Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Agathon #2: The Secret Adversary (1922)

Tansy and I have taken the challenge to read every book written by Agatha Christie, in order of publication and we’re blogging as we go along. We’re calling it the Agathon! . As a warning, there may be spoilers, though they will be signposted. Tansy's post is here:

2 - The Secret Adversary (1922)
Featuring: Tommy and Tuppence, Inspector Japp (mentioned)

KATHRYN SAYS: I think it’s fascinating that Agatha Christie is now best known as a writer of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot murder mysteries, and here we are at book two at the Agathon and it’s a spy novel!

‘The Secret Adversary’ opens with childhood chums Tommy Beresford and Tuppence (Prudence) Cowell running into each other in London. World War I is over and there is a dearth of jobs for both ex-VAD women, like Tuppence, and ex-Army men like Tommy. They decide to form a joint venture the "The Young Adventurers, Ltd.", and hijnks ensue, as they are become embroiled in finding a missing American girl and tracking down a spy ring that is threatening to bring down the British Government. Even though I had already read it before, I found it quite exciting.

The Secret Adversary Is it a good spy novel? Well, given what I’ve read of John le Carre and Frederick Forsythe (who to be fair did write about the Cold War, whereas this is between WWI and WWII), I’m not sure it’s a particularly accurate one. Other than Mr Brown, the villians are cardboard cutouts -there’s a Russian and a German and a man from The Union (gasp!), and an Irishman from Sinn Fein. I have no idea how it actually relates to the politics of the time, but it comes over as a bit simplified. However, the level of detail in the political, erm, plot, contrasts signficantly against those parts of the novel that are rendered in lovely detail, such as the very detailed and specific description of how Tuppence went about posing as a maid for Rita Vandermeyer (and her qualifications for doing so). And, at the heart of this very jolly spy book, there is a murder and a mystery and Christie weaves these both into the story very well (though perhaps with a few less red-herring-y clues as in a Poirot novel). I also have to note that I *love* that this is a spy book where eating is important! Tommy and Tuppence are continually sitting down to buns or a good lunch of sole (particularly once they are ensconced at the Ritz).

After Tansy noted Hasting’s propensity for ill-advised love in her review of ‘The Mysterious Affair of Styles’, it dawned on me that Agatha Christie books actually have a fairly high romance quotient. Two books in and we are two for two on ill-advised marriage proposals, for example. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more romance in books to come. I don’t want to include spoilers for ‘ The Secret Adversary’, but I will note that Christie writes the sort of Repressed English Love that made me so fond of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, and this certainly something interesting to realise about both myself and Agatha.

So. In summary I love Tommy and Tuppence - or perhaps more accurately I am fond of Tommy and I love Tuppence (I have failed to wax lyrical about Tuppence’s independence and initiative, but yea she is awesome). Christie only wrote 5 Tommy and Tuppence books (4 novels and 1 short story collection) over 50 years, approximately one every decade and one of the things I’ve been looking forward to particularly in the Agathon is reading them in order, and watching how the characters grow and age with each book. I would love to know what prompted her to write about Tommy and Tuppence in her second book, after having made what appears to have been a promisinig start with Poirot in ‘Styles’ (if anyone can point me towards a good biography of Christie that tells me this, please leave comment!)

TANSY SAYS: Hijinks ensue indeed. This novel is utterly bonkers! It feels more like a screwball comedy than a mystery or spy novel, and I find it fascinating that once again we are getting meta-commentary about genre conventions from Christie in the mouths of her characters - in this case I was particularly charmed by Tommy’s ruminations on how hard it was to follow a person in a cab in real life, as opposed to the cinema!

The first quarter of the plot is so entirely dependent on crazy coincidence that I got the feeling that Tommy and Tuppence were both completely aware that they were in a novel, and determined to make the most of it. Halfway through the story, though, the banter and the jolly japes become rather grim in a scene which makes it clear (or did at least to me) that one of two people our rapscallion heroes have in their confidence is actually a bad un - and very cleverly, the novel twists back and forth on the question of which right to the end.

I’m glad we had this interesting point, because otherwise the disastrously long separation between Tommy and Tuppence threatened to bore me - Tuppence remains interesting when her partner in (solving) crime is absent, but Tommy rather less so, except when he is talking about Tuppence.

But oh - I wouldn’t have cared if the plot was ten times duller than it is, not when these two are around with their suppers at the Ritz and their pound notes, and simmering affections below banter and bluff. I’m rather sad to know that I won’t get to see *this* Tommy and Tuppence, the careless twenty-somethings on the verge of real life, in future books, but I am terribly interested to see how they grow up.

As a side note, I love the fact that this novel is so deeply rooted in its time - from the Lusitania to the war history of our heroes (Tuppences wartime career is hilarious in the detail she recounts) and all manner of other social detail. I always find it fascinating to read novels that feel like historical novels - that is, are aware of things which people would later find of historical interest, if that makes sense.

Also, I’m pretty sure that significant chunks of this novel were pinched for a Trixie Belden plot. Just saying.


3. The Murder on the Links (1923)
Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings
4. The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)
Anne Beddingfeld, Colonel Race
5. Poirot Investigates (1924)
A short story collection! (presumably involving Poirot :-) 

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Agathon #1: The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)

Tansy and I have taken the challenge to read every book written by Agatha Christie, in order of publication and we’re blogging as we go along. We’re calling it the Agathon! You can find Tansy’s post over here if you’d like to read the conversation going on in the comments. As a warning, there may be spoilers, though they will be signposted.

