Heavens, the Bolshies!

Published a hundred years ago this month, in Agatha Christie’s second novel, the gravest of all threats is only narrowly averted: a Labour government in Britain. Conrad Landin on an extraordinary work of post-war red scare paranoia. 

Agatha Christie in about 1925, three years after the publication of The Secret Adversary – Alamy

“CIVIL WAR PLOT BY SOCIALISTS’ MASTERS” screamed the front-page headline of the Daily Mail. Four days before the October 1924 general election, a sensational letter from Communist International chairman Grigory Zinoviev to British Communists was propelled into the public domain. It said it was “indispensable to stir up the masses of the British proletariat”, to ensure a draft treaty between the Soviet Union and Britain’s first Labour government was ratified. Establishing relations between the two countries could “assist in the revolutionizing of the international and British proletariat not less than a successful rising in any of the working districts of England”, the letter said. In the event of another war, it suggested using the might of unionized transport workers “to paralyze all the military preparations of the bourgeoisie, and make a start in turning an imperialist war into a class war”.

Now widely acknowledged to have been faked by the security services, the letter’s claims were wild  enough to be the makings of a Cold War thriller decades before the Cold War. But any such book would still have been late to the party. Published a hundred years ago this month, and more than two years before the Zinoviev letter, Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary pre-empts it to a remarkable degree.

Christie’s second novel tells the story of two “young adventurers” who foil a gang of international conspirators plotting to bring Labour to power: Thomas “Tommy” Beresford and Prudence “Tuppence” Cowling, who would go on to be recurring characters in Christie’s repertoire. Having grown up in the same English village and re-convened in a military hospital during the Great War, Tommy and Tuppence now head to a tearoom after a chance meeting outside a London tube station. Hailing from comfortable (if not supremely wealthy) upper-middle class rural families, they have nonetheless suffered from the post-war economic malaise. “My dear child,” says Tuppence, “there is nothing I do not know about the cost of living. Here we are at Lyons’, and we will each of us pay for our own. That’s that!”

Having both applied for countless jobs and given up on the possibility of bountiful inheritance (Tommy has alienated a wealthy uncle by refusing to be adopted by him: “it would have been a bit rough on the mater”), they resolve to form a business partnership. But before they can place a newspaper advertisement offering the services of “two young adventurers… willing to do anything, go anywhere”, another of the novel’s many extraordinary coincidences charts them a new course. A man at the next table has overheard their conversation, and offers Tuppence a lucrative job that sounds too good to be true. When he asks for her name, the now-suspicious Tuppence replies: “Jane Finn”. Tommy had mentioned this name in the tearoom, having recently overheard it in conversation – and, for some reason we will never know, considered it utterly absurd. But the mention of Jane Finn sends Tuppence’s prospective boss into a frenzied tailspin, in which he offers her cash for silence and lets slip clues of a mystery she knows nothing about.

As Tommy and Tuppence discover when they alter their newspaper advertisement to seek information on Jane Finn, the story actually begins – like Christie’s novel – aboard the RMS Lusitania in 1915. In real life, this flagship passenger liner was sunk by a German U-boat when en route from New York to Liverpool, killing 1,193 of the 1,960 people aboard. Christie embellishes the story with a secret agent aboard the Lusitania on the fateful night, carrying a draft peace treaty to settle the First World War. As he is unlikely to qualify for a lifeboat himself, he entrusts the treaty to a young American woman – Jane Finn, who promises to hand it over to the security services. With the treaty made redundant by the war taking a different course, it has a new potent value in the context of post-war industrial unrest in Britain. “That document undoubtedly implicates a number of our statesmen whom we cannot afford to have discredited in any way at the present,”explains Mr Carter, the mysterious state security operative who commissions the adventurers’ services after their ad appears in the Times

It is left to Tommy and Tuppence to see off a threatening development which would lead to a Labour government, which in Carter’s view would mount “a grave disability for British trade”, as well as the more menacing “real danger” – handing power not just to the Bolsheviks, but to an international conspiracy behind them. And see it off they do, overcoming double agents, defeating operatives at the highest level of international politics and surviving multiple attempts on their lives. The Secret Adversary, then, seems to be a classic tale of plucky British Davids defeating the Goliath of international collectivism. According to the literary scholar Peter J Rabinovitz, Christie “capitalises” on the “mistrust and fear” of the 1920s, but “reassures us that we really have nothing to fear” by placing a lone operator, the elusive Mr Brown, as the driving force behind imminent revolution). “Writing for a bourgeois audience tormented by the possibility of social upheaval, she arouses its worst fears and then purges this emotion with the affirmation of both the justice and the strength of the status quo,” Rabinovitz argues.

The years after the Great War were a high-point of socialist radicalism. Some examples, such as the Red Clydeside movement in Glasgow, were brutally crushed by the forces of the state. Others, such as the 1919 railway strike, resulted in significant gains for the working class. It’s true that Christie’s narrative mocks more than fears the self-assertion of workers. “My union, Tuppence, my union!” Tommy cries mockingly when his fellow adventurer chides him for laziness. “It does not permit me to work before 11 a.m.” When the planned revolution is crushed, the “Labour Day” marked as the date for the uprising is instead formed of “straggling processions, singing The Red Flag”, which “wandered through the streets in a more or less aimless fashion”.

