The Unbreakable Alibi
Tommy and Tuppence think they’ve been handed an easy one when a dull young man comes and asks for their help. The girl he wants to marry has promised to marry him, but only if he can solve a striking puzzle. It seems that she has two rock solid alibis for one night; it seems that she was in two places at once. One of them, of course, is false. Can Tommy and Tuppence figure out which one? Is it possible this one won’t be as easy as they’ve expected?
It’s a great set up and Christie gets a lot of mileage out of the assertion that no woman would make such a bet unless she fully intended to hook the young man involved one way or the other. It would be better, Tuppence states, for her to marry him after he’s solved this puzzle than if she has to figure out an easier way to get him to marry her. Gender politics aside, the story has energy and the seemingly unbreakable alibis get tighter and tighter until you wonder what magic Christie is going to pull out to enable this one to have a solution. The problem is that when she does pull out the solution, it’s unbelievably lame and stupid. One has hopes for the story, being an Agatha Christie story after all, but this one? Hackwork, pure and simple. What a shame.
DID I SOLVE IT? SPOILER ALERT! I think I can legitimately claim a win on this one. Our detectives have chased hither and yon and have been unable to find a chink in either story. Then suddenly Tommy makes a remark about going to a play, a play that features twins. Tuppence bellows that she has an idea. And this reader, at least, slapped himself in the forehead and prayed to the God of literature that Agatha Christie wasn’t going to fall back on the ol’ ‘twins’ ploy. Alas, that is exactly what she falls back on. What a let-down. What a tired cliché, even in 1929. To give her the benefit of the doubt, we’ll say she was spoofing mysteries with twin solutions; that doesn’t make it any less disappointing for her to use the solution.
The Clergyman’s Daughter/The Red House
A poor clergyman’s daughter is facing a conundrum, involving someone playing poltergeist around her inherited country home. Luckily, there’s a buyer very interested or is he a little too interested? It doesn’t take Tommy and Tuppence long to connect the dots; the buyer is behind the mischief and there’s a hidden treasure of some kind in that red house where the young lady lives. For a clue, there’s a cryptic poem and a scripture verse: “Seek and ye shall find.” When has Tuppence been able to resist an invitation like that? But with Christmas nearing, will this mystery allow all concerned to have a happy holiday?
This one’s quite a bit different too. It’s pretty clear from the very beginning that the buyer is after the house because of something hidden there and that, obviously, he’s the one behind the supposed haunting of the house. Christie doesn’t have any surprises up her sleeve in that area, but instead turns the story into a kind of treasure hunt, revolving around a riddle that promises to reveal the location of a hidden treasure trove. The story attempts an emotional ending and doesn’t entirely pull it off; we haven’t known the clergyman’s daughter long enough to have a real emotional connection to her, but the attempt to broaden the story into sentiment is appreciated.
DID I SOLVE IT? SPOILER ALERT! No, I didn’t. The riddle is a classic bit of gibberish and Tuppence tumbled to it way before I did. COULD I HAVE SOLVED IT? Like all riddles, this one seems obvious, once you know the answer. It is, I would say, remotely solvable.
The Ambassador’s Boots
An American ambassador has a strange case for Tommy and Tuppence when someone steals his suitcase full of boots and then returns it untouched hours later. Tommy finds himself on the wrong end of a gun when he puts an advertisement in the newspaper to try to find a clue, but Albert, the receptionist of Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives, manages to save the day by trying out a cowboy trick: lassoing the gunman! All seems perfectly clear, once the gunman is put out of the way, but it seems the ambassador’s boots still have some walking to do when another twist reveals the truth.
This one has a nice puzzling set up. While it might make sense for someone to steal an ambassador’s papers, why on earth would anyone steal a suitcase of boots and then simply return it untouched two hours later? There’s an amusing red herring dragged across the trail and it’s amusing to see Albert, the office boy, finally doing something other than ushering clients back and forth. Ultimately, the puzzle is given away a bit too easily, however, and the solution is a bit too mundane.
