The Man In The Brown Suit, by Agatha Christie

>> Monday, September 22, 2014

TITLE: The Man In The Brown Suit
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

PAGES: 292
PUBLISHER: Harper Collins

SETTING: 1920s England and South Africa
TYPE: Thriller
SERIES: None, although one of the secondary characters does appear in later books

The newly-orphaned Anne Beddingfield came to London expecting excitement. She didn't expect to find it on the platform of Hyde Park Corner tube station. When a fellow passenger pitches onto the rails and is electrocuted, the 'doctor' on the scene seems intent on searching the victim rather than examining him...

Armed with a single clue, Anne finds herself struggling to unmask a faceless killer known only as 'The Colonel' - while 'The Colonel' struggles to eliminate her...

I've mentioned before that I basically cut my teeth on Agatha Christie's novels. My mum and dad had them collected in these tomes that looked like they should contain the entire works of Shakespeare... you know the kind: onion skin-type paper, thick burgundy covers. I tore through them. The Man in the Brown Suit was one of my favourites, possibly because it had a bit of romance in it. This was right before I discovered the romance genre proper (I must have been in my very early teens), so I came back to it again and again.

Well, now I'm in my mid 30s, and I hadn't reread it for a very long time. How would it work for me, after all these years?

The story is not typical Christie. It's an adventure/caper type, rather than a cozy mystery. It's probably closest to They Came To Baghdad, with a young, plucky heroine, all alone in the world, an exotic location and a plot involving the usual staples of spies/international super-villains/mysterious assignations.

Our heroine is Anne Beddingfeld. She's spent all her life buried in a tiny village, keeping house for her absent-minded professor-type father. Now he's died, and all Anne wants is some adventure and excitement. Excitement finds her while temporarily staying in London with family friends. She's waiting in a Tube station, on her way back from a job interview, when she witnesses the death of a man who falls on the tracks and is electrocuted.

It turns out that there seems to be a connection between the dead man and the strangling of a mysterious foreign woman, and Anne finds herself in possession of what she's sure is a clue. The police don't agree, so Anne decides to investigate on her own. And within days, her investigation sees her ensconced in a first-class cabin on a ship to South Africa. There are suspicious characters and mysterious events galore. And it's clear that the villains have noticed Anne, and her investigations are seen as a threat!

This time around, I had very mixed feelings about TMITBS. The romance was a complete bust. It was very dated, all full of admiration for brutal, masterful men. Anne basically raves over her love interest's dangerousness, and because she's attracted to him, she completely refuses to believe he may have been involved in the murder of the foreign woman, all evidence to the contrary. She even thinks "he may have gone to the house intending to kill her, but I'm sure he didn't", and feels hatred towards the dead woman "because he must have loved her at some point". This spot of victim-blaming is long before she knows any details. Ugh.

However, I did actually still enjoy quite a bit of the book, because the romance was such a small part of it. The intrigue is just fun, full of running around and derring-do and tales about lost diamonds. The plot (especially the way Anne gets involved in it all) is very far-fetched, but I was willing to go with it. And apart from her awful taste in men, Anne is wonderfully resourceful and cool-headed, and often saves herself.

I also quite liked the cast of secondary characters. They are fun and fully realised. There's Suzanne, an older married woman with whom Anne forms a friendship. There's Colonel Race, the perfect example of the "strong, silent Rhodesian" type Anne so admires, but a man who makes her very nervous. There's the eccentric Sir Eustace Pedler MP, hounded into doing work he has no interest in doing by his surfeit of secretaries. And one of those secretaries is a particular favourite: Guy Pagett, a man with a sinister, 15th century poisoner's face and an extremely respectable soul.

Finally, the book has a very strong sense of place, which is is both a blessing and a curse. A large section of it takes place in South Africa, but it's not just that. I also loved the glimpses we got of 1920s England and the sections onboard the ship. Still, South Africa is the most interesting -and most problematic. Anne writes that she's not going to do a travelogue for us, but her descriptions still create a very vivid portrayal of the setting. Also, as far as I can tell, the action takes place during the Rand Rebellion. All we're told is that there is unrest and fighting, and several of the characters discuss the "labour situation" and Sir Eustace has ostensibly been asked to play some sort of role in negotiations. It's assumed that the reader knows what's going on. And I suppose at the time readers would have. I didn't mind that at all, but then when I did a bit of research about it and found out what this was all about, the fact that Anne doesn't seem to have an opinion or even care about what's going on seemed very problematic.

But, alas, that wasn't even the most problematic element. The overt racism is actually quite horrific. Black South Africans are almost completely erased. They are barely noticed, other than as, say, natives swarming round the train selling "darling wooden animals". The low point for me was when Anne and her man are together in an isolated place after an incident, and she's talking about how they are alone together. They're not actually alone, though, because a "native woman" who keeps house for this man is there too. But no, they're actually alone, because "Old Batani hovered about, counting no more than a dog might have done." Of its time, of course, but still very jarring and upsetting.

MY GRADE: I can't give this more than a B-.


Christine,  22 September 2014 at 15:27  

I've never read this Christie book but years ago there was a TV movie made of it with Stephanie Zimbalist of Remington Steele and Simon Dutton- who I thought was terribly handsome at the time. It did seem likea Mary Stewart book than a typical Christie with the romance and the adventure type plot. I enjoyed it at the time.

It's an interesting point you raise about the lack of black South Africans in the novel. It's something that really struck me in the Sookie Stackhouse novels and bothered me the more I read them. They are set in Louisiana yet zero of the main or really important supporting characters are black. The few black characters mentioned have almost no agency and are either unlikeable or powerless. While it's not unexpected reading books from the earlier part of the 20th century, I find it unsettling and upsetting in 21st century books. It's something that the TV series, for all it's flaws handled much better changing Tara's ethnicity, making Lafayette into the amazing character he was and having several interracial relationships on the show.

Rosario 25 September 2014 at 11:04  

Christine: Yes, absolutely! You're right, it feels much closer to a Mary Stewart than to a typical Christie, although she manages to turn her international conspiracy plot into a bit of an enclosed mystery, with a small, fixed number of suspects.

And I agree completely about the erasure issue being somehow worse in more modern books. In a book set in the 1920s, I wouldn't be surprised to see a supposedly likeable white protagonist living a life completely removed from people of different ethnicities (even in a location where whites are the minority). In the 21st century, I'd wonder why this person doesn't realise this is a problem.

I didn't read the Sookie Stackhouse series beyond book 1, but it sounds like I might like the TV series a bit more!

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