And so I enter the final decalogue of Agatha Christie’s works — from here to Miss Marple’s Final Cases (1979) — with a return visit to Thomas ‘Tommy’ Beresford and his wife Prudence, known (for reasons I genuinely cannot recall; someone will doubtless enlighten me in the comments) as Tuppence. The Beresfords are unique in Christie canon in that they are the only repeating characters who seem to age in real time, and in doing so they provide an overview of Dame Agatha’s writing career in just a handful of books.
We first met Tommy and Tuppence in Christie’s second novel, The Secret Adversary (1922). There, drunk on the fun of adventure and shenanigans, they were swept up in international intrigue with more than a dash of Bright Young Thing and rich in their youthful author’s joie de vivre, with a world of potential and ideas ahead of her. They next appeared in 1929’s Partners in Crime, by which time Christie’s brain was doubtless a-seethe with plots and potential, and so we got a series of short stories where they took on cases in a pastiche of various contemporary detectives, as if Christie was keen to show how easily she could play the game in any voice she chose.
Twelve years elapsed, in which Christie wrote many of her finest books, and then N or M? (1941) found author and characters both surrounded by young pretenders muscling in on what had previously been their forte, but still eager to show that they could hold their own. It falls rather more in the ‘thriller with detective interruptions’ style, but the opening pages in which Tommy and Tuppence reflect on their perceived uselessness in light of a world where there’s plenty of youth coming through to replace them and their previous activities count for very little have a piquancy that is hard to ignore. I also find it interesting that this was the only book Christie wrote during the Second World War that made explicit use of wartime activities — though, you’re correct, she would later use the Blitz as the background for elements of the Poirot tale Taken at the Flood (1948).
Then nothing for 27 years. Not from Mrs. Mallowan — she was very busy indeed, challenging and surprising left, right, and sometimes centre — but without a sign of the Beresfords, who were gently growing older without anything worth reporting happening to them. And then, dedicated to “the many readers in this and other countries who write to me asking What has happened to Tommy and Tuppence?“, we get By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968), and then five years later they would be the focus of the final novel Christie would ever write in Postern of Fate (1973) — so don’t tell me that she didn’t hold these characters in no small affection and that they, like Jane Marple, wouldn’t come to mean more to Christie as she aged and was able to reflect upon this in her writing.
We are reintroduced to them:
…sitting at the breakfast table. They were an ordinary couple. Hundreds of elderly couples just like them were having breakfast all over England at that particular moment. … A pleasant couple, but nothing remarkable about them. So an onlooker would have said. If the onlooker had been young, he or she would have added “Oh, yes, quite pleasant, but deadly dull of course, like all old people.”
And yet are they so ordinary? Tommy is soon out of the picture giving a secret briefing to a secret security council and it’s Tuppence who is living in hope of some return to their previous adventures — “Perhaps we could save lives and do something useful. Useful and at the same time exciting” — and who ends up making the frankly giant leap into an investigation which kick starts this rather leisurely attempt to revisit that old magic. It is Tuppence who seeks for things to be like they were before, in spite of the clear evidence that time is moving on: old people getting fancies “from the TV”, the use of the railway to get around being “few and far between” following the rise of the motor car (how novel such a thing used to be!), even Albert — previous, youthful partner in crime, now employed as the Beresfords’ “man” — has been on holiday to Spain. We’re a long way from the exclusive six-person plane flight of Destination Unknown (1954) or the exotic holiday island in the south of England from Evil Under the Sun (1941). That time, that milieu of the Golden Age, is well and truly behind us.
I’m not saying that the Golden Age of detective fiction ended in 1968 — it was over before then, even if the precise dates are somewhat disputed among those in the know. My point is instead that these most Christie of characters — and Christie that most Golden Age of authors — are clearly out of their element here, and it’s a cause for reflection upon the very elements that defined so much of Christie’s career. The name Agatha Christie conjures up images of bodies in libraries, of grass stains on the knees of a baronet’s trousers, of wealthy families gathered in drawing rooms, of tidy sleuths inveigling their way into the confidences and revelations of people who would rather not share, all against a bucolic background of violence viewed in only the most crepuscular terms and settings.
