Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Tuesday Night Blog Murders: The Beresfords - discuss

The first thing to discuss or, at least, to admit is that it is now Wednesday but I do hope I shall be forgiven by my co-bloggers (to whom I really should link) for not being able to write this piece before.

So, the Beresfords, Thomas and Prudence, otherwise known as Tommy and Tuppence, except in the French film of By The Pricking of My Thumb, (Mon petit doigt m'a dit) in which they are Colonel BĂ©lisaire Beresford and Mme Prudence Beresford. The film is excellent, incidentally, and one of the best film versions of a Christie novel I have ever seen.

People tend to sigh when Tommy and Tuppence are mentioned, which is a little unfair as not every book about them is poor even if the latest TV dramatization was by all accounts. But then, as I have pointed out before, transposing Christie stories to another decade is never a good idea.

Tommy Beresford and Tuppence Cowley appear first in The Secret Adversary, published in 1922. They have both been demobbed and are looking for work and in Tuppence's case a way of not having to go back to the parental home after four years of exciting life away from it. They decide to form The Young Adventurers Ltd and, by a strange coincidence, they overhear a conversation that leads them to a spectacular adventure in which they save Britain, the US and the life of a girl who has been guarding some papers ever since the sinking of the Lusitania. In the process they fall in love, decide to get married and Tommy acquires a job in the Secret Service. More importantly, they learn not to trust anyone because the most respectable and highly regarded member of the Establishment can turn out to be a traitor.

The Secret Adversary was the first Christie book to be filmed, in Germany, though the action has been transposed to France. It was called Die Abenteurer G.m.b.H and is highly entertaining. It was quite a revelation to me to discover that there are amusing German silent films, having assumed in the past that they were all heavy symbolic tragedies.

Just for fun, here is a trailer:

Tommy and Tuppence's next appearance was in the real Partners in Crime, a series of adventures that make gentle fun of well known (and not so well known) fictional detectives. Some readers find them far too flimsy, as they are, but others, and I am one of them, find them amusing and even manage to see some interesting Christie themes in them. I shall return to this, the main subject of my posting in a minute.

In The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie Charles Osborne points out that "it is as well ,,, that Thomas Beresford and Prudence Cowley, known to their friends as Tommy and Tuppence [and even, as Charles Osborne does not mention, Mrs Tommy], are only in their twenties in 1922, for this enabled their creator to allow them to age naturally. In their final adventure in 1974 they are presented as an elderly married couple with three grandchildren."

That is undoubtedly true but there are problems with the Beresfords' ages as there usually are with various characters in Christie's novels. That 1974 adventure, The Postern of Fate, is seriously bad. By this time Christie's phenomenal ability to create plots had weakened considerably and her equally phenomenal inability to keep track of dates and time spans became overwhelming.

Impossible time spans crop up throughout Chistie's work and I do not mean the ages of Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. That, as the author admitted, was inevitable if one starts with characters who are already elderly. But there are other problems. In Appointment with Death there is an epilogue in which Poirot meets the surviving members of the Boynton family five years after the events of the novel. The amount those people are supposed to have achieved in those five years is physically impossible.

The same is true for the Beresfords. We must assume that they marry some time in 1920 or 1921 at the latest. In Partners in Crime they have been married for six years, which puts the action in 1926 or 1927 yet in the first adventure, A Pot of Tea, Tuppence is described as being under 25, a complete impossibility, given her life and career up to that point. In another story Tommy is described as being 32 which is at least possible if unlikely. Albert, a lift boy in The Secret Adversary has become a 15 year old servant and office boy in the second book, which suggests that he must have worked in that hotel at the age of 8 or 9, an unlikely state of affairs after the First World War.

Even more unsettling is the story of the Beresfords' children. Partners in Crime ends with Tuppence joyously proclaiming that she is expecting a baby and in the third book, the spy thriller N or M?, we find out that she had twins, Derek and Deborah. These could not have been born any earlier than late 1927 yet in 1940 they are, respectively, in the RAF and some (fairly) secret work in one of the Intelligence outfits. Indeed, one of Deborah's boyfriends plays an important part in the plot. We know the novel takes place soon after Dunkirk. Was the RAF really putting boys of 12 or 13 into those planes? Makes the reference to the Few even more poignant.

