The original publication history of the stories in this collection, is a lot more convoluted than I realised. The stories originally appeared in three different publications between 1923 and 1928, though the majority were printed in The Sketch. Moreover, before some of them made it into the collection their titles were modified and in quite a number of cases a story which appeared in one instalment in its first publication, was divided into two chapters in the collection. I’ve mentioned these instances in my summaries below.
Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, who we first meet in The Secret Adversary (1922), are the series sleuths in this collection, though many readers will also know that Christie used these stories to parody fictional detectives created by other writers. Yet there are so many other nods towards her work and others in the stories that you could describe this collection as a literary allusion paradise. Whilst each short story contains a distinct case for the Beresfords to solve, there are quite a few factors which provide continuity. So, each story tends to flow effortlessly on from the previous; a feature which I enjoyed.
A Fairy in the Flat
Tuppence and Tommy Beresford are asked by Inspector Marriot of Scotland Yard to take over a failing International Detective Agency. Its’ previous manager, Theodore Blunt, has been detained, as he is believed to be working with foreign secret agents. Tommy is to take over the persona of Blunt, with Tuppence as his secretary. They have to keep an eye out for any correspondence involving the number 16.
However, what really strikes me about this opening story is what it tells us about Tuppence. The first three words of the story are: ‘Mrs Thomas Beresford,’ and Marriot always addresses her as ‘Mrs Tommy.’ On the surface of this text Tuppence is defined by her marital status, yet a big motivation for them taking over the agency is Tuppence’s dissatisfaction with her life, as a homemaker. She has enough money to buy the things she desires, and she has a loving husband, yet she remains discontented and wants something to do, to take part in adventures. It is wittily put across to the reader, with fairy tale like sentiments such as ‘you see it is very dangerous to have everything you want…’ It is quite hard to give definite assertions as to what Christie’s opinion was on women working and having an occupation, as her texts are ambiguous in a way that Dorothy L. Sayers are not, on this issue. Yet in this instance she does seem to positively portray a woman who wants more out of life.
This story also introduces to us the humour which the remaining tales are pocketed with:
Tommy: ‘Shall I neglect you a little? […] Take other women about to night clubs. That sort of thing.’
Tuppence: ‘Useless […] You would only meet me there with other men. And I should know perfectly well that you didn’t care for the other women whereas you will never be quite sure that I didn’t care for the other men.’
Tuppence’s self-assurance is one of the things I find most entertaining about her character. Controversially I like Tuppence much more than several of her other non-series female leads. Yes, Anne Beddingfield I’m looking at!
Pot of Tea
This tale sees the Beresfords get to grips with the realities of owning a detective agency and them realising it is not so glamorous as they first thought it would be. The contrasting optimism of Tuppence with Tommy’s pessimism provides a lot of the humour in this story. Whilst struggling to find any work, Lawrence St Vincent arrives, asking them to find the woman he loves, who has gone missing. Tuppence wildly promises to find her location in 24 hours, for a suitable price of course. The ending to this case is an amusingly light hearted one and reveals that whilst Tuppence may be posing as Tommy’s second in command, she is not prevented from taking control of the situation and acting in a direct manner. Out of the various classic crime sleuthing duos I have come across I think the Beresfords come the closest to an equal partnership.
The Affair of the Pink Pearl/The Affair of the Pink Pearl – Continued (2 Chapters)
Whilst solving this case the Beresfords parody R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke. It is at the start of this case that the Beresfords decide to adopt a different sleuthing strategy for each investigation they get, based on the ones in fiction that they have read. Their client is Miss Kingston Bruce, who wants them to find a missing pink pearl, which disappeared in their home. It belonged to a guest they had staying the previous night. The feisty competitiveness of Tommy and Tuppence is quite refreshing here, in comparison to other sleuthing duos where the females are invariably gushing, insipid and act like nincompoops that forever need rescuing, (not as much exaggeration in this statement as you imagine.) Tuppence is actually quite good at sizing people up, though it is Tommy who solves this case.
