted to re-read it recently....

      Delete
  7. Sounds like a decent night out and something even I might enjoy. When I saw 39 Steps, they had actors playing multiple roles which was quite funny especially when the same guy was having a conversation with his other character.
    I think I'm missing your point re Jane Finn.....straight over my head!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jane Finn would mean nothing if you haven't read it - I just had to make that point! I have read all of Christie, much of it several times over, and in all the books and all the time I have been reading her, I have always thought the Jane Finn mention to be the worst moment. A young woman has to think of a false name, pulls out of her head one overheard by someone else in the street, and says that (she's supposed to have remembered it because it was 'so funny', but it isn't even that). By sheer massive chance it just happens to be the name of a highly important lost young woman who has the missing documents, so the people she is with think she knows something. It kicks off the plot all right, but there would have been a million better ways!

      Delete
  8. Not really a fan of the book (though I love the late Tommy and Tuppence, BY THE PRICKING OF MY THUNBS) but love the sound of the stage adaptation - thanks Moira, if I can I really will try to get to se it - ta!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's interesting you like Thumbs, it doesn't have a great reputation - I might try re-reading it. I imagine Adversary is a touring production, so there will be more chances: it really is an entertaining couple of hours.

      Delete
    2. I'm also a big fan of Pricking of my Thumbs!! I think my favourite T&T is "N or M?" though.

      Delete
    3. OK I'm definitely going to have to read Thumbs now - read it years ago, but don't remember much about it.

      Delete