The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

Published in 1922, The Secret Adversary is the first of Agatha Christie’s five books to feature Tommy and Tuppence and also the first I have read from that series. I hadn’t been quite sure what to expect, but although it hasn’t become a favourite Christie novel, I found it very entertaining – more thriller than detective novel and written with a lighthearted humour that gives it a similar feel to the later standalone Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?

It begins with a short prologue set during the First World War in which we see a man aboard the sinking Lusitania secretly passing important documents to a young American woman, assuming that she is more likely to survive the disaster than he is. We then jump forward a few years; the war is now over and Tommy Beresford and Prudence Cowley (known as Tuppence), two young friends in their twenties, are looking for work. Desperate to make some money, they decide to advertise themselves as Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere.

To their surprise, they are offered an assignment almost immediately when a Mr Whittington hears them talking and approaches Tuppence. Reluctant to give her own name, Tuppence tells him she is Jane Finn, a name she remembered Tommy saying he’d overheard in the street earlier that day – but as soon as Mr Whittington hears that name, his manner changes. He sends her away and by the next day he has vanished without trace. Now Tommy and Tuppence are sure they have stumbled upon the adventure they’ve been hoping for and decide to track down the mysterious Jane Finn. They get more than they’d bargained for, however, when they find themselves involved in a case of international espionage.

The Secret Adversary is packed with non-stop action: there are secret societies, passwords and code names, locked rooms, stolen identities and at least one murder. As I’ve said, it’s much more of a thriller or spy novel than a mystery, but of course there are still some mystery elements – particularly surrounding the elusive Mr Brown, who appears to be the mastermind behind the entire plot. I think I suspected just about every character in the book of being Mr Brown at first, but after a while I decided that he had to be one of two people. I guessed correctly, but as usual Christie does a great job of trying to mislead the reader and make us doubt ourselves!

This is not a book to be taken too seriously – the plot relies heavily on coincidences, the dialogue is often very silly and some of the characters are stereotypes (particularly the American millionaire Julius P. Hersheimmer) – but sometimes I’m just in the mood for something that’s light and fun to read! I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Tommy and Tuppence’s adventures eventually, although I will probably continue to just dip into Christie’s books at random as that has been working for me so far. I’m aware that Tommy and Tuppence age throughout the series, however, so I’m pleased that I managed to start with the first book in which they appear.

Have you read this – or any of the other Tommy and Tuppence books?

They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie – #1951club

After reading Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer, the second novel I decided to read for Karen and Simon’s 1951 Club this week was another crime one – by Agatha Christie this time. It seems that whichever year is chosen for the club (so far, anyway) there’s always at least one Christie novel published in that year, and as soon as I saw that 1951 marked the publication of They Came to Baghdad, I knew that I wanted to read it. The title had me intrigued immediately: who came to Baghdad and why? I couldn’t wait to find out!

This book is not one of Christie’s Poirot or Miss Marple mysteries – it’s a standalone and actually much more of a spy novel or thriller than a mystery. With an exciting plot involving kidnappings, conspiracies, impersonations, disguises and secret messages, I found it a lot of fun to read – one of those books I genuinely didn’t want to have to put down until I was finished!

So, who came to Baghdad? Well, first of all there’s our heroine, Victoria Jones, a young woman with a vivid imagination and a gift for coming up with creative yet convincing lies. Having just lost her job as a typist, Victoria takes a walk in a London park where she meets Edward, a charming, handsome young man with whom she falls in love at first sight. When, to her disappointment, Edward tells her that he’ll be leaving the next day to go and work in Baghdad, Victoria decides that she must follow him there…the only problem is, she has no money to pay for the flight. As luck would have it, she then discovers that an American lady, Mrs Hamilton-Clipp, will be flying to Baghdad three days later and requires a companion for the journey. It seems that Victoria’s problem is solved.

