November 22: The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie
My favorite thing about Agatha Christie’s second novel (following The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which I reviewed in 2021), was my long and ultimately successful search for it in bookstores when I was in London over the summer. This is definitely one of the least available Christies. My second favorite thing was following the young protagonists, Tommy and Tuppence, as they race around London in search of spies. (On Google Maps, that is–I didn’t actually physically follow in their footsteps, although I’ve often thought that tracking book characters around would be a cool project.) My third favorite thing was Tommy and Tuppence themselves, impoverished young people back from the war who get embroiled in a dastardly plot. (That is, impoverished in the 1920s British book character sense that if Tuppence doesn’t come up with some cash ASAP she’ll have to go back and live with her father the archdeacon and serve tea at ladies’ clubs.) They’re like a younger, less witty version of Nick and Nora Charles. My least favorite thing was the dastardly plot. It’s a little hazy in my mind, since I put the book aside with about twenty pages to go when I left London and only finished it now, but it has something to do with a secret pre-war treaty with the Germans that must be found and destroyed and a general strike that must be averted and evil Bolshevik plotters who use the Labour Party as patsies. It all got a bit tedious, but Christie’s prose, unlike her plot, has a refreshing contemporary feel. T&T are the only Christie characters who age over time (five books in all, the last one published in 1973), and I look forward to following their future, hopefully less reactionary, adventures.
November 3: The Way of an Eagle, by Ethel Dell (1911)
A British officer in India, having failed to recognize a soon-to-be besieged fort in India as a poor choice for Take Your Daughter to Work Day, faces a choice: once he’s dead, which of the soldiers under his command will have the guts to kill Muriel, the daughter, to save her from a fate worse than death? (No one bothers to ask Muriel for her capture vs. death preference.) The obvious choice is big, strong, handsome Captain Blake Grange, but Muriel’s father picks small, wiry, satanic-looking Lieutenant Nick Ratcliffe. Nick and Muriel make a dramatic escape from the fort over a period of several days. After going through some love-hate stuff, they are blissfully and briefly engaged, but a misunderstanding arises and they part. Back in England, Captain Grange reappears, joins the hockey team Muriel and an adolescent friend play on, which somehow doesn’t strike anyone as totally bonkers, and Muriel’s friendship with him deepens. Will Muriel and Nick find their way back together? Take a wild guess! Be forewarned, though, that, although this and Dell’s other best-sellers are often described as bodice-rippers, no bodice is even slightly rumpled in this book.
May 12: The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie (1920)
Christie’s literary debut, featuring Hercule Poirot, started slowly at first, with Captain Hastings visiting a friend at his country home, but perked up once the fastidious Belgian detective (living in wartime England as a refugee) showed up. The doyenne of Hastings’ friend’s fractious family is dead, and the suspects are numerous. Could it be the beautiful Red Cross pharmacist? The mysterious and even more beautiful wife of Hastings’ friend? The doyenne’s weird new husband? Someone else? The answer seemed obvious to me, and I assumed that Christie hadn’t hit her stride yet, but who do you think is cleverer, me or the Queen of Crime?
January 25: This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)
Twenty-three-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary debut recounts the adventures of Fitzgerald-like protagonist Amory Blaine, who is dragged around the world by his indulgent, self-dramatizing mother as a child, goes to live with relatives in Minnesota just in time to (narrowly) avoid becoming totally insufferable, and goes to Princeton, described (to the university’s annoyance) as “the pleasantest country club in America.” The story is told in collage-like fashion, with short sections interspersed with occasional play scenes and poems. This was my third or fourth read, and each time I get something different out of it. This time what struck me most was Fitzgerald’s unsparing take on the self-invention of his protagonist, who progresses from one stage of cringe-inducing idiocy to another. The novel, which was to be his only best-seller, won Fitzgerald instant fame and the hand of Zelda Sayers. I wrote about This Side of Paradise here, here, and here.
November 25: Ten Days that Shook the World, by John Reed (1919) (audiobook).
In this classic account of the Russian Revolution, Reed, an American socialist journalist, miraculously avoids being shot as he wanders around Russia observing the chaos. (His luck ran out during a return trip in 1920, when he died of typhus at age 32.) Judging from Reed’s account, the revolution consisted of long, tedious speeches alternating with bouts of horrific violence. This is probably accurate, but it doesn’t exactly make for propulsive narrative drive, and I would have struggled to make it through the book if I hadn’t been listening (well, half-listening) to it as an audiobook. Reed doesn’t provide any context; he just plunges you straight into the action. And his idealization of the Bolsheviks as a People’s Republic of Niceness can be hard to take. But at its best it’s a vivid account of a momentous time few outsiders were present to observe. My favorite scene is when Reed talks his way into the Winter Palace amid the chaos and wanders around, looking at the treasures, while Red Guards and the Czar’s former servants watch him nervously. I also enjoyed his account of how normal life went on among the shooting: “Here the street-cars had stopped running, few people passed, and there were no lights; but a few blocks away we could see the trams, the crowds, the lighted shop-windows and the electric signs of the moving-picture shows—life going on as usual. We had tickets to the Ballet at the Marinsky Theatre—all theatres were open—but it was too exciting out of doors.” I recommend the audio version I listened to; narrator George Backman either speaks Russian (unlike Reid, apparently) or does a good job of faking it.
