Did you see that one of Agatha Christie’s books featured in a newspaper article for International Women’s Day earlier this month? The article, five books by women, for women, sums up The Man in the Brown Suit and its heroine Anne Beddingfield as follows:
Anne Beddingfeld, a self-mocking heroine, who is very aware of the conventions of gender and genre, impulsively buys a ticket to South Africa because the boat fare is the exact amount she has left in the world. She ends up taking down an international crime syndicate with aplomb and panache.
I love the article (it also features Mary Stewart!) and I think the above summary is pretty much perfect, it says everything that matters and it seduced me into re-reading the book. It must be over 10 years ago that I last read Anne Beddingfield’s adventures so while I was fairly sure I remembered who the villain was, I couldn’t remember any details, only that Anne is dazzling.
Published in 1924, The Man in the Brown Suit was Agatha Christie’s fourth novel and I think it sparkles with youth, playfulness and adventure. The events of 1926 (her mother dying, her first husband’s wish to divorce, her subsequent disappearance for over a week) changed Agatha Christie’s life and her writing and I’m not sure that anything she wrote afterwards was as carefree and light-hearted as this novel.
Anne Beddingfield, then, is a young woman, orphaned with £87 to her name but she is rich in adventurous spirit. Having witnessed the death of a man in circumstances which leave her with a sense of unease, she follows a clue on a dropped slip of paper, spending her money on a passage to Cape Town on board the Kilmorden Castle.
Agatha Christie pokes fun at popular adventure and detective novel tropes throughout the novel. When the ship sets sail, Anne is cabin-bound with seasickness for three days:
It is most undignified for a heroine to be seasick. In books the more it rolls and tosses, the better she likes it. When everybody else is ill, she alone staggers along the deck, braving the elements and positively rejoicing in the storm. I regret to say that at the first roll the Kilmorden gave, I turned pale and hastened below.
I really enjoyed these playful elements to the story, and I also liked the humour in Christie’s juxtaposition of Anne’s narrative alongside that of a fellow passenger – the grumpy diary entries of Sir Eustace Pedler MP are amusing and cleverly written. Other passengers include Sir Eustace’s secretaries Guy Pagett and Harry Rayburn, Suzanne Blair, Rev Chichester, and Colonel Race: Anne suspects them all as criminals.
Through persistence, charm, luck and co-incidences aplenty, Anne solves the mysteries surrounding her. At the same time, she enchants passengers and readers alike as the book meanders along its own quirky path, giving Anne time to exclaim about the wonders of surfing (which Agatha Christie had taken up the previous year) and the beauties of Table Mountain and Victoria Falls in asides from the plot. There is death, danger and abduction as you would expect in an Agatha Christie, there is even violent attempted revolution in Johannesburg, but this novel is also a love story and to my mind all the better for it.
Verdict: I always enjoy Agatha Christie’s writing, Anne Beddingfield is a captivating heroine and I love The Man in the Brown Suit. 5 stars.