The Adventure of the Sinister Stranger/ The Adventure of the Sinister Stranger – Continued (2 Chapters)
This time around Valentine Williams’ Francis and Desmond Okewood are the sleuthing brothers being parodied, with Tuppence even referencing one of Williams’ books, The Man with the Clubfoot (1918). The Beresfords are highly suspicious of their current client, Dr Bower, who concocts a fairly unbelievable case for them to investigate and they soon tumble to the fact that someone is trying to get them away from their agency premises. Yet, despite going into things with their eyes open, it seems there are still several surprises in store for them… This is first of several stories in which Tommy runs head long into danger, with Tuppence having to come to the rescue, (albeit with some police backup.) This reversal of gender roles is an interesting feature of the short story collection and probably one of the other reasons why I like this detecting duo so much. I also enjoyed how earlier seemingly trivial events contribute to the ending.
Finessing the King/The Gentleman Dressed in Newspaper (2 Chapters)
In this chapter and the next, Isabel Ostrander’s work is being spoofed, in particular The Clue in the Air (1917) and her detectives Tommy McCarty and Denis Riordan. Tuppence is keen to go to the Three Arts Ball with Tommy, who is fittingly reluctant to attend. This provides the humour for the opening paragraphs with the disillusioned, in jest, Tuppence proclaiming:
‘I was brought up to believe that men – especially husbands – were dissipated beings, fond of drinking and dancing and staying up late at night. It took an exceptionally beautiful and clever wife to keep them at home. Another illusion gone! All the wives I know are hankering to go out and dance, and weeping because their husbands will wear bedroom slippers and go to bed at half-past nine.’
The ball is a fancy-dress event, and the Beresfords’ costumes reflect the sleuths they are spoofing. At the event itself they find a woman, dressed as the queen of hearts, dying in one of the club’s booths. Her companion, a man dressed in newspaper is nowhere to be seen. Before she dies from her stab wound, she says, ‘Bingo did it.’ When the police get onto the case it does indeed seem like Bingo Hale killed his lover, yet Inspector Merriot is not convinced. I think readers will deduce the murderer’s identity with ease in this tale and for me the case was solved imperfectly.
The Case of the Missing Lady
Not many readers will be surprised that it is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, which is the parody theme for this story, with the title referencing Doyle’s ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax’ (1911). Gabriel Stavansson, a polar explorer, has just returned from an expedition earlier than expected. Before he left, he became engaged to a widow named Mrs Hermione Maurice Leigh Gordon. Her whereabouts is what Stavansson wants the Beresfords to uncover for him, as Hermione’s aunt is acting in a very suspicious and evasive manner and he fears something bad is afoot. The solution to this one makes this tale one of the best in the collection for its parodying.
As the title hints at, Tommy and Tuppence base their sleuthing style in this case on Clinton H Stagg’s blind detective, Thornley Colton. Tommy decides to practise his deductive skills, not using the power of sight in a restaurant. A new client fortuitously meets them there, but all is not what it seems… This tale is very much in the thriller style but has some unusual dramatic elements.
The Man in the Mist/ The Man in the Mist – Continued (2 Chapters)
Christie, in this tale, is alluding to G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories and the story in fact opens with Tommy in Roman priest garb. Nevertheless, the pair have just come away from a failed case. Yet whilst they are commiserating in a nearby hostelry, they make the acquaintance of stage actress Gilda Glen. She is engaged to Lord Leconbury and sends the pair a note asking them to meet her at The White House, on Morgan’s avenue, an avenue which is reputed to be haunted by the figure of a dead policeman. As they make their way there it becomes very misty and when they arrive at the house in question, they see a man, a rejected suitor of Gilda, leave the property with red hands. Upon investigation they find her murdered and according to the policeman on his beat no one entered the property after Gilda returned home except her thwarted suitor. The solution to this one might be easily anticipated, but it is wonderfully appropriate nevertheless.
The Crackler/ The Crackler – Continued (2 Chapters)
Edgar Wallace’s writing style is spoofed in this tale and it begins with Inspector Marriot wanting Tommy and Tuppence to help capture a gang circulating forged notes in the West End, particularly from a certain gambling club. Tommy once more throws himself into danger. Yet during all of this the personal relationship between the Beresfords is not overlooked:
‘“The amateur crime, the crime of quiet family life – that is where I flatter myself that I shine. Drama of strong domestic interest. That’s the thing – with Tuppence at hand to supply all those little feminine details which are so important and so apt to be ignored by the denser male.”
His eloquence was arrested abruptly as Tuppence threw a cushion at him and requested him not to talk nonsense.’
