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the man in the brown suit

13 july 2020

The Man in the Brown Suit shows Agatha Christie, still relatively early in her career as a mystery novelist, casting about for a convincing protagonist. She had found her most successful hero on her first try, Hercule Poirot in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and followed up with a second Poirot novel, The Murder on the Links. But Poirot – and I say this as a great fan of Poirot – is outlandishly unbelievable. In 1922 Christie had also written her first "Tommy and Tuppence" novel, The Secret Adversary, with a married couple as the detectives; in 1930 she would create Miss Marple; but for a brief moment in 1924, she put a young single woman, Anne Beddingfeld, at the center of a murder mystery.

The experiment wasn't to last. It doesn't even really last one novel; by the end of The Man in the Brown Suit, Anne is married off, and out of the detecting business. It doesn't even really last till she reaches the altar: for much of her novel, Anne shares the narration with a male voice. But for a brief moment, you can imagine an alternative career for Agatha Christie, one where a smart, energetic New Woman replaces a bogus-sounding Belgian and a superannuated old dear as super-sleuth. Of course, that Agatha Christie might not have sold two billion copies. She might have sold a lot more.

Anne is the recently-orphaned daughter of an impecunious paleoanthropologist. Left with less than £100 in the world, Anne still feels that adventure is her lot in life. She gets more than she bargains for when she witnesses a mysterious, if apparently accidental death in a Tube station, and then tries to track the "man in the brown suit" who seems somehow involved. That trail leads her to a murder scene and thence to a ship bound for South Africa, on which every possible future victim and all available suspects have simultaneously taken passage.

When the characters, including a future friend of Poirot's named Colonel Race, the supplementary narrator Sir Eustace Pedler MP, a scruffy private secretary, a glamorous married lady, a playacting phony clergyman, and the man in the brown suit himself, reach Cape Town, the plot spirals out into a farrago of diamonds, disguises, vengeance, and forays into Bechuanaland. I will not spoil the solution but it's even money you couldn't follow the explanation if I did. I am hazy on many of the details, and I just closed the book.

But through it all, till she gets married off and her future is foreclosed, Anne remains an engaging narrator and the creation of someone who at least remembered what being a young, single, impulsive woman was like. (By the time she wrote Brown Suit, Christie was 33, nearly ten years married and still a couple of years away from her legendary disappearance.) Almost nothing about the novel rings true except Anne's character and narrating voice.

One reason we still read Agatha Christie today is that she mostly avoided the ugliness that characterizes some of her contemporaries, like Sax Rohmer (creator of Fu-Manchu). She could be casually anti-Semitic and racist, but like Georges Simenon she did not make a living as an anti-Semite or racist, at a time when some people positively did. When Anne Beddingfeld gets to Africa, one expects some white-man's-burden rhetoric at the very least. But the natives are just natives: almost invisible natives, for sure. A fairly un-woke worldview; but not a worldview that depends on constant anxious assertions of English superiority. At one point an African woman is described as "hideous as sin" (131) – physically, it seems – but she turns out to be a sympathetic character (with a name, Batani) who protects Anne from danger. I mention this not to excuse or defend Christie, who was hardly in the progressive vanguard. But she at least stepped out of the reactionary ranks that so many of her contemporaries were closing around themselves.

Christie, Agatha. The Man in the Brown Suit. 1924. London: Pan, 1962.