1 - The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)
Featuring: Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings, Inspector Japp

TANSY SAYS: Wow, I was not expecting the first person narrator. It’s all very Watson and Holmes, isn’t it? I rather loved Hastings, silly rabbit that he is, and the way we get to see Poirot through his eyes. Also his tendency to fall in love with unattainable women and accidentally propose to entirely different women! It’s all a bit Dorothy Sayers, really. Is that heresy?

I knew nothing about Hastings going into this - I’ve never read a book with him as narrator before and it’s funny to see Poirot as part of this odd partnership. Also, I’m a little taken aback to see Poirot described as so VERY old, retired already... goodness. Doesn’t he have another 50 years of crime solving to go?

I always enjoy the mechanics of Christie’s plots, and it’s interesting to see that even at this early stage, she’s trying to pull a bait-and-switch on the reader, messing with their expectations. I thought it was funny that the first chapter has a very post-modern discussion about murder mysteries, and how they work, and that the whole plot of this one hinges on this being a universe of clues and unnecessarily complicated murder plans - which do not go entirely to plan! It always amuses me that it’s the murderer’s errors that make things harder for the detective, because it’s unpredictable. I was genuinely surprised that the story went as far as a trial, as I’m not used to murder mysteries having that kind of time frame, but of course that was sneaky, too.

Sneaky, sneaky lady.

Oooh, and I was delighted to see all the professional references to poisons, knowing that Christie herself worked in a dispensary during the war. Wonder if all that knowledge will come in handy for her in the future?

I read this one as an eBook on the iPad, from Project Gutenberg, and don’t recommend this edition at all - there’s a fairly VITAL clue missed, a note which Poirot and Hastings find, and which was evidently supposed to be depicted as an illustration. I got to find out what it said several chapters later, but it was still very annoying. Only crumpled second hand paperbacks for me in future!

KATHRYN SAYS: And so the Agathon begins! I was quite surprised to find that despite being familiar with the title, I don’t actually think I’ve read this one before! In a lot of ways this is a very typical Christie/Poirot read – action occurs at a country house, wills and money are involved, and there is a twist at the end (which, actually I was glad to be surprised with because for a while there Christie looked like she went down a relatively staid path). The book also culminates in a very traditional Poirot-gathers-everyone-in-a-room-and-tells-em-who-dunnit, and I was pleased to see that too. Actually, it will be interesting to see if any of the Poirot books don’t include that scene – certainly I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

One disappointment for me was that I would have really loved to have seen how Hastings and Poirot actually met, and how they got to know each other (and what Hasting really thought of Poirot at the beginning!). However, it seems that they met ‘off-screen’ before this first episode – indeed even Japp turns up having worked with Poirot back in 1904. I will have to see if anything is mentioned in other books, but Poirot’s journey from Belgium to England also seems have been glossed over, though I assume WWI was a driving force for the move.

The Mysterious Affair at StylesHastings’s pathway through the murder was a quite typical one for him - he manages to misinterpret most of the clues, but gives Poirot a spark of inspiration through an unexpected remark, and he is ultimately kept in the dark by Poirot so he doesn’t ruin the catch (poor Hastings!). Even in this first book a lot of Poirot’s particular characteristics seems quite developed, though there are certain character traits that pop up later that are not in here – his love of crème de cassis, and his obsession with his moustaches for example. I did, however find it amusing, given his fastidiousness, that Poroit one house-shared with seven other Belgians. I can imagine it must have driven him quite mad!

I borrowed my copy of ‘The Mysterious Affairs of Styles’ from the library (Ulversoft Large Print Edition no less!), and it’s quite nice to begin this way because most of my Christie exposure came in my teens when I would always check out the ‘C’ shelves at the library to see if there were any Christies there that I hadn’t read. From my research for the Agathon, the library system still has most of her books and most of them are checked out, being read right now. Also, it wasn’t til I gathered a whole lot Christie paperbacks (Fontana mostly) that I realised how absolutely cracked out some of the cover art is, and the mish-mash of clues represented on the cover of this hardback is no exception.

2. The Secret Adversary (1922)
Featuring: first appearance of Tommy and Tuppence; Inspector Japp (mentioned)
3. The Murder on the Links (1923)
Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings
4. The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)
Anne Beddingfeld, Colonel Race

It's the Agathon!

AgathonSo some time last year Tansy tweeted that she would like to read all the Agatha Christie books, in order, and I replied 'ZOMG! I would totally like to do that too! (or words to that effect) and a hazy plan was hatched to do it 'next year'.

And about a month ago we finally acknowledged that next year was now this year, and we confirmed our commitment to the project, and we made a list of the books (and a spreadsheet, with colours), and I finally checked how many Christies I actually had on my shelf (shockingly only 11 - I thought I had *heaps*), and then I wondered where I might find the rest.

And so I checked out bookmooch, and put out some calls to the Australian bookcrossers, and suddenly I was overwhelmed with Christie paperbacks (plus a smattering of hardcovers), thanks to the generosity of a quite significant group of people, who did not actually think I was completely mad (actually I think some of them did think I was/am mad,  but they supported me anyway.  how nice!). 

So now I have a goodly stash of Christie (41 in hand, more on the way,  and the love of a good Library system too),  and I am so pleased that we are about to do this! I'm really looking forward to reading them in order.  I'm looking forward to filling in all the cracks I haven't read yet (particularly for example for Tommy and Tuppence, who have always intrigued me with the one or two books I have read), getting more context of what Christie was doing when she wrote them, and identifying all the side characters that look to pop up again and again, but who I've never really noticed. I'm also very pleased to be doing it with Tansy,  who always has such crunchy interesting things to say about books (and here is her intro to the project: I hope I will be able to provide some crunch along the way too.

So without further ado,  let the Agathon begin!