The Sunningdale Mystery/ The Sunningdale Mystery – Continued (2 Chapters)
The parodied detectives, this time, come from Baroness Orczy’s The Old Man in the Corner (1909). Tommy takes on the role of Bill Owen, whilst Tuppence acts the part of journalist Polly Burton. They appropriately go to an ABC shop for their lunch and discuss the Sunningdale Mystery. Captain Sessle was found murdered 3 weeks on a golf course, stabbed with a woman’s hat pin. Prior to his death he has been seen talking to a woman dressed in brown on the links. The police have charged a woman with the crime, yet between the pair of them, the Beresfords pick the police’s case apart and with their own areas of specialist knowledge uncover the real culprit. Despite these two not leaving the tea shop I really enjoyed this case, as their analysing of clues is well thought out and means the solution feels convincing.
The House of Lurking Death/ The House of Lurking Death – Continued (2 Chapters)
Christie models this story around the work of A. E. W. Mason and his sleuth Inspector Hanaud. Tuppence is very sceptical of Tommy attempting to mimic that sleuth:
‘If there is one detective out of all the others whom you are most unlike – I should say it was Hanaud. Can you do the lightning changes of personality?’
The results are somewhat amusing, though this story is one which soon becomes quite grave. Their latest client is Lois Hargreaves, who has been sent a box of chocolates in the post. They made those who tried them ill and it was shown they contained arsenic, and she is not the first person in the area to receive them. More disturbingly for her she thinks the sender has come from her own household. But before the Beresfords can go to her home she is killed, poisoned by some fig sandwiches. Christie fans will of course know which later Christie novel this was the ancestor of. Nevertheless, Tuppence certainly shines in this case, which concludes in an unexpectedly dramatic manner.
The Unbreakable Alibi
Looking at the title of this tale, I think most fans of classic crime will have deduced that it is Freeman Wills Crofts’ love of writing alibi breaking stories and his detective, Inspector French, which are going to be spoofed. Montgomery Jones wants the Beresfords to help him win a bet he has made with a girl he has fallen in love with. She says she can concoct an unbreakable alibi and presents him with two versions of events of what she did on a given day, providing proof for both stories. To win he has to decide which story is true. The spoof element of this story is definitely apparent in its ending. Romantic male clients such as Jones and Lawrence St Vincent put me in mind of some of the male characters found in P. G. Wodehouse’s stories.
The Clergyman’s Daughter/ The Red House (2 Chapters)
Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham is the sleuth Tommy and Tuppence are mirroring themselves on when clergyman daughter, Monica Deane, asks them to look into strange goings on, which are taking place in her home. Is it the work of a poltergeist, a practical joker, or of someone determined to get Monica and her mother out of their house? In some ways this story feels more like of a treasure hunt, though there is a riddle for readers to solve.
The Ambassador’s Boots
Reginald Fortune and Superintendent Bell, H. C. Bailey’s are the detectives Tommy and Tuppence are parodying this time around. Their client is American ambassador Randolph Wilmott. His kit bag filled with boots, got mixed up with another man’s on the boat he took to Britain, due to them having the same initials. This other man was supposed to be a senator, yet when asked about the incident denies all knowledge of the mix up. Why would anyone want a bag full of boots? And who is behind it all? A seemingly small problem leads to further danger for our duo. Tommy is definitely becoming well acquainted with chloroform in this collection!
The Man Who Was at No. 16
It only seems fitting that the final parody would be of one of Christie’s own characters and books, namely Hercule Poirot in The Big Four (1927). Inspector Marriot informs the pair that an enemy agent from Moscow is expected, who devised the No. 16 code and is likely to contact them. They plan to capture this agent, but in the midst of the Blitz hotel, the agent has other ideas, leading to a hotel disappearance. This time around Tuppence takes a turn in becoming embroiled in jeopardy. She also has another surprise for Tommy, though I don’t quite know how I feel about it.
All in all, these stories are quick easy reads. The allusions to other detectives are well done and enjoyable for the classic crime fan – picking up on the ones you’re familiar with and coming across references to others you’re new to. I had a great deal of fun with these tales and I would also recommend the 1983 BBC adaptation of this collection, starring Francesca Annis and James Warwick. In my opinion Francesca’s portrayal of Tuppence is the closest anyone has achieved on screen, to how Tuppence is shown in the books, as latter reincarnations of her have been much wider of the mark.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold): In a hospital/nursing home
Calendar of Crime: October (9): Costume/Disguise or Mistaken Identity