Almost everyone has heard of Agatha Christie’s characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, as they’re constantly revived and riffed upon and parodied. They’ve become a part of our cultural currency. Because of their familiarity, many people will be surprised to hear Christie has a third set of series detectives whose adventures span her entire writing career. Tommy and Tuppence made their first appearance in 1922 and their last in 1972, aging along the way in real time. Among Christie aficionados, they are controversial. Some readers find Tuppence’s relentless flapper vivacity annoying, and the thriller plots she and Tommy inhabit are less than Christie’s best. Points absolutely taken, but I love them and think they’re a little underrated.
In some ways, Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence and her other even less frequently read books featuring adventurous flapper heroines presage the current boom in YA fiction. The number of recently published books featuring adventurous young women flouting societal norms, many solving mysteries, is truly limitless. They are also part of a long tradition of young women detectives in literature, dating back almost to the genre’s inception. We can argue about whether the put-upon heroines of gothic novels such as The Mysteries of Udolpho count (or if Jane Austen’s parody Catherine Morland who clearly wants a mystery to investigate counts), but the true first is likely Marian Halcomb in Wilkie Collins’s great sensation novel of 1859, The Woman in White. Many others soon followed. Revelations of a Lady Detective and The Female Detective both in 1864, Collins again with The Law and the Lady (1875), Mina in Dracula (1897) performs much unsung detection, and then we continue into the 20th century with offerings like Lady Molly of Scotland Yard by Baroness Orczy who even has her own, also female, Watson. The subsequent examples are too numerous to list, from Nancy Drew who debuted in 1930 up though the books of people like Sparkle Hayter and Lauren Henderson in the 90s and through today with Lucy Liu’s clever Watson in the tv series Elementary and the truly wonderful Search Party with Alia Shawkat. I don’t think it’s an accident that the last entry is primarily set in Greenpoint – Brooklyn hipsters are the obvious great, great grandchildren of Christie’s Bright Young Things.
When I was compiling this list, I really thought there would be more books in this category. But then I realized that a fairly significant number of the Poirot and Marple novels feature young women who do a great deal of the heavy lifting in terms of investigating murder. These include the previously discussed Cat Among The Pigeons, After The Funeral, 4.50 From Paddington and Mrs McGinty’s Dead.
The Secret Adversary (1922)
Christie’s second novel was a departure from the country house mystery she debuted with. Set in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, broke childhood friends Tommy and Tuppence decide to put out their shingle and form a detective agency called “The Young Adventurers, Ltd.” They are immediately embroiled in a caper involving spies, Bolsheviks (the generic villains de jour), secret papers, the sinking of the Lusitania, kidnapping, amnesia and romance. As always, Christie never lacked for ideas. And as always with Christie, there is a fair play mystery embedded within all the mayhem.
It’s a lot of fun, but the politics are both nonsensical and reactionary – the criminal enterprise in the story is a baffling mix of various lefties, Irish republicans and jewel thieves (?), but they could really be any band of generic bad guys. Tommy (who we learn was an intelligence officer during the war) and Tuppence are dispatched by an English spymaster to thwart the plot they’ve inadvertently stumbled into (to destabilize the west – honestly I still have no idea what the jewel thieves get out of any of this). There are approximately a million novels and short stories and B movies and comics with similar plots, but as pointed out by contemporary reviewers, Christie’s version is a cut above the norm. Her dialogue and characterizations and razor sharp plotting elevate the very, very pulpy underpinnings and the whole thing is just a blast.
The first film adaptation of The Secret Adversary is also the earliest existing Christie adaptation. This reasonably faithful German silent version from 1928 called Die Abenteurer G.m.b.H. is available on YouTube with French & German inter titles. Thought lost until 2001, it’s an interesting curiosity, but not really worth watching other than for research purposes. The print on YouTube is truly silent, so I played the Babylon Berlin soundtrack to accompany it, which worked well.
We had to wait fifty years for the next adaptation: in 1983 ITV filmed a version starring BBC all-star Francesca Annis (who starred in the 600 episode bio series on Lillie Langtry) as Tuppence with Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore from Goldfinger!) as a glamorous villain. It’s a fun adaptation which is available to stream on Acorn.
The recent BBC adaptation set in the Cold War ’50s starring Nurse Jenny from Call the Midwives is unwatchable. AVOID AT ALL COSTS.
As it’s one of the few Christie novels which is in the public domain, and doesn’t contain the no doubt heavily trademarked Poirot, there are several theatrical adaptations and (as I reported a few years ago on my blog) a still unfinished web series filmed in period specific costumes in modern NYC. Created by Pumpkin Pie Show alums Kevin Cunningham and Hanna Cheek, it’s completely delightful, though sadly currently unavailable.
