This post was originally part of InSpyNoMo.
I’ve been an avid listener of Forgotten Classics since about the third episode. Forgotten Classics is a mostly weekly podcast hosted by Julie, who has made it her business to uncover those classic stories that have slipped by the wayside as new ones come in. We’re (we’re!) reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the moment — not really forgotten, but not as centre stage as perhaps it ought to be; past readings include The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer and China Court by Rumer Godden. Aside from being a wonderful reader, Julie manages to get the balance just right between her various ‘segments’ and the chosen story. Although I often rather wish she’d get more into the miscellany, I actually relish the fact she keeps us wanting more, by keeping it brief and diving into the stories quickly and without fuss.
I’m pretty good at knitting and reading at the same time, especially with older editions of the books I’ve been reading, which flop open and stay that way with relative ease. However, in ‘reading’ The Secret Adversary (1922) by Agatha Christie, it’s been rather lovely to sit back and let Julie do the work!
I really quite liked The Secret Adversary, but more as an early spy novel than as something by Agatha Christie. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if readers who haven’t looked much beyond Poirot or Miss Marple found the adventures of the young Tommy and Tuppence vaguely disappointing. But this is as much a question of the development of Christie as a writer honing her craft as it is anything else. It was only her second novel and very much dependent on the context of Christie’s experiences of living in the 1920s.
The story follows Thomas Beresford and Prudence ‘Tuppence’ Crowley, old childhood friends who chance upon each other in Piccadilly and lament that the post-war years are doing nothing for their livelihood. They are both short of funds (no rich relatives to be seen) and finding life altogether dull. In lieu of anything else, they start up The Young Adventures and place an advert saying they are willing to do anything and to travel anywhere. Their first assignment, however, turns out to be more exciting than they could have imagined, and they are quickly sucked into the world of international intrigue and national security, face-to-face with the elusive ‘Mr Brown’.
Because I think this is a book that should be read, or at least listened to, I will say little more than that about the plot. However, a bit of exposition into the various facets you can expect from it should do no harm.
As is common in examples of the genre from this era, the spy of the piece is the villain, even if the heroes do engage in espionage themselves. As in Riddle of the Sands, the heroes here must engage in spying only insofar as the people they are up against are spies. Interestingly, though, Tommy and Tuppence straddle the boundry between amateur and professional. They are professional insofar as they have been hired, but they lack the sort of training Bond or Quiller benefit from. Nonetheless, their amateurism is met with an instinct for action and the ability to think quickly in tight situations.
The diaries of ‘Mr Brown’ offer some quite keen insights into the peculiar qualities of spies and secret agents.
I saw that I would have to lead two lives. A man like myself is bound to attract notice. I must have a successful career to mask my true activities. Also, I must cultivate a personality. […] If I had chosen to be an actor, I should have been the greatest actor living. No disguises, no greasepaint, no false breads — personality! I put it on like a glove. When I shed it, I was myself […] a man like ever other man. I called myself Mr Brown. There are hundreds of men called Brown. There are hundreds of men just like me.
This illustrates precisely what is it that makes the spy quite so terrifying. At their most successful, they are able to transform themselves into something familiar, something that is almost comfortingly safe and secure. It’s this ability to infiltrate seamlessly that makes the spy something to fear. Of course, as Hannay observes in The Thirty-nine Steps, it only takes one slip for the facade to be broken. But even when their identity is faced with doubt, they are largely protected by the very human desire for people to be who they say they are. Although, and regrettably, these days we are more inclined towards cynicism, I think this desire still holds, which is why Christie’s twist at the end is still entirely affective.