The notion of national harmony is indeed crucial to cracking the case. On the trail of Mr Brown, the adventurers discover his glamorous associate Rita Vandermayer, and Tuppence enlists as her maid. Mrs Vandermayer recognizes her new servant’s accent as educated, but Tuppence is able to explain this away on the basis that she is one of many wartime nurses now working in domestic service.

Tuppence’s infiltration of the Vandermayer household is a multifaceted exercise in class flexibility. She enlists the help of Albert, the hall porter in Mrs Vandermayer’s apartment block (and one of few sympathetically-presented working class characters in the book), gaining his confidence by adopting an allure of power. A fan of three-penny detective novels, Albert is hopelessly gullible, believing Tuppence’s story that “Ready Rita” is in fact a member of a fugitive jewel gang. Tuppence uses her new address at the Ritz, where she and Tommy have taken up residence at government expense, to further impress Albert. In exchange for helping Tuppence play the role of a parlour maid, Albert is permitted a role on the detective team. This is something a character of his class cannot normally achieve – at least in the higher-brow fiction the early Christie is at pains to place herself within. He is still subjected to everyday class prejudice: when Tuppence is kidnapped, Albert passes her a message promising to “croak like a frog” as a signal to her when it is safe to get out. “Why, you wouldn’t recognise a frog croaking if you heard it,” Tommy condescendingly remarks.

The Secret Adversary seems to celebrate an utterly different view of post-war class relations to the one we associate with the run-up to the 1926 General Strike. But Christie’s novel followed a conflict that was not only prolonged and bloody: it also brought vast inequalities to popular consciousness. Women recruited to replace male workers on buses and the London Underground went on strike in the final year of the war under the slogan “same work, same money” ). In a similar fashion to the current Covid-19 pandemic, the Great War demonstrated that ordinary citizens were both essential to the economy as workers but utterly disposable as human beings.

Keeping the draft treaty to end the war under wraps is considered so important because its publication would expose the ruling class’s decision to press ahead with unnecessary bloodshed – and demonstrate to British workers that in spite of their government’s rhetoric, they have more in common with the German and Russian working classes than their own overlords. In real life, such international solidarity was a significant current in wartime and post-war society. Workers demonstrating in Glasgow shouted “victory to the German revolution” in November 1918, recognising that as well as ending the war, worker and soldier mutinies in Germany might inspire a British social uprising too.

Meanwhile, the unemployment which followed the war affected not only the workers in munitions factories now surplus to requirements, but professionals too – as well as women who had entered the labour market for the first time, and were now told to revert to housewifery. It’s not for nothing that Tuppence, when discussing the potential of marrying a rich man, bemoans that the handsome general she met in her military hospital “keeps a bicycle shop in times of peace”. Tuppence, for her part, has no intention of reverting to the pre-1914 status quo and giving up the advances in opportunities for women that the war has brought about.

The social upheaval of wartime precipitated both class conflict and class cross-dressing – which need not, in spite of appearances, be polar opposites. Back at Mrs Vandermayer’s mansion block, there is a small reminder of this. The opening for a parlour maid has come about because the previous servant feels disrespected by her mistress. “As Annie said, servants is someone nowadays, and to be treated accordingly,” notes hall-porter Albert, “and what with her passing the word round, she won’t find it so easy to get another.” It is this moment of class conflict which allows Tuppence to step into the void and go undercover.

The Secret Adversary’s reactionary politics is no accident. But having so successfully steeped her narrative in the context of social unrest, Christie’s attempt to tie up loose ends and reinforce the established order sits uneasily. Crediting the conspiracy to the singular ambition of Mr Brown might well disparage the politics of revolution. But it also means that in spite of seeing off the uprising, the novel’s ending has done nothing to resolve the very real discontent present throughout 1920s Britain – and indeed the wider world.

Mrs Vandermayer turns out to be the weakest link in Mr Brown’s gang and is tempted when Tuppence proposes she defect in exchange for a huge sum of money proffered by Jane Finn’s cousin, a wealthy US industrialist. But how could the same trick be repeated on the millions of workers ready to down tools as part of the great conspiracy? The ending would have us believe they are just the sheep of their union leaders, themselves the pawns of Mr Brown. Yet thanks to Christie’s characterization – from Tuppence to Albert – it doesn’t wash. Both are from groups all too recently dismissed by society as intellectually inferior – and yet both display imagination, initiative and self-assertion in bucketloads.

In the years after publication, organized labour would be repeatedly held back by conspiracy of the establishment’s own: first the Zinoviev letter in 1924, then the crushing of the General Strike in 1926, and finally the absorption of the labour aristocracy into the National Government in 1929. But it was too mighty a force to crush altogether, and though it would take another war before a meaningful Labour government was established, it would eventually succeed in establishing both the welfare state and a new political consensus for Britain.

Conrad Landin is co-editor of New Internationalist magazine. A former Scotland editor and industrial correspondent for the Morning Star, he was head of communications for Scottish Labour from 2019 to 2021. He has written on labour history, politics, railways and books for the Times, the Guardian, Tribune, the London Review of Books and RAIL magazine. 

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