What of Tommy's career? He joins the Service in 1920 (let us say) and is still there six years later when he is given six months' leave in order to run Blunt's Brilliant Detectives and to crack an important spy case. Yet by 1940 (N or M?) he seems unable to find any useful employment in the war effort. Nobody in the Secret Service had the slightest difficulty in finding employment in 1940. When Mr Carter (the Chief) decides to send Tommy to a seaside resort to investigate a nest of spies and find out who is sending out information, he mentions that they are not going to know who he is as he is unconnected with any organization. Does this mean that at some point between the two books Tommy had "left" the Service in order to do deep undercover work? This must be the explanation as by the third book, published in 1968, (By The Pricking Of My Thumbs) he is back in the Service and is high enough to be sent off to some hush-hush conference, thus making it possible for Tuppence to go off on her own adventure.

One interesting aspect of N or M is the way that book fits in with the strange preoccupation at the time with espionage networks with books and films abounding. I wrote about it some time ago on EUReferendum, my erstwhile blogging home.
Recently I re-read one Agatha Christie's war-time novels, N or M?. It is not highly regarded by the aficionados, being a Tommy and Tuppence tale but it is, as it happens, better than the last two in that series, By the pricking of my thumb and Postern of Fate. Those are really terrible, though the first of them was turned into an enchanting film by the French Pascal Thomas. Once one gets over the problem of Tommy Beresford being Colonel BĂ©lisaire Beresford, one is in for a rare treat. But I digress.

N or M? is about German spies and fifth columnists and takes place in 1940, during some of the darkest days of the war. There is a fascinating conversation between Tommy and Tuppence about a third of the way through. Tommy has been reading the news and hearing the terrible stories of bad management, inadequate equipment and complete lack of military coherence brought back by the soldiers who had been evacuated from Dunkirk.

Could it really be incompetence, he muses, or are there traitors among the highest echelons of the military command, the intelligence service and those who take political decisions. Without any hesitation Tuppence replies that it has to be treason. Clearly, she does not bother to think the implications of that statement either. Tommy agrees and the work they are engaged on becomes even more urgent.

Suddenly it all fell into place in my own mind. Of course, they were obsessed with fifth columnists. The alternative was to accept the fact that Britain, its security services, its military, its police, its politics were led by people who were incompetent, self-satisfied idiots. Alas, much of that was true. The best description of it is in another and far better novel or, rather, a trilogy of novels: Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour. Curmudgeonly, depressive and a great novelist, Waugh had no problems about accepting unpalatable truths.
And so we arrive at another conundrum: how am I going to fit all that I wanted to say about Partners in Crime into this posting? The answer is that I cannot do so and shall have to do all that next Tuesday (this time on the right day). Until then .....


  1. Don't worry, Helen - Tommy and Tuppence are more than deserving of a two-part discussion in your hands. Having recently become converted to Dr. Who fandom, I can only offer that the illogical calendar of their lives is due to a temporal rift in the Beresfords' space-time continuum. I've always loved the characters, even if their books are not among Christie's best. I find that the beginnings and endings are always good (all except Postern of Fate), but the middles tend to sag. The motive for the murder in N or M is great, as is the sense of life during WWII. The ending of By the Pricking of My Thumbs is truly chilling, but you have to suffer through a lot of confusing treacle to get to it!

    1. I never thought of the space-time continuum and the possible rift in it. Puts a completely new perspective on the series. Mind you, I have never been a Dr Who fan. Clearly a mistake I ought to rectify.

  2. I'm really enjoying your serious analysis Helen - it was time someone defended the easily-mocked Beresfords. And more to come next week. Excellent.

  3. This is an interesting series of blog.

  4. Of course, they were obsessed with fifth columnists. The alternative was to accept the fact that Britain, its security services, its military, its police, its politics were led by people who were incompetent, self-satisfied idiots.

    An extremely good point.

    Actually that could explain the immense popularity of spy fiction in Britain from the 20s right through to the 70s. It was much less upsetting to imagine that the country's most dangerous enemies were in Berlin, Moscow or Peking rather than accept that Britain's most deadly enemies were to be found in Whitehall.

    1. For some of those decades the dangerous enemies in Whitehall were, in fact, working for Moscow. Not so much for Berlin.

    2. That's true. Britain's problems were caused by both treason and incompetence. Those who knew what they were doing were working for the Soviets. Those who were not traitors were simply incompetent.

      Corelli Barnett has some great stuff on the failures of the British political class in the first half of the 20th century in his superb book The Collapse of British Power.