The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie ~ 1924. This edition: Dell, 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 440-05230. 223 pages.
My Rating: 8.5/10
Setting: London; the steamship Kilmorden Castle en route to Africa; South Africa; Rhodesia.
Detection by: MISS ANNE BEDDINGFELD; the strong, silent and slightly mysterious COLONEL RACE makes a first appearance.
Final Body Count: 2
Method(s) of Death: FALLING UNDER A TRAIN; STRANGLING
100 Word Plot Summary:
Newly orphaned archaeologist’s daughter Anne Beddingfeld is off to see the world. After witnessing a gruesome and fatal “accident”, following a suspected murderer, and finding a mysterious clue on a scrap of paper, Anne sets sail for South Africa. Sinister happenings ensue, but her newly acquired paternalistic protector, Sir Eustace, will surely see that she comes to no permanent harm. But which of the two masterful men sharing the voyage, Colonel Race and the elusive Man in the Brown Suit, can she trust? Who strangled the dancer Nadina back in England? And what about that film canister of raw diamonds?
This is another thriller versus a simple murder-mystery story. While there are two suspicious deaths, one of which is an undeniably hands-on murder (a celebrated dancer is strangled in an empty English country house), the focus of the action is not so much on the details of that death, but rather of a much larger picture involving a mysterious master criminal, two young Englishmen possibly unjustly charged with diamond theft from a Kimberley mine, a rather sketchily described African political conflict, and the impetuous adventures of one Anne Beddingfeld as she seeks to discover the true identity of the seemingly sinister “Man in the Brown Suit”.
The story opens with a short Parisian episode, with a celebrated Russian dancer, Nadina, being visited in her dressing room.
The dancer stretched out a languid hand, but at the sight of the name on the card, Count Sergius Paulovitch, a sudden flicker of interest came into her eyes.
“I will see him. The maize peignoir, Jeanne, and quickly. And when the Count comes, you may go.”
Jeanne brought the peignoir, an exquisite wisp of corn-coloured chiffon and ermine. Nadina slipped into it, and sat smiling to herself, while one long white hand beat a slow tattoo on the glass of the dressing table.
The Count was prompt to avail himself of the privilege accorded to him – a man of medium height, very slim, very elegant, very pale, extraordinarily weary. In feature, little to take hold of, a man difficult to recognize again if one left his mannerisms out of account. He bowed over the dancer’s hand with exaggerated courtliness.
“Madame, this is a pleasure indeed.”
So much Jeanne heard before she went out, closing the door behind her. Alone with her visitor, a subtle change came over Nadina’s smile.
“Compatriots though we are, we will not speak Russian, I think,” she observed.
“Since we neither of us know a word of the language, it might be as well,” agreed her guest…
The two go on to discuss the imminent retirement of their joint employer, a master criminal known only as “The Colonel”. About to be cut adrift without his direction, Nadina in particular is fomenting a scheme to ensure her future well-being and wealth; the Count warns her of the dangers of double-crossing such a clever man; and on that note we embark on the main narrative.
Young (twentyish) Anne Beddingfeld introduces herself in Chapter Two; she is writing in her diary, and it is in this diarist’s voice that half of the story is told. The other half is told by a certain Sir Eustace Pedlar, writing in turn in his diary; a parallel tale emerges as Anne and Sir Eustace find themselves sharing a voyage to South Africa, and then a train journey to Rhodesia.
Anne has been left rather suddenly orphaned by her archeologist father’s sudden death; her father’s solicitor offers her a temporary home, and so she finds herself in London, rather at loose ends. Witnessing the tragic death of a man in the Underground – he steps backward off the edge of the platform just as a train is coming in – Anne notes that the bystander who professes to be a doctor is rather quite professionally going through the dead man’s pockets. When a slip of paper flutters to the ground, Anne picks it up, and, following investigation of the clue it gives her, ends up a passenger on a steamship bound for South Africa.
Here Anne’s natural charm and appealing appearance bring her several benevolent protectors, in the form of wealthy Mrs. Blair, the strong, silent, and very manly Colonel Race, and a jocular British M.P., Sir Eustace Pedlar, who is travelling to South Africa to investigate some vague political situation; something about labour unrest, which has an improbable part to play in the latter stages of the story. And protectors it appears are needed, as Anne is thrown into repeated contact with a belligerent and dangerous young man, who seeks refuge in Anne’s cabin one night, hides from a searcher, and leaves without explanation and minus some blood from an apparent fresh wound. He reappears in the guise of one of Sir Eustace’s secretaries, but not much secretarying appears to be happening, and Anne begins to suspect that he is instead an escaping murderer, fleeing England after strangling a woman (later identified as the dancer Nadina) in Sir Eustace’s unoccupied country mansion, Mill House.
Much activity ensues, before all becomes clear and the identity of “The Colonel” is determined and the details of the Mill House murder revealed. Oh, yes, there are also quantities of uncut diamonds floating about, first appearing in a film canister dropped through Anne’s transom one night early in her journey. These are the object of a number of increasingly desperate searches, but Anne cleverly manages to keep their location suppressed until the crucial moment.
This is a rather fun story to read; Anne’s travels are described in vivid detail, and understandably so, as they are taken from the real-life, ten-month, round-the-world journey which Agatha Christie and her husband took in 1922 , travelling in the entourage of British businessman Major Belcher to South Africa, and onwards to Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Canada and back to Britain.
There is abundant romance, predictable as the sun rising, and a lavish amount of melodrama. Anne is buffeted about but always manages to rise up in one piece; she is threatened, assaulted, kidnapped, tied up, lured into falling off a cliff (over the brink of Victoria Falls, no less!), and shot at, before finding true love and lasting happiness in a suitably exotic locale.
Though the reader is expected to take a lot of the shaky plot on faith, the writer obviously had a grand time developing her rambunctiously improbable tale; this was one of Agatha Christie’s favourites among her early stories, “more fun” to write (according to her autobiography) than her detective novels. It shows. The Man in the Brown Suit was one of the first Christies I read, and it remains one of my sentimental favourites, though I notice my sympathy for Anne’s romantic yearnings has lessened a bit, perhaps because I am now well out of my teens!
On to our cover gallery.