The name ‘Agatha Christie’ does not conjure to mind images of residential care homes, unless Miss Marple is interred there on some false pretence, creeping from room to room at night to discover the truth behind the poisonings of which her close friend has been accused. There is also no chance of Christie bringing to mind such paper-thin excuses to launch head first into an investigation as is seized upon by Tuppence herein; indeed, for well over half the book, Tuppence herself isn’t really sure what she’s doing, looking for, likely to uncover, or trying to achieve. For all Christie’s flaws, you never questioned the intent behind her plotting: someone was murdered, or something was stolen, or someone accused of a crime they claim not to have committed, and someone else was brought in to investigate and provide a luculent perspective on proceedings. Here what we have is tenuous at best, a clear case of someone wishing to manufacture a mystery out of a situation where most people even in fiction would dismiss it and move on with their lives, no matter how ordinary. But, in a way, I don’t feel Christie is entirely to blame for this.
That dedication at the start of the book promises us the return of Tommy and Tuppence with “spirit unquenched”. I’m not going to claim that the characters are capable of acting independently of the author — that way lies madness — but rather that the spirit of adventure that remains so firmly established in the Beresford bosom would inevitably jump on such slender chance. The Tommy and Tuppence books were never tightly-plotted clue-fests where it turns out that because the bottle fell of the mantle at 3:07 am, heard clearly in the next room but not in the room below, this meant Sir Wilbermuffin had obviously taken a sleeping draught and so his wife could creep in and murder him; there was always an element of the uncertain in the cases Tommy and Tuppence took on, as if Christie herself enjoyed plotting something less rigorous that could nevertheless spring into action when required.
So, see, picking this up and wanting it to be Christie at her most paradoxical is a fool’s errand; yes, she defines the Golden Age, but that doesn’t mean everything she wrote will be in that same style, and writing a novel of detection set by the standards of 1937 — officially the most Golden Age year, no arguments — in 1968 would be folly personified. Yes, we want that; yes, Tuppence wants that; hell, even Christie would probably want that — another Death on the Nile would have delighted her, and many others, I’m sure — but Christie is canny enough to realise that this wouldn’t work, and so doesn’t even try to write that kind of book. I think this might be the problem people have when coming to Christie’s later works: people want another Murder in Mesopotamia (1938) and are disappointed when, after 70 books and now in a social climate that has steadily increased its disdain for such endeavours and brought about the maceration of detective fiction, that’s not what she produced.
I apologise for being a kibitzer, but if you want Agatha Christie to have only written books in the style of her 1930s output then you’re missing the point. If you wish to read books that are of the type and style of Agatha Christie’s 1930s output, then you need to find some other authors. I’m not claiming this is a great book — a lot of these later works need to be given some context in order to appreciate them, and even then there are unavoidable flaws — but it does invite more contemplation than her strongest works, which have the ability to stand on their own still, and will remain rightly admired without considerations of context for decades and generations yet. Be honest about what you’re after, and then take a minute to consider what you’re likely to get, however, and you’ll be in a better place to appreciate what Christie produced here.
Fittingly, what it does provide is a bridge of sorts from the Golden Age to the more modern crime novel, relying here on a frankly astounding number of coincidences and some agonisingly athletic leaps in logic and common sense to push things forrader. Hell, we even get some lamp-shading — “It’s very far-fetched,” says one character, immediately before the most out of left-field developments in the plot — which wouldn’t feel at all out of place in the The Girl on/in/with/without the Noun thriller about to be published to much hyperbole next month. We’re standing with a foot in both camps, but the weight very much on the more modern leg: homes that have yet to be built being sold off a plan for exorbitant prices, greengrocers selling aubergines, posturingly fashionable restaurants with “phony French menus”…all the trappings of modern life, shaped into a plot from Erle Stanley Gardner’s plot wheels on a bender. If they didn’t make so many references to The War as if it was a relatively recent thing, this could have been published yesterday. And, no, I don’t mean that as a compliment.
In a weird sort of way, this makes those infuriatingly heavy-handed Christie TV adaptations make a kind of sense. It would be entirely possible to use this as an example of Christie being more of a “modern” thriller writer than she usually gets credited for — all the silly reversals are there, never mind that it stands in stark contrast to the vastly overwhelming majority of the rest of her work. A quick internet search reveals that this has in fact been defiled adapted as a Marple episode in 2006, sending Tommy off-screen, replacing him with Aunt Jane, and having Tuppence “portrayed as a maudlin alcoholic who carried a hip flask and who was resentful of her husband’s success” (thank-you, Wikipedia). Dear Agatha Christie Estate People and Whoever Adapted This Shit-Show: you are a fucking disgrace. Such a cavalier attitude displayed towards the work of someone placed in your moral, legal, and professional care actually makes me feel sick.
I’ve lost my thread but I’m done. Bring back the more innocent times, please; no wonder we crave them so compulsively.