Well, I suppose I should have expected this – I was looking forward to the new BBC1 series of the Tommy and Tuppence stories, Partners in Crime advertised as ‘loosely based‘ on Agatha Christie’s novels, but the first episode was last night ,The Secret Adversary was disappointing to say the least as not much of Agatha Christie’s story was left. I knew it had been moved to the 1950s instead of the 1920s and was wondering what else had been changed.
Well, practically everything else, so much so that most of it bore no resemblance to the original. It was not only the wrong era but also the characters were different – TV Tommy, as David Walliams played him for most of the episode, is a bumbling fool who had not taken part in the War due to being wounded by a delivery van (I think that’s what the TV Tommy said), with a vacant look on his face , and obsessed with bees. Tommy and Tuppence as described by Agatha Christie are ‘˜an essentially modern-looking couple’, childhood friendswho after the First World War were both stony broke and who decided to set up a joint venture under the name of the Young Adventurers Ltd, initially intending to hire themselves out to commit crimes.The ‘real’ Tommy had been wounded in the War, not once but twice, Tommy and Tuppence never met Jane Finn and Julius Hersheimmer was a young white man who says he is Jane’s cousin – not her uncle. I could go on!
OK, so it was easy watching, Jessica Raine made a good, meddling and determined Tuppence and it was amusing at times. But to enjoy this I’ll have to forget it has any connection with Agatha Christie whatsoever and I don’t know that I can do that, for the next five episodes. It’s so annoying to keep saying ‘it’s not like that in the book’.
Tomorrow night sees the start of a new six part series on BBC1 – Partners in Crime. According to the Radio Times the episodes are loosely based on The Secret Adversary, the first of the Tommy and Tuppence stories and N or M?, the third story.
But, as I have come to expect with TV/film adaptations, this is not the original story as the action has been transposed from 1922 and 1940 (the original settings of these two books) to the 1950s. Still I have great hopes for the series, with David Walliams as Tommy and Jessica Raine as Tuppence, although I’m wondering what else has been changed.
This is what I wrote about The Secret Adversary in January 2011:
The Secret Adversary was first published in 1922. It was Agatha Christie’s second book and the first featuring Tommy and Tuppence. In this book they have just met up after World War One, both in their twenties: ‘˜an essentially modern-looking couple’. They are both stony broke and decide to set up a joint venture under the name of the Young Adventurers Ltd, initially intending to hire themselves out to commit crimes.
A Mr Whittington overhears their conversation and offers Tuppence their first assignment, but when she tells him her name is ‘˜Jane Finn’ he acts very strangely and thinks she is blackmailing him. From then on Tommy and Tuppence set out to find Jane Finn, a name Tommy had overheard from a conversation in the street.
Reading it reminded somewhat of Enid Blyton’s adventure books, mixed up with P G Wodehouse’s books. It’s a spy/detective story that is fast and furious with Tommy and Tuppence landing themselves in all sorts of dangerous situations. It’s also full of red herrings and they’re never very sure who they can trust. Tommy and Tuppence advertise for information relating to Jane Finn and have two responses. One is from Mr Carter, from British Intelligence who tells them that Jane Finn, a survivor from the torpedoed Lusitania, was handed a certain document ‘“ a secret agreement, with a ‘˜new and deadly significance’. The second response is from Mr Julius P Hersheimmer, a young American, who says he is Jane’s cousin and wants to find her.
Just who is the mysterious Mr Brown, the secretive mastermind behind a plot to unite all of England’s enemies, overthrow the government and cause anarchy? There is no clue to his real identity, he remains elusive and always in the background. But it becomes clear that he is one of two people and as I read I swung from believing it to be one character to the other.
One point of interest is the brief mention of Inspector Japp, of Scotland Yard. His role in this is merely incidental.
I enjoyed this book and I liked Tommy and Tuppence, who by the end realise they are in love. Agatha Christie only wrote five books featuring this couple. Unlike Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence age as the books were written (links to my posts):
Partners in Crime: a book of short stories (T&T 2)
N or M? is the third of the Tommy and Tuppence stories, set in 1940 and first published in 1941. Agatha Christie wrote this at the same time as writing The Body in the Library. Sheexplained the reason in her Autobiography:
I had decided to write two books at once, since one of the difficulties of writing a book is that it suddenly goes stale on you. Then you have to put it by, and do other things – but I believed that if I wrote two books, and alternated the writing of them, it would keep me fresh at the task. One was The Body in the Library, which I had been thinking of writing for some time, and the other one was N or M?, a spy story, which was in a way a continuation of the second book of mine, The Secret Adversary, featuring Tommy and Tuppence. Now with a grown-up son and daughter, Tommy and Tuppence were bored by finding that nobody wanted them in wartime. However, they made a splendid come-back as a middle-aged pair, and tracked down spies with all their old enthusiasm. (An Autobiography by Agatha Christie page 506)
Tommy is asked to go under cover to track down members of the Fifth Column, two of the most important and trusted German agents, whose mission is to infiltrate British society, like the Trojan wooden horse. All that is known is that N is a man and M a woman and they are thought to be at Leahampton on the south coast. He tells Tuppence that he is being sent to Scotland and that she can’t go with him, but she surprises him by being at Sans Souci, a seaside guesthouse in Leahampton, when he arrives. So there they are, both under cover, Tommy as Mr Meadowes and Tuppence as Mrs Blenkensop.
