Saturday, February 5, 2022

Setting Off For Adventure with Agatha Christie's The Man in the Brown Suit

Scott D. Parker

Well, I’ve finally read my second Agatha Christie novel.

The Man in the Brown Suit (1924) was the January 2022 selection from the good folks over at It’s part of the Read Christie 2022 project. For the past two years, they’ve done something similar. This year, they’re focusing on Christie’ love of travel and selecting books with that theme.

I didn’t do the challenges the last two years, but opted to read this novel, Christie’s fourth book. Our lead heroine is Anne Beddingfeld, a young woman, on her own after her father passed away. With her whole life in front of her and with her mind swirling with the drive for adventure, young Anne finds all that and then some.

In a London subway station, Anne sees a man look at her in shock right before he plunges over the edge of the platform and dies. An odd-looking man swoops in to examine the body, claiming to be a doctor. But Anne questions the newcomer’s intentions. Couple that with a piece of paper dropped by the supposed doctor and Anne starts to see a mystery.

The mystery leads her to a ship bound for South Africa. On the ship, strange things occur and she’s introduced to a number of other characters. One is Sir Eustace Pedler, a member of Parliament, who brings with him a pair of secretaries, Guy Pagett and Harry Rayburn. Also of note is Colonel Race, supposedly of the British Secret Service, and Suzanne Blair, a married woman who befriends Anne on the voyage.

Lots of things happen on the boat and they continue when they get down to South Africa. It’s fascinating to read what was dubbed a thriller circa 1924 and compare it to what we think of as a thriller nowadays. Like many a mystery story set between the two world wars, there’s a quaintness to this novel. There’s the tendency of the bad guys to expostulate to the heroine, laying out the bad guy plan in detail. There’s the somewhat coincidental nature of some of the plot points, like what happens on the boat at night that just so happens to have Anne present.

Then there’s how the story itself is presented. A prologue shows us a few characters basically told from the author’s point of view. Then the novel switches to the narrative Anne writes herself. Spliced amid Anne’s reminiscences are those of Sir Eustace himself. It’s a clever trick because it enables Christie to show the reader certain things Anne and the others don’t know.

I’ll admit there was a time or two I’d have to think and remind myself which character Anne was referring to. I listened to a well-done narration by Emilia Fox and it wasn’t her fault. It was my own disjointed listening schedule. But by the time I was on the final homestretch, I was deeply into the story and barreled ahead until its conclusion.

And I rather enjoyed learning the identity of the mysterious antagonist nicknamed “The Colonel.” [No, it’s not Colonel Race. Christie obviously didn’t read all those how-to-write-a-mystery books in which you’re not supposed to name characters with similar names or titles.]

I enjoyed it, but it’s certainly not what I think of when I think of Agatha Christie. No Poirot, no Marple. But that’s likely the point of a reading adventure like the one planned for 2022. It looks like they’ll feature books that aren’t always on the top of people’s mind when they list favorites from the Queen of Mystery Fiction. Granted, the February book is Death on the Nile (to coincide with the new movie), a title I do know, but I’m looking forward to the rest of the selections throughout the year.

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