October 30: Mary Marie, by Eleanor Porter (1920)
Her nerdy astronomer father wanted to name her Mary. Her free-spirited mother wanted to name her Marie. So each one calls her by his/her preferred name, and everyone else calls her Mary Marie. Then the parents divorce, and MM has to spend half the year being sober Mary and half the year being jolly Marie. Great concept; not so great execution. The book, which is in diary form, struck me as less funny knock-off of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1917 Bab: A Sub-Deb. Mary Marie goes from her early to mid-teens over the course of the book, but, except during a bout of Bab-like boy-craziness early on that’s dropped abruptly, she sounds more like a pre-teen. “When we got to Andersonville, and the train rolled into the station, I ‘most forgot, for a minute, and ran down the aisle, so as to get out quick,” MM says about one of her Marie-to-Mary transitions. (Maybe the author of Pollyanna was stuck in eleven-year-old mode.) All the shuttling between Boston and Andersonville and being Mary and being Marie got monotonous. “Aren’t you, like, twenty-five by now?” I asked as MM got on yet another train. I could see from the beginning where it was all going, although admittedly I had an advantage over 1920 readers who hadn’t seen The Parent Trap.
October 10: Elements of Retail Salesmanship, by Paul Wesley Ivey (1920)
In an effort to meet the world of a hundred years ago on its own terms rather than through the filter of my 21st-century taste, I decided to read a random 1920 book, chosen from Book Review Digest with my eyes closed. The result was this guide for department store salespeople, written by a young marketing professor at the University of Nebraska. Some of the advice was dubious, like how you should bone up on “the goods” through after-hours encyclopedia reading, and Ivey is more interested in what the salesperson owes her employer (it’s almost always a her, as he points out) than vice versa. He is insightful, though, on the psychology of salesmanship, laying out an entertaining typology of customers including the Impulsive or Nervous Customer, the Deliberate Customer, and the Confident or Decisive Customer, who “walks into the store as a general would march into the camp of a defeated army.” I wrote about my random book experience, and my quest to learn more about the affable professor, here.
July 27: Bertram Cope’s Year, by Henry B. Fuller (1919)
I came across this book in a Smart Set roundup by H.L. Mencken, Googled it not expecting much, and learned that it is one of the first gay American novels. Cope is a young academic who’s way too good-looking to be named Bertram (I imagined a blond Cary Grant), and his arrival in Churchton, a stand-in for Evanston, Illinois, sets the whole town, male and female, young and old, aflame with lust. Meanwhile, all Bertram wants to do is set up a cozy home with his really, really good friend Arthur, who’s back home in Wisconsin. The first half of the book drags a little; there’s lots of sitting in parlors and walking on paths and such, like Jane Austen without the witty conversation. Things come alive when Bertram haplessly becomes engaged (apparently the inevitable outcome of capsizing in a boat with a young woman) and Arthur shows up, freaking out the good people of Churchton with his all-too-accurate female impersonation in a college theatrical. 62-year-old Fuller was a well-established realist writer, but no major publisher would touch Bertram Cope’s Year; it was published by a small press and sales were modest. The book has deservedly found an audience with modern readers. (My post about Bertram Cope’s Year is here.)
February 24: The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley (1919)
In this sequel to Parnassus on Wheels, Helen and Roger Mifflin are living in wedded bliss as the proprietors of a used bookshop in Brooklyn. (Well, mostly bliss: Helen takes off for Boston every once in a while to escape Roger’s nonstop smoking.) The plot is a bit of a shambles, with a love story involving a young advertising man and a wealthy young woman who’s working in the shop and a ludicrous German spy story that Morley obviously had to update hastily after the war ended. And the novel grinds to a halt every once in a while while Roger, standing in for Morley, goes on long harangues about the publishing industry and the war and such. Still, the book is a wonderful evocation of the era. There’s even a Coles Phillips reference!
February 15: Not That It Matters, by A.A. Milne (1919)
Milne was a well-known and prolific writer of books, essays, and plays before he wrote the Winnie-the-Pooh poems and stories in the mid-1920s. This collection of lighthearted essays, originally published in Punch, holds up better than most humor of the era. I groaned when I saw in the table of contents that there was an essay about golf, but it ended up being one of my favorites. Golf is the perfect sport, Milne maintains, because the worse you are, the more you get to play. In other essays, like the one about how the first day of summer is no cause for celebration because from then on the days get shorter, he runs out of steam well before the end. All in all, an enjoyable read.
January 10: The Economic Consequences of the Peace, by John Maynard Keynes (1919) (audiobook).
36-year old Keynes attended the Paris Peace Conference as a representative of the British Treasury. His warning that bankrupting German would have disastrous consequences was ignored, but this book, published in late 1919, was a bestseller in both Britain and the United States. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the making of the Versailles treaty, and into the mind of the man who would become the greatest economist of his age. Listening to it as a (wonderfully narrated) audiobook worked out well because I could pay attention to Keynes’s novelistic descriptions of world leaders (you can tell a lot about them by their hands, apparently) and drift off when he was going on about coal production in Upper Silesia.