There is definitely something not right about the guesthouse, it has the feel of something sinister, something evil. And it’s not long before Tommy and Tuppence are embroiled in a series of dangerous near-disasters, involving German spies, and Smuggler’s Rest, a cottage with a secret room, set on a cliff overlooking a little cove and ideal for enemy action.
N or M? is an easy book to read and not too demanding. Agatha Christie makes use, as in some of her other books, of nursery rhymes, in this one it’s ‘Goosey goosey gander’, which comes from a Mother Goose picture book Tuppence reads to little Betty Sprot. Of all the characters in the book (apart from Tommy and Tuppence) Betty, a toddler, who speaks her own baby language, is the most well-drawn, so much so that at one point I even found myself wondering if she could be M!!!
One of its attractions for me is its historical setting, although when Agatha Christie wrote this book it was very current, she did not know how the war would end. It is interesting to see how she portrays the general public’s attitude towards the war, about patriotism, and the fear of Fifth Columnists, of spies, and Fascists and Communists. Also of note is that whilst most of the characters thought the war would be over very quickly, which is what I thought was the general consensus at the time, one of them thought it would last at least six years.
Following the publication of N or M? Agatha Christie was investigated by MI5 because she had named one of the characters ‘Major Bletchley’ and MI5 suspected she had a spy in Britain’s undercover code breaking centre, Bletchley Park.
It’s the letter P this week in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet and I have another of Agatha Christie’s books to illustrate the letter.
If you haven’t read any of Agatha Christie’s books don’t begin with Postern of Fate. It’s the last novel she wrote, published in 1973, and it’s rambling and repetitive, with very little in the way of mystery. It’s the fourth of the Tommy and Tuppence Beresford mysteries and it begins with the ageing couple, now retired and living in a new home. I read it because I like Tommy and Tuppence and wanted to know what they were doing in this final book.
I liked the opening pages in which Tuppence is bemoaning the fact that they have so many books and there isn’t enough room to shelve them. They’d sorted out their books before they moved house, only bringing with them the ones they couldn’t bear to part with, but they had bought books from the previous owners of the house. Tuppence is sorting through them and in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow she sees that some of the letters are underlined in red ink, spelling out an intriguing message: ‘Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us. I think I know which one.’
Naturally the Beresfords have to find out more and after talking to some of the local people Tuppence discovers that Mary Jordan had lived in the house during the First World War and there are rumours that she was a German secret agent. It appeared she had died from accidental poisoning. But they aren’t satisfied and want to know more. Whilst Tuppence continues talking to the locals, Tommy goes to London and talks to Captain Pikeaway, ex-head of Special Branch and the enigmatic Mr Robinson (who appeared in Agatha Christie’s thriller Passenger to Frankfurt). They discover some facts, and have lots of meandering discussions, but the denouement is very vague (at least I found it so).
Its interest for me lies in what the book reveals about Agatha Christie. Clearly she is remembering her own childhood when Tuppence is reminiscing about the books she had read as a child, listing them and exclaiming how much she liked them – books such as The New Treasure Seekers, lots of Stanley Weyman books (he wrote historical romances), The Prisoner of Zenda, Treasure Island and Kidnapped.
Throughout her life she was an avid reader and her books include many references to a variety of sources from Shakespeare to T S Eliot. The title of this book derives from a poem Gates of Damascus by John Elroy Flecker, quoted as an epigraph and by Tommy as he worries about keeping Tuppence out of danger:
Four great gates has the city of Damascus …
Postern of Fate, the Desert Gate, Disaster’s Cavern, Fort of Fear …
Pass not beneath, O Caravan, or pass not singing.
Have you heard
That silence where the birds are dead, yet something pipeth like a bird?
I think when Tommy and Tuppence are complaining about the difficulties of getting tradesmen to complete work on their new house Agatha Christie was writing from experience:
Electricians arriving in a kindly tangle of optimism and efficiency had stated work. “Coming along fine now, not much more to do,” they said. “We’ll be back this afternoon.” But they hadn’t been back that afternoon. Tommy was not precisely surprised. He was used, now, to that general pattern of labour in the building trade, electrical trade, gas employees and others. They came, they showed efficiency, they made optimistic remarks, they went away to fetch something. They didn’t come back. One rang up numbers on the telephone but they always seemed to be the wrong numbers. If they were the right numbers, the right man was not working at this particular branch of the trade, whatever it was. (pages 35-36)
Then there are her misgivings about the state of the country:
England was in a funny state, a different state from what it had been. Or was it really always in the same state? Always underneath the smooth surface there was some black mud. There wasn’t clear water down to the pebbles, down to the shells, lying on the bottom of the sea. There was something moving, something sluggish somewhere, something that had to be found, suppressed. (page 138)
But there is rather too much of this sort of digression in Postern of Fate and Agatha Christie comes across as disillusioned with modern life. Here, for example, she has Colonel Pikeaway complaining about the worship of money:
…big fortunes made out of drugs, drug pushers, drugs being sent all over the world, being marketed, a worship of money. Money not just for buying yourself a big house and two Rolls Royces, but money for making more money and doing down, doing away with the old beliefs. Beliefs in honesty, in fair trading. (page 249)
Although there are things I like in this book and I am glad I’ve read it, I think it must be my least favourite of Agatha Christie’s books that I’ve read.