Meanwhile, an interesting assortment of other people are beginning to converge upon Baghdad, including the flamboyant explorer Sir Rupert Crofton-Lee; the eccentric archaeologist Dr Pauncefoot Jones (no relation of Victoria’s, although she’s quite willing to pretend that he is); Anna Scheele, a clever and elusive young woman; and the mysterious Carmichael, whom we first meet in the British Consulate wearing Arab dress and trying to convey an important message to a fellow visitor. And why have all of these people come to Baghdad? It will spoil the story if I go into too much detail, but it’s probably enough to say that an international plot is brewing and Victoria Jones is about to become caught up in it.

What a great book this is! The story is a bit far-fetched and silly at times, but it was so entertaining I didn’t mind at all. Although, as I’ve said, it’s not really a mystery novel, there are still puzzles to be solved (I particularly loved the way one of my favourite Dickens novels provides Victoria with a vital clue) and there are plenty of plot twists too – I had my suspicions about some of them, but others took me by surprise. The setting is wonderful as well, with lots of colourful descriptions of Baghdad capturing a time and place that has changed forever. While it was easy enough for Victoria to travel to Baghdad (once she’d found a way to pay for it), for most of us Iraq is sadly no longer a place that we will have the opportunity to visit, apart from through fiction.

Much as I enjoy Agatha Christie’s detective novels, Victoria Jones is such an engaging heroine that it didn’t bother me that there’s no Poirot or Marple in this one. If you’re looking for something slightly different from Christie, I would definitely recommend trying They Came to Baghdad!

My Commonplace Book: October 2016

A summary of last month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

~

“Most people only want a quiet life,” I said. “Even those of us who were once radicals.” I smiled wryly at Roger. He nodded in acknowledgement.

“Fanatics on both sides,” old Ryprose said gloomily. “And all we poor ordinary folk in the middle. Sometimes I fear they will bring death to us all.”

Revelation by CJ Sansom (2008)

~

edward-lear-book-of-nonsense

“Books,” the driver resumed. “I’m a great reader. I am. Not poetry. Love stories and murder books. I joined one o’ them” – he heaved a long sigh; with vast effort his mind laboured and brought forth – “circulatin’ libraries”. He brooded darkly. “But I’m sick of it now. I’ve read all that’s any good in it.”

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin (1946)

~

“We shall wait upon tomorrow,” he said.

“But – what if tomorrow is worse than today?”

“Then we shall wait upon the day after tomorrow.”

“And so forth?” I asked.

“And so forth,” Dogger said.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley (2014)

~

In his masterwork, The Landscape of Criminal Investigation, Atticus Pünd had written: ‘One can think of the truth as eine vertiefung – a sort of deep valley which may not be visible from a distance but which will come upon you quite suddenly. There are many ways to arrive there. A line of questioning that turns out to be irrelevant still has the power to bring you nearer to your goal. There are no wasted journeys in the detection of a crime.’

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2016)

~

“But seriously Poirot, what a hobby! Compare that to -” his voice sank to an appreciative purr – “an easy chair in front of a wood fire in a long low room lined with books – must be a long room – not a square one. Books all round one. A glass of port – and a book open in your hand. Time rolls back as you read.”

The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie (1947)

~

robert-cecil

“Watch and wait,” says Burghley. “You have a valuable nugget of information, but that is all it is at this stage. Watch the lady; watch and wait.” Cecil is reminded of being fleeced by a card trickster once, who had said the very same thing – watch the lady. He lost all the gold buttons from his doublet. That was a lesson learned.

Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle (2015)

~

Sometimes I would like to cry. I close my eyes. Why weren’t we designed so that we can close our ears as well? (Perhaps because we would never open them.) Is there some way that I could accelerate my evolution and develop earlids?

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson (1995)

~

Why the Egyptian, Arabic, Abyssinian, Choctaw? Well, what tongue does the wind talk? What nationality is a storm? What country do rains come from? What color is lightning? Where does thunder go when it dies?

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962)

~

lantern-clock

And as the seconds and minutes moved on, I pondered Man’s efforts at the representation or ‘capture’ of Time, and I thought how, for Clockmakers like Hollers, the very Commodity with which they were trying to work was a heartless and capricious Enemy, who stole from them all the while and never rested.

Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain (2013)

~

A Gothic gate, richly ornamented with fret-work, which opened into the main body of the edifice, but which was now obstructed with brush-wood, remained entire. Above the vast and magnificent portal of this gate arose a window of the same order, whose pointed arches still exhibited fragments of stained glass, once the pride of monkish devotion. La Motte, thinking it possible it might yet shelter some human being, advanced to the gate and lifted a mossy knocker. The hollow sounds rung through the emptiness of the place. After waiting a few minutes, he forced back the gate, which was heavy with iron work, and creaked harshly on its hinges…

The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe (1791)

~

I could not possibly go home, I reflected, and add as a serious contribution to the study of women and fiction that women have less hair on their bodies than men, or that the age of puberty among the South Sea Islanders is nine — or is it ninety? — even the handwriting had become in its distraction indecipherable. It was disgraceful to have nothing more weighty or respectable to show after a whole morning’s work.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)

~

sappho

Not everyone can write as legibly as I; Father made me spend hours at my tablets, saying that my poems must be written down by me as I myself have composed them, so they will not be distorted in later years by other singers. “For you have great gifts from the Muses,” he said. “I would not have them lost to the world that comes after.”

Burning Sappho by Martha Rofheart (1974)

~

“I ain’t in the habit of picking other folks’ roses without leave,” said she.

As Rebecca spoke she started violently and lost sight of her resentment, for something singular happened. Suddenly the rosebush was agitated violently as if by a gust of wind, yet it was a remarkably still day. Not a leaf of the hydrangea standing on the terrace close to the rose trembled.

“What on earth -” began Rebecca; then she stopped with a gasp at the sight of the other woman’s face. Although a face, it gave somehow the impression of a desperately clutched hand of secrecy.

Small and Spooky edited by M.R. Nelson (2016)

~

Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2016)

~

“You don’t think there’ll really be a war, do you?” she asked anxiously, as her work was for the maimed wrecks of men left by the 1914-18 war – and I could understand her horror of another. But when I looked at the Green Cat I was not sure and I did not reply.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell (1959)

~

Favourite books read in October: Revelation, The Moving Toyshop and Magpie Murders

The 1947 Club: The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie

1947-club-pink This week, Karen (of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Simon (of Stuck in a Book) are hosting a 1947 Club. The idea is that we all read and review books which were published in 1947, forming an overview of the literary world in that particular year. Having enjoyed the books I read for the first two clubs – 1924 and 1938 – I’ve been looking forward to taking part in this one.

First, here are some reviews of 1947 novels previously posted on my blog:

The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger

I can highly recommend all three of those – and I also enjoyed the book I chose to read for the club: Agatha Christie’s The Labours of Hercules. I love Christie and as it’s been a while since I read one of her books, I was pleased to find that she’d had one published in 1947!

the-labours-of-hercules The Labours of Hercules begins with a foreword in which we learn that Hercule Poirot is planning to retire from crime-solving and devote himself to the growing of marrows. Before giving up detective work for good, he decides to take on twelve more cases, each inspired by one of the twelve Labours of Hercules from Greek mythology. This is in response to a friend who has pointed out that although Poirot may be Herculean by name, he is hardly Herculean by nature!

The foreword is followed by twelve stories, each one a complete mystery in itself. If you’re familiar with the original Labours of Hercules (Poirot himself admits to having no knowledge of the Classics and has to do some research before beginning his mission), you will know that the first one involves the slaying of the Nemean Lion. The ‘lion’ of Poirot’s first Labour is slightly less terrifying – a Pekinese dog stolen during a walk in the park – but it forms the basis of a case which is much more intriguing than it initially appears. The other stories in the book are also loosely related to the Labours but instead of tackling monsters and wild beasts, Poirot finds himself facing an assortment of thieves, drug dealers, kidnappers and murderers.