Lastly, here is Christie’s original dedication page. How can you not be in love?
The Man In The Brown Suit (1924)
NOTE: This is another book it’s impossible to discuss without massive spoilers. YOU ARE WARNED.
As Christie published her fourth novel it seemed as if a pattern of alternating Poirot mystery novels with modern thrillers had been established. This turned out to not be the case as her author’s imagination was far too restless.
This thriller – with, as always, a fair play mystery embedded within, is so much fun. Christie wanted the title to be Anna the Adventuress as it centered her flapper heroine and also served as a cheeky parody of popular film serial titles and pulps. The book’s narration is split between suddenly orphaned Anne who had previously served as secretary for her anthropologist father (anticipating Bones’s Dr. Temperance Brennan by recognizing various distinctive skull types) and that of Sir Eustace Pedler, M.P. Here, Christie takes her first stab at first person narration by a murderer, a device she would most famously utilize in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (and then once again decades later – this excellent, little read novel will be discussed in a later post).
Pedler is a terrific comic creation. Based on a friend of Archie Christie’s who joined them on a year long, globe trotting tour of the globe in the service of Empire, he badgered Agatha until she agreed to make him a murderer. The Pedler sections of Brown Suit are easily the best sustained comic writing of Christie’s career. It’s slightly heartbreaking this story was never filmed during Hollywood 1930s heyday, as there are glorious comic roles for people like Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton, while any of the A List screwball goddesses (Kate, Carole, Miriam, Claudette, etc.) would have been ideal as Anne, with a fun, comic role for the female second banana.
Much of the action is set in South Africa and (what was then) Rhodesia, with much of the plot concerning a miners’ strike. She wisely avoids politics, and sticking largely to crime she (mostly) avoids any jingoistic nonsense. Her plot involving a shadowy criminal mastermind called “The Colonel” hangs together well. The book’s prologue in Paris, a third person scene featuring a shady nightclub performer and a criminal master of disguise was lifted nearly whole and inserted into the beginning of The Mystery of the Blue Train a few years later while Christie was in the middle of her Divorce Trauma.
Easily the weakest part of the book is the romance. The titular Man in the Brown Suit is a snooze cobbled together from pulp romance clichés, and Colonel Race (who will appear in a few subsequent books as a Poirot sidekick) is introduced to create a feeble love triangle and is a second boring strong silent type. The love scenes are all pretty dire and embarrassing and ring mostly false. It’s a little sexier than is typical of Christie and she isn’t very good at sexy, which makes the whole thing unfortunate.
This incredibly entertaining book has been filmed only once – in a modern dress 1989 TV movie. It’s incredibly silly, but so is the book, and unlike with some other more lugubrious Christie adaptations, it captures its madcap spirit. It’s very well cast and if you’ve always dreamed of watching a fight scene between Rue McClanahan and Tony Randall in drag, your wishes have been answered!
Christie wrote a stage adaptation, but it was never produced. Happily, the script was found among her archives in 2003. It was also adapted for the Marple series, but in addition to the unwanted intrusion of Aunt Jane it was rendered unrecognizable. A current, campy movie version would be incredibly fun.
The Seven Dials Mystery (1929)
Seven Dials serves as being a semi-sequel to The Secret of Chimneys, featuring some of the same adorable Bright Young Things (as well as some less adorable characters, such as Superintendent Battle). This might be my least favorite of all of Christie’s books (barring The Big Four, which was hastily cobbled together while having her Divorce Trauma and the ones written late in life after her mind started failing).
It starts off promisingly, with a group of young people discovering a series of two murders. It proceeds into being one of her more thrillerish books with, as always a mystery embedded within. The mystery itself isn’t terrible, but the larger plot, full of various secret societies isn’t very much fun. This wound up being her last book featuring these characters, aside from Battle who would make a few more appearances.
It’s really surprising to me that in the early 80s when ITV was adapting all of Christie’s flapper stories they chose to go with this one instead of Chimneys, which is a far superior book. It’s extremely faithful, with Cheryl Campbell subbing for Francesca Annis as the flapper heroine. The cast also includes Sir John Gielgud and James Warwick (who plays Tommy).
Partners In Crime (1929)
As is true of all of Christie’s volumes of linked short stories, Partners in Crime is excellent. Featuring Tommy and Tuppence under cover in a detective agency, once again battling spies for King and Country in a book-long arc, all the while solving smaller mysteries in the individual stories. Contemporary reviewers noted that a book-long arc in an otherwise episodic structure was an innovation they hadn’t seen before, something that has now, finally become the norm in ambitious episodic television. Because this book needs yet another narrative conceit, Christie parodies a different contemporary literary detective in each story.
