I am so very glad that Dame Agatha decided on writing murder mysteries, not travel guides:
"By the way, I should like to make clear here and now that this story will not be a story of South Africa. I guarantee no genuine local colour—you know the sort of thing—half a dozen words in italics on every page. I admire it very much, but I can’t do it. In South Sea Islands, of course, you make an immediate reference to bêche-de-mer. I don’t know what bêche-de-mer is, I have never known, I probably never shall know. I’ve guessed once or twice and guessed wrong. In South Africa I know you at once begin to talk about a stoep—I do know what a stoep is—it’s the thing round a house and you sit on it. In various other parts of the world you call it a veranda, a piazza, and a ha-ha. Then again, there are pawpaws. I had often read of pawpaws. I discovered at once what they were, because I had one plumped down in front of me for breakfast. I thought at first that it was a melon gone bad. The Dutch waitress enlightened me, and persuaded me to use lemon juice and sugar and try again. I was very pleased to meet a pawpaw. I had always vaguely associated it with a hula-hula, which, I believe, though I may be wrong, is a kind of straw skirt that Hawaiian girls dance in. No, I think I am wrong—that is a lava-lava.
At any rate, all these things are very cheering after England. I can’t help thinking that it would brighten our cold Island life if one could have a breakfast of bacon-bacon, and then go out clad in a jumper-jumper to pay the books."
‘You’re to have No. 28 on the port side,’ said the steward. ‘A very good cabin, sir.’
‘I am afraid that I must insist. No. 17 was the cabin promised to me.’
We had come to an impasse. Each one of us was determined not to give way. Strictly speaking, I, at any rate, might have retired from the contest and eased matters by offering to accept Cabin 28. So long as I did not have 13 it was immaterial to me what other cabin I had. But my blood was up. I had not the least intention of being the first to give way.
And I disliked Chichester. He had false teeth that clicked when he ate. Many men have been hated for less.
I'm really enjoying this one. Anne Beddingfeld seems like a heroine that I wish Christie had written another story for.
I only hope that she doesn't do anything completely daft by the end of the book that would spoil my current image of her.
The Man in the Brown Suit is a very early Christie, published in 1924 on the heels of the second Poirot mystery, Murder on the Links, and right before the first Superintendent Battle mystery, The Secret of Chimneys. In this one, she introduces the enigmatic Colonel Race, who subsequently appears in Cards on the Table, Death on the Nile and Sparkling Cyanide.
This is also the first of her books narrated by one of her charming young women, in this case Anne Beddingfield, impoverished but plucky daughter of a well-known archaeologist. Upon the death of her father, Anne takes her 87 pounds to London, where she is on the search for adventure and darkly attractive, taciturn men to fascinate her.
The Man in the Brown Suit is equal parts romance and mystery, with a side of international criminal intrigue, all taking place under the hot African sky. I get the sense, reading it, that Christie put a lot of herself in Anne Beddingfield, and the incident where Anne goes surfing only strengthens that sense. For those of you who don't know, Agatha was an avid surfer as a young woman, and was the first British woman to surf standing up, which occurred in Capetown, South Africa during the writing of this book.
The plot is profoundly silly and entirely unbelievable. Looking at Christie's bibliography, her first ten books are basically equally split between straight mystery and international espionage:
Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) (mystery)
The Secret Adversary (1922) (international espionage)
Murder on the Links (1923) (mystery)
The Man in the Brown Suit (1924) (international espionage)
The Secret of Chimneys (1925) (international espionage)
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) (mystery)
The Big Four (1927) (international espionage)
The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) (mystery)
The Seven Dials Mystery (1929) (international espionage)
The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) (mystery)
After The Seven Dials Mystery her publishers must have convinced her that she was a much stronger mystery writer than she was a spy novelist, because she largely abandons that form for 22 years, until 1951's They Came To Baghdad.
It is true that Christie's "thrillers" are not as strong as her mysteries. Having said that, with the exception of The Big Four, which I found execrable, and Passenger to Frankfurt, which is likely one of the worst books ever published, I generally enjoy them. They are reliant on coincidence, mostly silly, and have wholly unconvincing villains, but they are fun so long as I refuse to take them seriously.
I am disappointed that with such a worthy start, Colonel Race fizzled as a character, showing up in only three additional books. I would still like to know more about him.