Book Report 011: Agatha Christie, THE SECRET ADVERSARY

Barnes & Noble · 1922

Try as I might I can't be grumpy about books. Perhaps it's because I have very specific tastes in books and I'm very good at catering to those tastes (so I'm just not having to deal with books I hate here), but I've mostly given raves to everything I've read here, even when I manage to qualify my enthusiasm a little. After comparing this to how I treat music — I don't hesitate to call albums that bored me boring — you might begin to suspect that I've got a bit of an inferiority complex about literature: anything with a spine and a proofreader will (so far) win my admiration.

All that being merely prologue to saying: this is a lovely little book, a profoundly stupid thriller in the best Edgar Wallace style, and the perfect comedown after the modernist fireworks of Manhattan Transfer and the teen angst of By The Time You Read This, I'll Be Dead.

I don't know if you know Edgar Wallace; he was one of the most prolific crime writers of the twentieth century, and he had about four plots which he trotted out like clockwork twice a year for forty years. Almost none of his books ever made it to a second printing; he was the ultimate hack, and I've read about eight of his books and couldn't tell you a thing about them. Except that they generally featured anonymous young men and women up against a cabal bent on dominating Europe etc., the usual thriller stuff, and typically pretty racist to boot, though not exceptionally so for the era. (Roughly 1900-1930, though he published posthumously through the thirties.)

In contrast, Agatha Christie's young hero and heroine are well-drawn, if ludicrously idealized, portraits, her talent for characterization showing an early flash. This was only her second book, and it's much lighter and sillier than anything I've read by her before. (Which isn't much; as a Dorothy L. Sayers partisan, I've neglected Christie to a shocking degree given my predilection for cozy English murder mysteries.) The hero is called Tommy and the heroine Tuppence, and that gives you an idea of the kind of thing we're dealing with here. Unfortunately the fizzy brio of the early chapters has to give way to workmanlike plotting once the story gets underway, but Tuppence is one of the more charming — and capable — heroines of a by-the-numbers thriller I've come across, pitched at only a slightly higher level of seriousness than the girls in early Wodehouse.

The edition I have is a cheap paperback reprint by the chain bookseller Barnes & Noble: the cover says it's part of their "Library Of Essential Reading," which really just means "this is in the public domain so we make all the profit on it." (1922 is a talismanic year if you're interested in U.S. copyright law; after that point the free ride ends. Thanks, Disney.) I could wish for a grubby first edition, the edges of the pages flaking off my fingertips as I turned them (half the pleasure of reading old books is in the material, sensory qualities involved); but this will do.

No comments:

Post a Comment