This book has so many things to recommend it. The stories themselves are generally excellent mini Christie mysteries, but the parodies elevate it to a whole other level. Few of the detectives cited are going to be familiar to a general modern audience, likely only Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Chesterton’s Father Brown and (of course!) Christie’s own Poirot in a parody of her acknowledged worst (but up to then, best selling) book – The Big Four. Of interest to Golden Age aficionados will be the stories paying homage (because that’s what these parodies are, really) to R. Austin Freeman, Edgar Wallace, Baroness Orczy, Freeman Wills Crofts, and Anthony Berkeley. The remaining authors have disappeared without a ripple or a wikipedia page. I would love to ask Christie why Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey doesn’t make an appearance.
The plots are varied, some serious, mostly comic. Sometimes our heroes fail and make fools of themselves which is fun. In some she pokes fun at or twists common mystery clichés, in one cheekily breaking the cardinal mystery law: The Answer Shall Not Be Twins. In another, there is a truly creepy mass poisoning in which ricin is utilized (and explained possibly too accurately for comfort). It’s an indication of Christie’s avid interest in toxicology because as of Christie’s writing there hadn’t been one documented case of ricin poisoning in Britain. The substance would achieve fame for its use by KGB assassins in the 1970s and more recently, by minions of Putin.
Tragically, Partners In Crime has been adapted only once, in 1983 with Francesca Annis playing Tuppence again. It’s a shame, because one would think someone would be all over it in this post-Miss Fisher world (I’m not counting the awful, recent T&T adaptations. They are truly terrible). One interesting historical side note, though – there was a half hour live television version of one of the stories in 1950 – starring Ronald Reagan and Cloris Leachman. The mind reels.
Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934)
In 1934, the Great Depression was in full swing, which feels a little late for a mystery featuring a couple of Bright Young Things (the characters being compared to this in Waugh’s Vile Bodies by at least one contemporary reviewer). But Bobby, a vicar’s son, and Frankie, a bored aristocrat are here and eager to start solving. As with most of Christie’s breezy flapper adventures, the tone is light, there is adventure, there is romance. The mystery is well constructed and the answer to the titular question is both completely satisfying and utterly preposterous.
During her lifetime, after a few early bad experiences, Christie very rarely allowed her works to be adapted for television. After her death, the ITV adaptation of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? was the first big budget, all star television adaptation of her work. It starred go-to Christie flapper Francesca Annis, also starring John Gielgud, Connie Booth (this was filmed right after her run on Fawlty Towers) and Joan Hickson. It’s a little BBC 1970s stagey, but it cleaves closely to the source material and is worth watching.
When the recent Marple series began running out of books to film, they started inserting poor Miss Marple into non-Marple stories and this was one of the most inexplicable of them. The writers have to tie themselves into knots to explain her presence, and then they change the story so much it’s practically unrecognizable. Bobby and Frankie are sadly demoted, played by a less important Hogwarts student and the daughter of former Doctor Who (and BBC all-star in his own right) Peter Davison. The always lovely Natalie Dormer is completely wasted in this early role, as is her fellow future Game of Thrones cast member Hannah Murray.
N or M? (1941)
N or M? is most notable for being Christie’s only book among the fourteen novels competed during the war that also has a World War II setting, something which makes it a fascinating historical document as well as a solid wartime spy thriller. I have a special interest in contemporary World War II mysteries, written and published before anyone knew the outcome. There are surprisingly few – aside from this one and Sayers’s ephemeral Wimsey Papers, there are Edmund Crispin’s Holy Disorders, Graham Greene’s Ministry of Fear, Dorothy B. Hughes’s The Blackbirder*, Ngaio Marsh’s Colour Scheme (set in New Zealand), the Campion mystery Traitor’s Purse by Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr’s Murder In the Submarine Zone and that’s pretty much it for the A list crime writers. Interestingly, they all have one, and that’s it.
Here, we find Tommy and Tuppence in middle age with grown children participating in the war effort (Though the math here is really iffy – their kids may have a slight case of soap opera aging disease). Tommy’s old handler rescues them from boring desk jobs and puts them back to work chasing spies. As with The Patriotic Murders, set and written immediately prior to the Anschluss, there is a palpable tension adding a new dimension to the typical lighthearted Tommy and Tuppence adventures. Unlike with their previous black hat opponents, Nazis were real, immediate and victory was uncertain. She’s all over the place in terms of politics, which isn’t something I mind as you can feel her mind working, which is interesting. It’s not very consistent, but it’s human and genuine. She’ll be annoyingly jingoistic on one page and then another character will come in and say dying for patriotism is stupid and that person is sympathetic. And then someone counters with Nurse Cavill, the WWI humanitarian martyr’s last words before she was shot, “Patriotism is not enough – I must have no hatred in my heart” and she leaves it there.
