Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie (1929)
In this short story collection, readers reunite with Tommy and Tuppence Beresford soon after their marriage, and Tuppence is bored. Utterly and damnably bored of housework and hat collecting, Tommy has grown comfortable in British intelligence work- even if it’s primarily office stuff now. Tuppence laments their previous adventure of chasing German spies and getting into scrapes. They’ve grown soft. With Tuppence’s melodramatic pronouncements growing barbed, they are jolted out of their stupor by the arrival of their old handler, Mr. Carter. He has an exciting and probably dangerous proposition for them- to take over the International Detective Agency as the proprietor Mr. Blunt and his secretary Miss Robinson. The real Mr. Blunt, currently in jail, is lending it to the crown for the next six months so the British government can apprehend a dangerous spy. Tommy and Tuppence can take whatever other cases they like, but they must keep an eye out for letters written on blue paper and stamped with a Russian stamp with the number 16 written below addressed to Mr. Theodore Blunt. They must send them to Mr. Carter immediately if they intercept any of these letters. Now Tommy and Tuppence are bonafide private detectives.
Since neither Tommy nor Tuppence has any previous experience as private investigators, they decide to employ the methods of one of their favorite detectives in popular literature to solve their crimes. This often leads to hilarious and disastrous results and allows Christie to write in the vein of her fellow golden age authors with varying degrees of success.
Of all of Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence stories, I find this one to be the least accessible to modern audiences because some of the authors being parodied, Freeman Wills Crofts and Isabel Ostrander A.E. W. Mason, are not widely read now. There are a few stories, such as The Man in the Mist, which is written in the style of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, or The Case of the Missing Lady, written as a Sherlock Holmes spoof, that will appeal to readers of detective fiction today While Christie does mention the names of the literary detectives that Tommy and Tuppence are trying to mimic it’s an obvious barrier to entry for novice mystery readers,
Another area for improvement with this work is that it’s a collection of short stories, which, while popular and familiar in the 1920’s is not as expected of a mode of reading for audiences today. The stories are helped by the fact that they are linked with a common thread of mysterious blue letters, but this tenuous link is only lightly woven until wrapped up in The Man Who Was No. 16, a parody of Agatha Christie’s own Hercule Poirot. It’s a lot for modern readers to keep in mind, and this is the book where the passage of one hundred years between publication and reading today feels most acute.
So, how are the stories? Well, here’s where things get complicated: Finessing the King/The Gentleman Dressed in Newspaper is a clever story about how a woman is killed during a masked ball. Her last words are her lover’s name, but her lover has a water-tight alibi, so who killed her? It’s a good story with a clever premise; it’s reportedly inspired by the writer Isabel Ostrander who was well-known during the 1920s but is now mostly out of print. Is it a good parody of her work? Your guess is as good as mine because we need the source to compare.
Other stories in this collection, such as Tommy and Tuppence’s first case, The Affair of the Pink Pearl, cleverly reimagines a Dr. Thorndyke detective story. Complete with camera and experiments. This story is an excellent one-to-one comparison a reader today can readily familiarize themselves with Dr. Thorndyke, and Tommy is a funny albeit not very good “medical man” while being a clever detective. When a pearl goes missing at a dinner party, there’s a house full of suspects, including a snobby shifty daughter, a kleptomaniac rich older woman, and a surly socialist. While Tuppence goes after each character in a wild tear0 describing fantastic solutions, it’s Tommy who, under the pressure of a 24-hour solution guarantee, musters his brains and ferrets out the thief. It’s a good story on its own and a good parody.
Does that mean that even if the parodies are lost on some readers, the stories are all good? No, unfortunately, there are some dreadful ones. The Blindman’s Buff, where Tommy Beresford pretends to be blind for fun and makes Tuppence pretend to be his sighted aid, is especially cringe-inducing. It furthers the overall narrative because, blindfolded, Tommy gets captured by a henchman of the man sending the blue letters. Tommy then escapes a floor covered in pressure points with a cane that’s a swordstick and his eyes…that can see. This one is so ridiculous and over the top to being unreadable. A second terrible story is The Case of the Missing Lady, which stylistically is a spot-on impression of Sherlock Holmes, but with the worst plot imaginable. When Gabriel Stavansson, a self-professed”fat woman hater,” returns from an expedition abroad two weeks early, he is unnerved to learn that he cannot find his fiance Hermione Leigh Gordon. She is not staying with the friends she said she was visiting; her aunt, who Stavansson doesn’t like, is being evasive about Hermione Leigh Gordon’s whereabouts. So he hires Tommy and Tuppence to track her down, and they do; she’s staying at a hospital run by a medical quack who injects her with serums to help her lose weight because she gained some while Stavansson was away. Her aunt knew of this dangerous treatment and kept Stavansson in the dark because he might not marry Hermione if he said how much she weighed now. There’s a lot to unpack there- but suffice it to say, ladies, if forced to choose between a dangerous medical procedure or the love of a man, pick yourself and get out of that situation. However, Tommy and Tuppence may not come to that conclusion, siding more on pity and ridicule. It could be a better message, and I do not recommend these two stories.
The question of who is sending the blue envelopes has a satisfying conclusion if you like heightened cold war spy thrillers about over-the-top evildoers thwarted in the name of justice but want to read only a portion of the book about it.
All right, the stories are grab bag, and the ending is a little meh, but is the writing good? Tommy and Tuppence themselves ramble and talk all over the place. They are chaotic and fun, but I’ll admit I like their stories better as audiobooks so that the rhythm of their patter is easier to get into; this may be a personal hang-up of mine, but this leads to my theory that each story is written almost like the script of a single TV episode in a more significant season about catching the mysterious man sending blue envelopes. If you enjoy watching TV scripts, you’ll get into this collection more than I did. That being said, it’s a great tv show.
Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime (1984)
Join the incomparable James Warwick and Francesca Annis as they embody Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in the ten-episode television series Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime. Foil kidnappers, catch murderers, and have fun doing it in this newly remastered version of Partners in Crime on Britbox. It’s a color-corrected version of the 1984 series. Warwick and Annis are witty, outrageous, blundering, and courageous in this series of silly disguises and capers. With ten episodes, this series manages to keep the book’s spirit while shaving off some of its warts, condensing the long introduction, and massaging some finer details to have it flow better. The capture of the man sending the blue envelopes is a blast, and this series is the ideal way to interact with Partners in Crime in the modern age. Don’t have Britbox? You can pick up the delightful series here without colorization and film mending.
Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime (2015)
Well, since that last tv series is 30 years old, this one must be better because it’s newer, I hear you say. Despite having the same title as the book in this review and as the 1983 series, the 2016 Partners in Crime series starring David Walliams and Jessica Raine is not an onscreen retelling of Partners in Crime. It is a six-part television series with the first three episodes devoted to another Tommy and Tuppence novel, The Secret Adversary, and the later three episodes tell yet another Tommy and Tuppence novel, N or M. Why they didn’t simply title this series The Adventures of Tommy and Tuppence is beyond me. Unsurprisingly, since the series didn’t even cover the book above that it was titled for, the series was canceled after one season. Other random but not egregious changes include: changing the setting from the interwar period to the 1960s and making Tommy Beresford a stupid ass instead of a brave, competent man working in intelligence. In short, there are better things to watch.
This is a long rambling review to say this collection is difficult for me to recommend or enjoy. I was surprised that it was the second pick for the ReadChristie2023. I would read one of the alternatives listed for the theme of murder with a blunt object, but if you this collection appeals to you, pick it up from Amazon here. If you liked Partners in Crime, let me know below, and if you want to know more about ReadChristie2023, go here.
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