Until now, I have only read full-length Poirot novels and have avoided the short story collections as I often find short stories disappointing, lacking the depth and complexity I prefer in longer books. However, this particular collection is surprisingly satisfying; fun to read, nicely varied and with at least one clever twist in each story. I’m not going to discuss all of them here, but a few of my favourites were The Stymphalean Birds, in which Poirot attempts to rescue a British politician from the clutches of a pair of blackmailers, and The Cretan Bull, where a young woman seeks Poirot’s help after her fiancé ends their engagement because he fears he’s going insane. I also enjoyed The Erymanthian Boar, set in a hotel on top of a mountain in Switzerland to which Poirot has travelled in the hope of disturbing a rendezvous arranged by a dangerous Parisian gangster.

Poirot is very much alone throughout most of his adventures in this book. We don’t see anything of Captain Hastings, but other recurring characters from the series do make an appearance in some of the stories, including Chief Inspector Japp, Poirot’s valet, Georges, and his secretary, Miss Lemon (I loved her brief but hilarious role in the final story, The Capture of Cerberus, when Poirot asks her what she would do if a friend wanted to meet her in Hell).

Apart from one or two stories towards the end which I found slightly weaker than the others, I really enjoyed reading this collection. I’m sorry that I’m not going to have time to read anything else this week for the 1947 Club, but I’m pleased that the one book I have read proved to be such a good choice!

Classics Club Monthly Meme: Question #42 – Science Fiction and Mysteries

The Classics Club

On the 26th of each month the Classics Club post a question for members to answer during the following month. It’s been a while since I last participated so I’ve decided to join in with this one. The question below was contributed by club member Fariba:

“What is your favourite mystery or science fiction classic? Why do you think it is a classic? Why do you like it?”

I haven’t read a huge number of classics from either of these genres, so rather than pick favourites I’m simply going to write about a few books I’ve enjoyed which fall into each category. First, let’s look at classic mysteries…

Mysteries

And Then There Were None The first author to come to mind when I think about classic mysteries is Agatha Christie. Although I haven’t read all of her books yet (not even half of them), I’ve loved most of those that I have read, particularly And Then There Were None. It’s such a simple idea – ten strangers are cut off from the world on an isolated island and start to be killed off one by one – but the solution is fiendishly clever!

My next choice is from the Victorian period: a book which TS Eliot famously described as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels”. It’s The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, a novel which centres around the disappearance of a valuable Indian diamond. As anyone who has read it will know, the mystery itself is almost secondary to the wonderful array of memorable narrators, especially Gabriel Betteredge, the elderly servant.

With my interest in history, I also enjoyed The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, in which a detective recuperating in hospital decides to amuse himself by trying to solve the mystery of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. In 1990 this book came top of the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list. I haven’t read any of Tey’s other mysteries yet, but I have A Shilling for Candles on my shelf to read soon.

Science Fiction

The Midwich Cuckoos A few years ago I read and loved The Midwich Cuckoos, a classic science fiction novel about a mysterious phenomenon which occurs in a quiet English village. I was (and still am) intending to read more of John Wyndham’s books, but haven’t got round to it yet. I know some of his other novels are regarded as being better than this one, so I’m looking forward to trying them for myself.

HG Wells is one of the most famous authors of classic science fiction and so far I have read two of his books – The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. I enjoyed both of these novels but I didn’t find either of them entirely satisfying. In the case of The Time Machine in particular, I felt that there were a lot of ideas which could have been explored in more depth. I’m sure I’ll read more of Wells’ novels eventually.

If I can also class dystopian novels as science fiction, there are quite a few that I’ve read including, years ago, 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and, more recently, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Otherwise, I really haven’t read much science fiction at all and would love some recommendations!

Have you read any classic mystery or science fiction novels? Which are your favourites?

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirots Christmas I hope you’ve all had a good Christmas! Mine hasn’t been great, unfortunately. My grandfather, who is eighty-five, fell and broke his shoulder last week and has been in hospital over Christmas. Because of his age and poor general health, the doctors haven’t been able to say whether he will make a full recovery or when he might be able to go home. My grandmother, who also has health problems, can’t be left on her own so we are all helping out with taking care of her until we know what long-term arrangements will need to be made. As you can probably imagine, it’s been quite a stressful time and not conducive to writing good book reviews, so this is just a short post to record some thoughts on a recent Christmas-themed read.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is a classic locked-room murder mystery which begins with an elderly millionaire, Simeon Lee, inviting various members of his family to spend Christmas with him at his home, Gorston Hall. The family are surprised and suspicious – they are not all on speaking terms and as they begin to gather at Simeon’s house tensions are running high. When the old man is found dead in a pool of blood in his locked bedroom on Christmas Eve, there is no shortage of suspects.

