The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

I’ve had a handful of posts drafted for weeks now that I just haven’t made the time to post. I seem to go in fits and bursts with blogging; though, I am happy to report that the reading is still going strong – so many good books already this year! I’ve resolved to start to play catch up, but before I start, I feel a compulsion to deviate a moment.

It’s a strange time. “Surreal” is the word I keep using, for it doesn’t seem real–for so much to be shut down, for the world to seemingly come to a virtual standstill. This is a thing of movies, not real life.

But COVID-19 IS real, and the precautions we are taking–trying to take–are necessary. Fortunately, I haven’t been too impacted yet; my work has yet to directly be influenced (though I anticipate a slow down in new projects while everyone just tries to keep up with things) and working remotely has long been an available option. I’m fortunate, I know, but when I see all the articles or lists of “things you can watch/listen to/read” during these times of “social distancing,” I confess my first thought is “how do you have time?” Of course, this is as much because I’ve never been one to be out and about as it is because I’m still working full time. But if I did want to fill some time–or if I were to make a recommendation–I think Agatha Christie is a good place to start. I find something so comforting–like “coming home” when I read an Agatha Christie, or watch one of the TV adaptations. (I’m particularly fond of the David Suchet Poirot series.) The formulaic nature, the knowledge that it all works out in the end, these are soothing in trying times.

The Secret Adversary
Agatha Christie
1922, England
Tommy and Tuppence

The second of Agatha Christie’s published novels, The Secret Adversary introduces us to the lively Tuppence Cowley and solid Tommy Beresford. Childhood friends, they meet by chance in post-war (1919 – post Spanish Flu, for that matter!) London, both down on their luck and in search of a job—and more importantly, the money that goes with one. Despairing of finding any, they impetuously decide to form The Young Adventures Ltd. and advertise to take on adventures on behalf of others. But before they get as far as submitting the ad copy, an adventure falls in their laps. However, when Tuppence cautiously tells the potential client, Mr. Whittington, that her name is “Jane Finn,” he grows agitated and sends her on her way with £50, thinking it a ploy and trying to buy silence. Curious, Tommy and Tuppence decide to investigate further and advertise for information on Jane Finn. What follows in response to their ad is a delightful romp across post-Great War London and adventure plenty, for the detectives and reader both.

Although there is mystery at the heart of the story—where is Jane Finn? And who is the illusive Mr. Brown who seems to be pulling so many strings and determined to overthrow the current government?—the story feels more like a thriller to me than a strict mystery novel. Perhaps this is because the adventures are so fast-paced, the detectives so green, and the dangers so present on-screen. But in the end, in honest detective-novel form, our heroes solve the crime, and in dramatic fashion. For a change of pace, I nearly had it solved as well! I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, the wonderful 1920s English slang, and the utterly charming Tuppence and Tommy and look forward to more of their adventures.

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Vintage copy of Far From the Madding Crowd
My copy of Far From the Madding Crowd, which I believe to be over 100 years old. It was a delight to read from–the right size and weight, and the pages always lay nicely flat.

Far From the Madding Crowd
Thomas Hardy
1874, England

Full of this dim and temperate bliss, he went on to fling the ewe over upon her other side, covering her head with his knee, gradually running the shears line after line round her dewlap, thence about her flank and back, and finishing over the tail.

[…]

The clean, sleek creature arose from its fleece—how perfectly like Aphrodite rising from the foam should have been seen to be realized—looking startled and shy at the loss of its garment, which lay on the floor in one soft cloud, united throughout, the portion visible being the inner surface only, which, never before exposed, was white as snow, and without flaw or blemish of the minutest kind. (Ch. 22)

It’s possible that I enjoyed Far From the Madding Crowd as much as I did because of the sheep scenes—the herding, the washing, the shearing, the sheep market. My inner fiber artist was drawn to and enchanted by this great sheep novel.

I joke, of course. At least in part.

After all, I did enjoy the sheep scenes, and in a sense, there would be no story without the sheep and the dramas (and traumas) of raising sheep, but it is primarily a human drama, in pastoral setting.

Far From the Madding Crowd is one of Thomas Hardy’s earliest novels, and was his first real success. It tells the tale of Bathsheba Everdene and the three very different men who woo her—Victorian love-quadrangle, oh, the scandal!—: the solid Gabriel Oak, dashing Sergeant Troy, and passionate Farmer Boldwood, all while set against the rhythms of the changing seasons and farming responsibilities. (Those names…Mr. Hardy, I see what you did there.) The novel is not merely set in the country, but rather the backdrop of farming is integral to the characters, their histories, their responsibilities (or lack thereof). How any one character responds to the demands of pastoral life illuminates the rest of their character and mind-set: thus we see that Gabriel is an honorable man worthy of great responsibility, while Farmer Boldwood’s growing obsession with Bathsheba is nowhere made clearer than in his neglect of his own harvest. And that is to speak nothing of Troy’s relationship to the pastoral setting;  I’m pretty sure he made an earlier appearance in Sense and Sensibility under the name “Mr. Willoughby.”

The citizen’s Then is the rustic’s Now. In London, twenty of thirty years ago are old times; in Paris ten years, or five; in Weatherbury three or four score years were included in the mere present, and nothing less than a century set a mark on its face or tone. (Ch. 22)

Of course, though an early Hardy, this is still Hardy, and as such, though I found it enjoyable, it is rarely lighthearted. Despite the appeal of the ideal of “pastoral,” the reality of farm life is difficult, hard work, and into this mix Hardy throws additional human drama—there is tragedy, both on field and at hearth. (Okay, has anyone else looked up “bloat” or “ruminal tympany” because of Hardy? I told you, I have a sheep thing…) But in the end I have to agree that this is an “accessible” Hardy and would recommend it as a starting place for someone wanting to try his novels out.

I read Far From the Madding Crowd for Classics Spin #22. It also qualifies as my adaption title for Back to the Classics, a classic that takes place in a country that I don’t live in for Reading the Classics, and is one of my Classics Club and Realists and Romantics project titles. Phew! That’s a lot of work for one book.