The Secret Adversary remains a highly popular book. Although it was written in the late 20th century, the present generation has found it interesting to read it.
The Secret Adversary is the second published detective fiction novel by Agatha Christie, first published in January 1922 in the United Kingdom by The Bodley Head and in the United States by Dodd, Mead and Company later in that same year. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) and the US edition at $1.75.
The book introduces the characters of Tommy and Tuppence who feature in three other Christie novels and one collection of short stories; the five Tommy and Tuppence books span Agatha Christie’s writing career. The Great War is over, and jobs are scarce. Tommy Beresford and Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley meet and agree to start their own business as The Young Adventurers. They are hired for a job that leads them both to many dangerous situations, meeting allies as well, including an American millionaire in search of his cousin.
Reviews were generally positive on this adventure, which manages to keep the identity of the arch-criminal secret to the very end.
In the Prologue, a man aboard the RMS Lusitania on 7 May 1915 quietly gives important papers to a young American woman, as she is more likely to survive the sinking ship.
In 1919 London, demobilised soldier Tommy Beresford meets war volunteer Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley, both out of work and money. They form “The Young Adventurers, Ltd”, planning to hire themselves out with “[n]o unreasonable offer refused.” They are overheard by Mr Whittington who follows Tuppence to offer her a position. He is shocked when she gives her name as “Jane Finn”. Whittington sends her away with some money, then disappears without a trace. They advertise for information regarding Jane Finn.
The advertisement yields two immediate replies. They first meet with Mr Carter, whom Tommy recognises as a leader in British intelligence from his war service. Mr Carter tells of Jane Finn aboard the RMS Lusitania when it sank in 1915. She received a secret treaty to deliver to the American embassy in London. She survived, but the government has found neither Jane Finn nor the draft treaty since. Publication of the treaty now would compromise the British government. Tommy and Tuppence agree to work for Carter. He warns them of the elusive and merciless figure known as Mr Brown. Next they meet with Julius Hersheimmer, an American multimillionaire who is the first cousin of Jane Finn, staying at the Ritz Hotel. He is intent on finding her. He has already contacted Scotland Yard; an Inspector named Brown took his only photo of Jane, before a real inspector contacted him. Tommy and Tuppence join forces with Julius.
Whittington mentions the name Rita to Tuppence. Tommy and Tuppence find her among the surviving passengers of the Lusitania, Mrs Marguerite Vandemeyer. Whittington and Boris Ivanovitch leave Rita’s flat before Tommy and Tuppence have left the building. Tommy follows them, phoning Julius to aid him. Tommy follows Boris through London to a house in Soho, while Julius trails Whittington on the train to Bournemouth. Boris leads Tommy into a meeting of Bolshevist conspirators, where he is caught. Claiming he has knowledge regarding the missing treaty, he delays his execution. Tuppence secures the co-operation of Albert, the lift boy at Mrs Vandemeyer’s residence, and obtains a job as Rita’s maid. Tuppence hears Rita mention Mr Brown. The next visitor is Sir James Peel Edgerton, K.C.. On her afternoon off, Tuppence meets Julius at the Ritz. Julius had followed Whittington to a private nursing home, where Whittington met with a nurse. Before Julius could act, both Whittington and the nurse left. Tommy has not returned. Tuppence keeps Mr Carter informed. Tuppence persuades Julius to seek advice from Sir James. Tuppence returns early to the flat, where she interrupts her mistress’s preparations to flee. After a tussle, Tuppence gains control of the gun, and Rita, who admits she knows who Mr Brown is. Upon the arrival of Julius and Sir James, Mrs Vandemeyer screams, collapses, and dies that night from poisoning. Before her death, she murmurs “Mr Brown” in Tuppence’s ear.
The three contact the head of the private clinic, Dr Hall, to find Mr Whittington. Jane Finn had been admitted to Hall’s nursing home under the name Janet Vandemeyer, because she suffered a complete loss of memory after the sinking of the Lusitania, but she left his nursing home. Sir James sows distrust among the young adventurers. Tuppence rushes out upon receiving a telegram signed by Tommy.
Tommy is imprisoned in the conspirators’ house in Soho, where the young French woman Annette serves his meals. The conspirators tie Tommy up to be taken away and killed. Annette arranges his escape, but she refuses to leave the house. Tommy returns to the Ritz, where he and Julius recognise the telegram to Tuppence as a ruse. They retrieve the telegram, but fail to find her at the address given. Sir James discovers Jane Finn, who has recovered her memory after an accident. She tells them where she hid the treaty. At the hiding place, they find no treaty, but a message from Mr Brown. Tommy goes to London to alert Mr Carter. There, Tommy learns it is feared Tuppence is drowned. Tommy returns to the Ritz. He and Julius argue, which Julius resolves by leaving the hotel. While searching for writing paper in Julius’s drawer, Tommy finds a photograph of Annette. This chance find is a new clue. Tommy concludes that the Jane Finn they met was planted by their enemies, to stop their investigation. He receives a telegram falsely signed by Tuppence (with her name misspelled). He figures out who sent it; the identity of Mr Brown; and now proceeds on a plan to prove the truth of his solution. Tommy gets an original copy of the telegram sent to Tuppence, and sees that her destination was altered on the copy he read. With Albert, he proceeds to the correct destination house. He leaves a false note for Julius, indicating that he left for Argentina.