DID I SOLVE IT? SPOILER ALERT! I did. When the butler of the ambassador is questioned about the bag that the ambassador picked up instead of his own upon disembarking the boat, he remarked that there was nothing out of the ordinary inside it, but a large tin of bath salts is prominently included in his inventory, at which point I blurted, “Cocaine smugglers!” This was rather embarrassing as I was reading while eating in a local restaurant, but that’s neither here nor there. The bottom line is that, yes, it was cocaine smugglers; they weren’t after anything in the ambassador’s bag, but were rather wanting their own bag to be carried through customs by the ambassador who would, of course, be subject to less stringent security measures. In our more paranoid age, this solution is fairly obvious. In a world in which we are constantly bombarded with messages not to carry packages for others onto airplanes, the mind leaps rather easily to the twist in this story. Perhaps in 1929, this wasn’t so obvious to Christie’s readers. Decades of terrorism and smuggling have made this one an easy one to figure out, however, so in 2012 the story feels very simple.
The Man Who Was No. 16
The final story in the book finds Tommy and Tuppence finally wrapping up the Russian spy ring that has plagued them all through this short story cycle. Mr. Carter alerts them that the spymaster known only as No. 16 is coming to London to investigate why so many Russian spies have been caught of late. Tommy and Tuppence believe they’ve been able to pull the wool over his eyes, but when No. 16 vanishes into thin air from a closely watched hotel room, it appears that the spymaster has more tricks up his sleeve than at first thought. And worst of all, Tuppence has vanished along with him! Tommy turns to one of Agatha Christie’s own creations to help him solve this dangerous little puzzle as he tries to use his little grey cells, as Monsieur Poirot does. But even if Tommy can deduce the secret behind No. 16’s disappearance, it seems that Tuppence will have a twist of her own waiting for the master detective that not even Poirot could have seen coming.
This one is kind of interesting as a wrap to the frame story of the novel and as an explicit conclusion to this story cycle. As the story concludes, Tommy and Tuppence resolve to retire to take up either bee-keeping, a la Sherlock Holmes, or vegetable gardening, a la Hercule Poirot, thus bringing Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives to a close with the Russian spy ring neatly tied up. The story has a nice espionage feel and No. 16’s magical disappearance is well done and baffling. Christie has two twists in this story, one public and one private, as it were and both are good ones.
DID I SOLVE IT? SPOILER ALERT! Can’t say that I did. Christie has a great false solution here that I fell for totally. I expected more of an espionage story than a mystery on this one anyway, much like The Adventure of the Sinister Stranger and Blindman’s Buff, so when the “solution” seemed to be revealed with a few pages still to go, I assumed that the rest of the story would be a chase sequence with Tommy hot on the heels of No. 16. In fact, the “solution” isn’t the real one and Tommy still has to use his grey cells a little more. It’s the final twist, which isn’t really part of the mystery that is the real winner though; the reveal that Tuppence is pregnant is the perfect ending for the book and definitely puts a period on the detective agency phase. COULD I HAVE SOLVED IT? It’s a stretch. I think a person in 1929 might have had a better shot than someone in the modern era, due to some changes to furnishings. But just last story the reverse was true and the story was easier for the modern reader to solve than the period one, so I suppose all this evens out.
The Case of the Missing Lady
This adaptation of the story from Partners in Crime by Christie was originally aired as an episode of Nash Airflyte Theater, an anthology program that ran for only one year, from 1950 to 1951. It was the twelfth episode of the ill-fated program and it, like the other twenty-five episodes that were used to hawk the Nash Airflyte car, has been lost. The show was broadcast live and no footage has survived of any of the episodes. The Case of the Missing Lady is a great short story and it would make a great short television episode. What makes this loss even more tragic is the fact of the casting. The story was apparently moved to America and Cloris Leachman starred as Tuppence and Ronald Reagan as Tommy. While one hates to see British characters morphed into American ones with quite that kind of ease, Reagan in particular seems like a perfect fit for the light sophisticated comedy of the Tommy & Tuppence stories. Unfortunately, this case of the missing lady has to remain missing itself. Check a weight loss clinic near you.
Marc Daniels, Agatha Christie