Who could the killer be? Could it be one of Simeon’s sons – the money-obsessed George, maybe, or Harry, who has been estranged from the rest of the family for many years – or one of their wives? What about Pilar Estravados, Simeon’s granddaughter, newly arrived from Spain? Or Stephen Farr, son of Simeon’s former business partner, who has come unexpectedly from South Africa? Hercule Poirot is called in to investigate and as he begins to piece together what happened on the night of the murder, some family secrets are brought to light.

This is not very high on my list of favourite Agatha Christie novels, but I did enjoy it. As usual, I failed to solve the mystery before Poirot did and although there were a few times when I thought I’d figured it out, I never even came close to being correct! Despite the title, it’s not a particularly Christmassy book (Christmas Day passes almost without mention) but I found it fun, entertaining and quick to read, which is just what I was in the mood for. I was reminded of Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer, which is also set at Christmas and has a similar storyline.

With plenty of other unread Christie novels still to look forward to, I’m sure I’ll be reading more Poirot in 2016.

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

Peril at End House I love Agatha Christie’s books but although there are still a lot that I haven’t read, I find that it works better for me to space them out and read other things in between. It’s been almost a year since the last Christie novel I read, so last week I decided it was time to read another one. This one, Peril at End House, is an early Poirot mystery, published in 1932.

At the beginning of the novel, Hercule Poirot and his friend, Captain Hastings, are taking a holiday in the seaside resort of St Loo. If they were hoping for a peaceful, relaxing break, though, they are about to be disappointed. Taking a walk outside their hotel, they meet a young woman called Nick who lives nearby at End House. As they stand chatting to Nick, she swats away what she thinks is a wasp – and then finds a hole in the brim of her hat and a bullet lying on the ground. Poirot is concerned, especially when she tells him of three other occasions when she has narrowly escaped death in the last few days, but Nick herself appears less worried – she can’t imagine why anybody would want her dead and insists that the incidents must just be accidents.

Poirot resolves to do everything he can to keep Nick safe from harm while he investigates, but it seems that his efforts are in vain as the murder attempts continue. Meanwhile, he uncovers a number of suspects among Nick’s friends and family ranging from her closest living relative, Charles Vyse, and her best friend, Frederica Rice, to her housekeeper Ellen and her Australian lodgers, Mr and Mrs Croft. And as more information comes to light, Poirot discovers that there may in fact be a very good reason for the attempts on Nick’s life.

As I approached the halfway point in this book, I was thinking that this was a very average Poirot novel – not a particularly notable entry in the series at all. I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge because there were some great twists and turns towards the end and the mystery ended up being a much more complex and clever one than I had thought at first.

When I wrote about the last Poirot novel I read – Cat Among the Pigeons – I remarked that that particular book was unusual because Poirot didn’t appear until near the end. This one is the opposite, as Poirot is there in the middle of the action right from the first page and we are plunged straight into the mystery, with little time spent on setting the scene or providing background. Like several of the other early Poirot novels, Captain Hastings narrates the story, which I like because although we don’t actually get inside Poirot’s head, he does at least explain some of his thought processes to Hastings as he goes along.

As so often happens when I read Agatha Christie, I did actually guess the correct solution (or part of it, anyway) very early in the book – and then dismissed the idea as the plot developed and red herrings were dropped into the story, leading me off the scent. The reader is given all the information needed to be able to identify the murderer and their motives, but it’s easy to overlook one or two of the most important clues. Even Poirot himself missed those clues too, which made me feel better about it!

This is not a favourite Poirot novel, but I did enjoy it. Have you read this one? Did you manage to solve the mystery or did you allow Christie to lead you in the wrong direction?