The Secret Adversary


Agatha Christie


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

February 4, 2023

he Secret Adversary was first published in January of 1922, it is now 101 years old. The novel is set in 1919 London, it was a contemporary novel when released, though now it seems more like a historical mystery series, like the Maisie Dobbs or Maggie Hope series. The Secret Adversary was the second book Christie published, the first of five in the Tommy and Tuppence series. The front page of the 1912 edition that I read explained: Agatha Christie is the most widely published author of all time and in any language, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. Her books have sold more than a billion copies in English and another billion copies in a hundred foreign languages. She is the author of eighty crime novels and short story collections, nineteen plays, two memoirs and six novels written under the name Mary Westmacott. Christie dedicated this book To all of those who lead monotonous lives in the hopes that they may experience at second-hand the delights and dangers of adventure. I don't lead a monotonous life, but still found this book to be enjoyable.

The Secret Adversary begins with the tragedy of the Lusitania. Two torpedoes have struck the liner, and it is sinking. Women and children are being guided to the life boats. A desperate man approaches a beautiful young woman. He entreats her, if she is a patriotic American, to take some crucial documents from him (because he knows that it is unlikely he will survive the sinking) to the American Embassy. He warns the young woman to be wary, even now he might be under observation by enemies of the Allies. The Lusitania makes another sinking lurch to starboard...

Tommy Beresford is a discharged officer from the Great War. Prudence "Tuppence" Cowley served as a nurse. It is 1919, and both are unemployed and impoverished. Yet the two lifelong friends maintain an up beat attitude. They concoct a scheme where they shall form an organization (comprised of two individuals, namely, themselves) called The Young Adventurers. They will post the following advertisement in the papers: "Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere. Pay must be good. No reasonable offer refused." And almost immediately, they find themselves hired.

Mr Whittington wants to hire a young woman to travel to Paris. Tuppence is game for the scheme, but when Whittington asks for her name, Tuppence blurts out a made up name that pops into her mind: Jane Finn. The previous day, in conversation with Tommy, he had mentioned overhearing a part of conversation in which the name Jane Finn was disclosed. Whittington is dumbfounded to hear Finn's name, and suspects Tuppence is other than she claims to be. Whittington gives Tuppence 50 lbs (a sizeable sum!) and tells her to go away. Naturally, the interest of the Young Adventurers is piqued.

It turns out that Tommy has a friend, Mr Carter, in British Intelligence. When Tommy describes Tuppence's odd interview with Whittington, Carter explains that Jane Finn is an American who was aboard the ill-fated Lusitania. It is believed that Finn possessed vitally important documents, which, even though the war is over, would destabilize the British government. (The book never actually spells out what secrets the documents contain, but there are hints that it has something to do with Irish independence. Ireland declared itself a free state in 1919, right at the time this novel was written.) Carter warns Tommy that there are nefarious enemies of Britain that will do anything to obtain the documents from Jane Finn.

Tommy and Tuppence place an ad in the papers seeking any information regarding Jane Finn, and an American millionaire named Julius Hersheimmer responds. Hersheimmer is looking for his cousin Jane Finn, whom he wishes to rescue and return to the states. All he has is a photograph of Jane. Hersheimmer is implausibly loose with his money, spending huge sums without thought on buying cars or trying to bribe one of the enemy agents.

Hersheimmer's photograph is lost - it seems that the evil-doers are guided by an elusive, brilliant leader (the Secret Adversary of the book title) who is known only by the name Mr. Brown. Not even the conspirators know who Mr. Brown is, yet they all live in fear of his wrath. Mr. Brown apparently possesses the unique ability to be completely forgettable - a non-descript face, no memorable characteristics - you don't realize you have met Mr. Brown until he has stolen your photograph.

Tommy and Hersheimmer decide to follow Whittington. When Whittington meets with another suspect, and then the two split, Tommy and Hersheimmer also split. Soon Tommy, Hersheimmer and Prudence are each following a different thread in the case.

It is a bit odd to read the conversations from 1920 England. Apparently close friends did call each other "Old thing" and "Old Bean". They say things like "Hold hard", "That beats the band" or "That's torn it". It sounds archaic to the modern ear, which is why the book reads like a historical mystery.

I guessed who the villainous Mr Brown was, but then Christie convinced me that I was wrong. But at the end of the book, it turned out that my guess was correct after all. I think in later Christie novels the plots and secret are better hidden. There are some outrageous coincidences in this book, but it the mystery is intriguing enough that the pages keep turning. The trade paperback edition is 308 pages, so it doesn't take too long to finish. I think I have now read three or four of Christie's books, so only another seventy-five or so to go!