Tuesdays with the Queen: Resourceful Young Women and The Man in the Brown Suit

Title: The Man in the Brown Suit
Author: Agatha Christie
Year of Publication: 1924
Pages: 381

Plot Summary (from Goodreads): 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…

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 in first person by one of her adventerous 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 pound inheritance 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, Christie 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, and, like The Secret Adversary, falls into the general category of “international thriller,” as opposed to simple whodunnit. Over the years, Christie created several young sidekicks, all independent, single women (distinguishing them from Tuppence, who is partnered with Tommy from the beginning of the book). All of these dashing young women get their choice of suitors at the end of the tale and the books that feature them are some of my favorites – Emily Trefusis from The Sittaford Mystery, Sarah King from Appointment with Death, Lucy Eyelesbarrow from 4:50 From Paddington and Jane Grey in Death in the Clouds.

Although they share characteristics, these characters are far from interchangeable, each possessing quirks and talents of her own, but the skill with which Christie created them makes me wish that she had gone ahead and written a sleuth in this mold, in addition to Poirot and Marple. The books featuring them are universally some of my favorites – there is a whiff of self-insert, but only a whiff, with tons of charm and resourcefulness.

This is likely a book for Christie completists, as it is a bit on the weird side. However, the more times I read it, the more I enjoy it.

This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart

Title: This Rough Magic
Author: Mary Stewart
Year of publication: 1964
Pages: 384

Plot summary from Goodreads: British actress Lucy Waring believes there is no finer place to be “at liberty” than the sun-drenched isle of Corfu, the alleged locale for Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Even the suspicious actions of the handsome, arrogant son of a famous actor cannot dampen her enthusiasm for this wonderland in the Ionian Sea.

Then a human corpse is carried ashore on the incoming tide …

This book sits at the intersection of mystery and romance, in the same place that a book like Rebecca sits – there is a mystery to solve, but it isn’t really focused on the whodunnit so much as it is focused on the danger to the heroine and the romantic currents simmering beneath the surface. It barely fits into the parameters of this blog, but it was published prior to 1980, and it does involve crime, so I’m talking about it here!

I want to start by wondering aloud if anyone else writes like Mary Stewart? Because if there is another Mary Stewart out there, I want to find her. Her books are the perfect combination of romance and suspense, set in the most beautiful places. I really enjoy the fact that they are contemporaries for the time that they were written.

I would say that the closest that I have found to Stewart is Phyllis Whitney, who writes very similar romantic suspense/gothic romance, but she just doesn’t have the writing chops of Mary Stewart. I’m wondering if anyone is aware of any modern authors who are writing this same type of book. I don’t really enjoy the Pamela Clare style of romantic suspense, and J.D. Robb doesn’t do much for me.

This was my first time reading This Rough Magic – it was one of my massive Mary Stewart kindle book purchase last fall. It is definitely up there with The Moonspinners for me in enjoyability, and I liked it better than both The Ivy Tree and Wildfire at Midnight.

This Rough Magic follows the Mary Stewart playbook – attractive young woman on her own goes to exotic place, becomes embroiled in something dangerous – espionage, smuggling, murder – falls in love with an equally attractive young man after they cross paths. Stewart has a gift for creating suspense, and one of the things that I liked about This Rough Magic is that the main character, Lucy Waring, extricates herself from danger with resourcefulness and persistence. She doesn’t wait to be rescued – she rescues herself. I liked this a lot, and it placed Lucy on a footing of equality with the male love interest.

The Corfu setting is beautiful. Mary Stewart used Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a jumping off point for the book, with quotes from the play as chapter headings, and discussions about The Tempest between the heroine, Lucy, a not-terribly-successful actress from London and Julian Gale, a very successful Shakespearean actor who has come to Corfu to recuperate from a nervous breakdown. Stewart’s descriptive talents are formidable and she does a wonderful job of painting a mental picture of beautiful places. It had the same effect on me as The Moonspinners in making me want to jump on an airplane and fly off to a sunny climate, especially given that I am suffering mightily from spring fever in the midst of a grey Oregon winter.

As a downside, as is the case with a lot of mid-twentieth century fiction, there is a lot of colonialism and superiority in Lucy’s interactions with the native Corfuites – the “nobility of the peasantry” condescension. This is likely inevitable given the time in which it was written, but, still, it is present.

Overall, This Rough Magic was a delightful read.

The “Death In…” series by M.M. Kaye

M.M. Kaye is best known for her massive, sweeping epic romance of India during the twilight of the British Raj, The Far Pavilions. Along with that book, she wrote two additional pieces of rather massive historical romance – The Shadow of the Moon and Trade Winds. In addition to those three books, she wrote a brief, entertaining series of mysteries set in exotic locations.

While this is nominally marketed as a series, each of the books is 100% stand-alone, with different characters entirely. There is a slight overlap between Death In Zanzibar and Trade Winds, which is really only interesting for fans of M.M. Kaye.

I remember reading at least Death in Zanzibar and Death in Kenya as a teenager. I first read The Far Pavilions, which was one of my favorite books for many years, probably very soon after it was published in 1978, when I was 12. I would estimate that I took off of my mother’s bookshelf at around the age of 16, because I read a lot of historical romance of varying quality during those years, and had a definite affinity for epic historicals. After reading the three historical romances, I definitely picked up a few of Kaye’s mysteries. The covers would have been very different from Minotaur’s bright colored, almost Picasso-esque covers – something more like this:

Like Georgette Heyer, who also wrote at least a few mysteries, Kaye seems to be primarily a writer of romance, so all of her mysteries have a strong romantic sub-plot. In each, the main character is a young, unmarried, attractive woman who finds herself embroiled in a murder case in some capacity. These pairings tend to be quite regressive, and often involve the sort of interfering, (some might say controlling) overly-protective male love interest that is seen in other romance novels of the time period (Death in Kenya, the first of the mysteries, was published in 1953, while Death in the Andamans, the last of them, was published in 1960). This can be jarring to younger readers who’ve grown up with fiction (and reality) where the relationships are far more egalitarian.

Kaye had a fascinating life – she was born in Simla, in British India prior to Indian independence – her father was a British officer in the Indian Army. She married an officer in the British army as well, and spent her marriage in 27 different postings over 19 years, many of which she used as settings for her novels. She wrote a multi-part autobiography, which given how fascinating and insightful her fiction is, appears to be well worth checking out.

Since 2017, I’ve reread all of Kaye’s crime fiction and enjoyed them all with varying levels of enthusiasm. Over time, I’m sure that I will get reviews posted for all of them – they are well worth reading for people who enjoy romantic mysteries set in exotic, faraway places.