The spy story/mystery is solid enough, set in a seaside boarding house. The suspects are the usual group of retirees, young mothers, old Colonels, scientists and the required romantic couple – in this case, the daughter of an Irish nationalist who was shot for treason after the Easter uprising and a young German scientist on the run from the Nazis. There is talk of refugees and how they should be treated (kindly, according to Christie). Set (and possibly written) before the Blitz, the war still feels very far away. The Nazis are evil, one committing a truly repugnant crime, and are defeated as Nazis should be. Christie got into a little bit of trouble because she named one character “Major Bletchley”, not knowing that Bletchley Park was the site of Britain’s codebreakers.
Dorothy Sayers’ later wrote that the scale of mass slaughter during the Second World War took the wind out of her murder sails so she stopped writing about death for fun and amusement and I doubt she was alone. Even Christie’s books darkened. This is something that’s been an uneasy question for me, reconciling my all consuming interest in murder stories in the face of so much real life misery and death. I have no answers.
*The fact that this has never been filmed is pure insanity. I challenge anyone to read this and not think to themselves, “This is a Hitchcock movie”.
They Came to Baghdad (1951)
This post-war thriller has a lot of similarities to The Man In the Brown Suit written thirty years earlier. It lacks the comic delight of that book’s villain, but is stronger in terms of plotting and setting.
Starring the 1950s version of a flapper, an adventurous Cockney secretary named Victoria Jones who finds adventure and romance in Iraq. On the plus side, the travel porn aspects are terrific. Christie lived in Iraq for nearly 20 years with her archeologist husband, so she knows the country well and it shows. The downside is some truly appalling racism in the way one of the villains is portrayed (I’ve only read the British edition of this one and I wonder if this characterization was softened in the American version as sometimes happened). Balancing it somewhat is the much more sympathetic portrayal of some of the (non-villain) Iraqi characters, among them a completely delightful hotelier who presides over a Rick’s Place-like establishment (it’s where everyone goes). The action swirls around an impending peace summit between world leaders and the shadowy group who are sowing discord.
By this point, Christie has grown up a lot and knows living with a strong, silent action hero would likely be tiresome in the long run, so the romance is much more believable than in Brown Suit. It has a strong thriller plot and the reveal of the villain is effective. One very 1950s note is a major (though mostly off screen) character is referred to as a genius and one of the greatest financial minds of anyone alive, but since she is a woman, her job is still referred to as a “confidential secretary”, rather than the one she would hold now, something like “senior Vice President” or something similar. Not that Christie had any interest in finance or business outside of their uses in building mysteries.
In the story, Victoria winds up traveling around a lot and Christie is both specific and accurate. Cut to years later and our invasion of Iraq: I found I had at least a vague working knowledge of the geography, largely because of this ridiculous thriller.
To date, the only time Bagdad has been filmed is a 1952 “Studio One In Hollywood” adaptation with Bea Arthur in an unnamed role and James Noble of Benson and Airplane fame as the almost action hero whom Christie kills off immediately.
By The Pricking Of My Thumbs (1968)
Christie’s last truly great novel was released the year prior to Thumbs, and the decline between that one and this is precipitous. Tommy and Tuppence are now on the younger end of elderly (I’m guessing late-50s or early 60s) and embark on solving a mystery sparked by an encounter with a delusional (or is she?!) old lady. This book is tortuous to read and Christie clearly needed a strong editorial hand which she was obviously not receiving. Conversations leading nowhere drag on for pages. The plot is all over the place. There are endless expository info dumps that stop any forward momentum cold. I would like to say that this is the worst, last Tommy and Tuppence book, but this is sadly not the case.
Oh, right. This terrible novel was adapted as a terrible Marple episode with Anthony Andrews and Greta Scacchi as the now demoted sleuths (side note: who wouldn’t want to see these two actors as an older version of Tommy and Tuppence solving crimes in a series?)
Postern of Fate (1972)
Okay, THIS is the last, worst Tommy and Tuppence novel. It’s the last book Christie wrote and at over 80, she had finally lost her unparalleled mystery writing skills. Text analysis has indicated that Christie was likely suffering from Alzheimers at this point, though she was never formally diagnosed. It’s never been adapted in any format.
The weakness of this book makes me so glad that its publication was followed soon by the posthumously published last Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple books, both of which are superlative.