Topic #7: Read a book published between 1900 and 1950.
Book: The Man in the Brown Suit, by Agatha Christie
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2012 (originally published by The Bodley Head, 1924)
Of all the challenges to my philosophy of criticism, which emphasizes character writing, quality of prose and thematic depth, the Agatha Christie mysteries are probably the greatest. Some of my personal favorites end up with mediocre grades, because their aims are not to tell great stories, but to share interesting puzzles with the reader. Although I may need to rethink my methods in general, The Man in the Brown Suit doesn’t have this problem. In fact, this mystery/adventure story hybrid is now among my favorite Agatha Christies.
Anne Beddingfeld, recently orphaned and with eighty-seven pounds to her name (which isn’t much, even in the 1920s) embarks on a voyage to South Africa on the trail of a mysterious murderer, partly to get herself a job as a reporter, but mostly to satisfy her incorrigible hunger for adventure. Armed with her abnormally sharp wits and little else, she must navigate a maze of intrigue as each step leads her closer to both the truth and to terrible danger.
This is the most unapologetically cheesy book I’ve read in a long time and I adore it. It’s got clandestine meetings, elaborate disguises, diamond smuggling, budding romances between sharp-tongued women and broodingly handsome young men. The romance aspect to this book is particularly entertaining coming from Agatha Christie after all the time I’ve spent with her famous Hercule Poirot, who goes together with romance like oil and water. Anne has not one, but two different romantic interests, and honestly, you could make an argument for there being a third. At this point, it feels more like a dating sim than an Agatha Christie book! I’m not complaining though. This is just another bit of welcome melodrama in a larger-than-life adventure.
This is one of the earliest books of Christie’s that I’ve read, and it makes me wonder whether her prose lost a little of its magic as the decades rolled by. For whatever reason, The Man in the Brown Suit is simply a great joy to read. Anne’s narration is dripping with dry humor, but is still told with an effortless precision and eye for detail–this second part being important for a mystery story. I was smiling through the first few pages in particular, and quickly found myself rooting for Anne to discover the truth and get that newspaper job. As the story goes on, however, and the book becomes more about what’s happening and less about Anne’s role in events, her unique voice fades into the background. Still, the character manages to coast on the good-will she earned at the beginning, and the absence doesn’t harm the book in any fundamental way. While we’re talking about narrators, there’s actually a second narrator, in the form of excerpts from the diary of one of Anne’s travelling companions. Having a second narrator could have been messy and pointless, but ultimately, I’m happy to say it slips into the story seamlessly. It doesn’t hurt that the second narrator is another one of Christie’s funnier character, a lazy, overly-pampered aristocrat with a tongue just as sharp as Anne’s.
Although I had fun with the characters, and I enjoyed the cheesy, adventure-story stuff, ultimately The Man in the Brown Suit delivers on its mystery as well. The identity of the true culprit, a murdering, diamond-smuggling, arms-dealing menace known only as “the Colonel,” was an unusually sneaky puzzle. I grasped at several red herrings and only guessed at the truth a few pages before the reveal. I’d say they rank among my favorite Agatha Christie culprits, and off the top of my head, only the culprits from Crooked House and The ABC Murders outranked them. It’s not the most in-depth mystery, or the most cerebral one, but it has a hand to play and plays it well.
For those wondering, although the story takes place largely in South Africa, this mostly serves as exotic set dressing for a story that just wants you to have a great time. One should never begin a work of 1920s British literature expecting it to satisfy modern standards for diversity, but it’s still disconcerting to see native Africans and Dutch settlers, in the rare event that they appear, reduced to nothing more than pawns in a game played by smarter Englishmen and women. I won’t hold the book accountable for what amounts to a moral oversight by Christie, but modern readers should be advised that they might find the lack of diversity annoying.
Other than The Big Four, an intentional send-up of this kind of adventure story, I had no idea that Christie had written anything like this. It seems like a real shame to me that she didn’t do much in this vein again, because it’s wonderful.
Final Grade: B+