Julius kidnaps Mr Kramenin, one of the conspirators. Under duress, Kramenin gets Tuppence and Annette released, whereupon all of them drive off in Julius’s car. Tommy is at the same house, where he jumps on the back of the car. It becomes clear that Annette is Jane Finn. In a surprise move, Tommy snatches Julius’s weapon, and sends Tuppence and Jane by train to Sir James in London, while he and Julius proceed in the car. The women reach Sir James’s residence. Here, Jane tells her story: after receiving the packet on the ship, she became suspicious of Mrs Vandemeyer. She placed blank sheets in the original packet, carrying the treaty sealed inside magazine pages. During the trip away from Ireland, she was mugged and taken to the house in Soho. Perceiving the intent of her captors, Jane decided to pretend amnesia and conversed only in French. During the night, she hid the treaty in the back of a picture in her room. She maintained her new role all these years, despite the threats and tension. Tuppence is suspicious that Julius is Mr Brown, which alarms Jane. Sir James agrees, adding that someone has killed the real Julius in America, and that man killed Mrs. Vandemeyer. They rush to Soho. They recover the treaty at the house. Sir James identifies himself to the two women as the true Mr Brown, and announces his plan to kill them, wound himself, and then blame it on the elusive Mr Brown. Julius and Tommy, who are hiding in the room, overwhelm Sir James / Mr Brown, who commits suicide from poison in a ring he wore. Tommy understood that Mr Carter would not believe Sir James was guilty unless he witnessed it himself, the two having long been friends.
Julius gives a party in honor of Jane. All those concerned in the case meet, including Tuppence’s father, the archdeacon and Tommy’s rich uncle, who makes him his heir. The novel ends with two proposals of marriage accepted: Julius and Jane, and Tommy and Tuppence.
Thomas Beresford: Tommy, young redheaded Englishman who fought in the Great War, wounded twice, considered slow but steady and clear-headed in his thinking, at his best in a “tight” situation. In his early twenties.
Prudence L Cowley: Tuppence, young woman with black bobbed hair, one of several children of a conservative archdeacon, served in the VAD during the Great War. She is modern and stylish, quick and intuitive in her thinking, acts rapidly on her ideas. In her early twenties.
Julius P Hersheimer: Millionaire from America, seeking his first cousin Jane Finn, a girl he never met in America due to a family quarrel. He is quick-thinking, quick-acting, and being from America, he carries a gun and knows how to use it. In his early thirties.
Mr Carter: Englishman skilled in the intelligence service and connected with the highest political powers, known only by this alias. He seeks the treaty and the girl who might have carried it off the ship.
Jane Finn: American woman, 18 years old when she left the U.S., with good skills in speaking French, who aimed to work in a war hospital during the Great War. She sailed on the Lusitania, and she survived, carrying a document from a man named Danvers on board.
Marguerite Vandemeyer: Rita, a beautiful woman in society, past her first youth, who followed Danvers on the Lusitania. She is affiliated with the conspirators and sees Sir James socially. Her character is steely and powerful.
Albert: Lift boy at the building in which Rita Vandemeyer lives, becomes helper to Tuppence, then to Tommy.
Mr Whittington: Member of the conspirators who first encounters Tommy and Tuppence as they plan their joint venture over lunch in a restaurant. He spoke Jane Finn’s name in the streets as Tommy passed him, then is angry and frightened when Tuppence tosses the same name back to him, innocently, later on. He is certain someone else did this.
Boris Ivanovitch, Count Stepanov: Member of the conspiracy, who keeps in touch with Whittington and Rita.
Mr Kramenin: Russian Bolshevik, serving in London, and one of the conspirators, called number one. Julius selects him to lead him to the girls.
Dr Hall: Runs the nursing home in Bournemouth where he took in the amnesia patient as a niece of Rita Vandemeyer, under the name Janet, for several years.
Sir James Peel Edgerton: Prominent London attorney, often defense attorney for the accused, known to sniff a criminal. He is socially prominent, politically prominent though he is MP from a small borough. Mr Carter respects his intelligence, going back years. He sees Rita socially. He is known for his persuasive ways.
Mr Brown: Elusive leader of the conspirators, who appears as a man named Brown often, but in a minor role, so others do not recall his appearance. He is key to all decisions of the conspirators, subtle with information, brutal with his enemies, the master criminal mind of the age.