Six months after I started my quest to read Christie’s first decade in order of release, I’m finally on to the second book. I know, I know, hold your applause, it’s quite an accomplishment. I actually had quite a bit of enthusiasm coming out of The Mysterious Affair at Styles and then I somehow squandered it with other reading. Heading back in, it struck me that there are two paths I could take – proceed in complete chronological order, or take a Hercule Poirot focused route, moving on to The Murder on the Links. I elected to go full chronological, as understanding the breadth of Christie’s early work might allow me to better appreciate how each book fell into place.
As a recap, my initial motive for reading Christie’s early works in order was based on an assumption that they weren’t going to be that good. Time and again, I’ve seen comments suggesting that aside from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the first decade is mostly forgettable mysteries, or even worse, thrillers involving villainous syndicates. My thought was that I might as well take the decade in order as it could lend some added appreciation to the books, rather than hen pecking them at random along with the rest of Christie’s catalog.
The illusion of a weak first decade started to crumble when I read The Mysterious Affair at Styles. That was a book that I seriously enjoyed. It wasn’t exactly a classic that I’d eagerly hand out, but it hit many of the notes that I’ve come to love in more “classic” era Christie.
That weak first decade notion is further shattered by The Secret Adversary. I was spellbound within the first few pages and the fast pace had me wrapped up until the end. This isn’t a story that I’d think I’d want – it is a spy thriller of sorts and there is a syndicate involved (no spoilers, that becomes quickly apparent) – but Christie somehow had me fascinated even though it lacks the trappings of a conventional mystery.
The story follows Tommy and Tuppence, both fresh out of military service following the war and like everyone else, struggling to find a job. On a lark, they decide to post an ad in the paper declaring that they’ll do any job for the right price. This simple act flings them into a nest of international intrigue as they get caught up in the hunt for a missing girl who knows the location of documents that would be fatal to the stability of the British government.
Yeah, on paper that doesn’t sound like my thing – no thank you. Christie pulls it off though with characters you’ll fall in love with and an unpredictable plot that zigs every time you think it’s going to zag. The basis of the story involves stopping the scheme of a mysterious cabal led by the faceless Mr Brown. There’s a murder neatly tucked in there, but really, with all of the international intrigue and thuggery going on, it’s really the least of our concerns.
I’m not going to say much more about the plot because it’s one of those rides where it’s best experience if you just sit back and let it careen you about without quite understanding where it’s going to let you off. There’s nothing really brilliant buried inside it all, although I’ll admit to being led right up that garden path in the most humiliating of ways.
That Christie wrote this as a follow up to The Mysterious Affair at Styles is absolutely baffling. Styles is a dyed in the wool country house mystery with all of the trappings that makes that sort of story work, done up with all of the clever bits that made Christie famous. The Secret Adversary is…. anything but that. And yet it’s an absolute page turner. I attribute much of the success to the characters – Tuppence more so than Tommy – but also to the interesting little nuggets that are thrown in there, such as tying an aspect of the puzzle to the sinking of the Lusitania. If there’s a weakness, it’s that most every reader will probably think that they have everything figured out. Of course, they’ll be wrong.
So, where to go from here? The Murder on the Links is the obvious next step in my journey, which I anticipate being a return to the country house murder conventions that I love. The Secret Adversary opens additional doors though, as I can now approach the Tommy and Tuppence series in order as a parallel effort. Who knows, a year from now I might be reading Postern of Fate!
I had two copies of this book to read – a 1952 Avon with the classic style cover that I love, and a 1975 Bantam. I have a number of other books in the Bantam series. Although the covers are well illustrated, they’re past the classic era that I enjoy. As such, I went with the Avon for reading. While the book served me dutifully, it bit the dust about midway through when the first third of the pages detached from the spine. I still stuck with it to the end. RIP.