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.

The Secret Adversary or How To Succeed In Spying Without Really Trying

Title: The Secret Adversary
Author: Agatha Christie
Publication Year: 1922
Pages: 400

Plot Summary courtesy of Goodreads: Tommy and Tuppence, two young people short of money and restless for excitement, embark on a daring business scheme – Young Adventurers Ltd.

Their advertisement says they are ‘willing to do anything, go anywhere’. But their first assignment, for the sinister Mr Whittington, plunges them into more danger than they ever imagined…

The Secret Adversary was Christie’s second novel, coming directly on the heels of The Mysterious Affair At Styles, her first Poirot outing which was published in 1920. For the first decade or so of Christie’s career she dabbled heavily in the thriller/espionage genre, publishing The Man in the Brown Suit, The Secret of Chimneys, The Seven Dials Mystery and The Big Four, all of which deal with international crime gangs and conspiracies with varying levels of competence and success. After The Big Four (which is nominally a Poirot, the plot of which, however, deals less with garden variety murder than with a strange, Austin Powers-esque international crime conspiracy), her publisher must have convinced her to abandon her not very convincing thriller career in favor of writing whodunnits, because she doesn’t write another international crime thriller until the second Tommy and Tuppence novel published in 1941.

I am of mixed emotions about this because I find her early thrillers (with the exception of The Big Four, which was absolutely terrible) to be weirdly charming in their innocence about the incompetence of the political criminal/international criminal mastermind. The Secret Adversary definitely falls into the category of charming and innocent. The basic plot is whisper thin (literally – it’s based on Tommy overhearing two people whispering about a woman named Jane Finn) and is generally about the possession of some government documents by a young woman (with amnesia. Yes, really) and an international crime syndicate who want to get a hold of those documents in order to foment revolution in England. If this doesn’t make any sense to you, that’s because it doesn’t actually make any sense. Tommy and Tuppence are two broke Bright Young Things who decide that the best way for them to come into possession of a few pounds is to place an ad in the newspaper, to try to hire themselves out as adventurers.

It’s preposterous and in the real world (i.e., modern fiction) they’d have been dead within about 25 pages, and the rest of the book would’ve been spent with the professionals attempting to figure out why these two charming young people ended up murdered by terrorists. That’s not how this one goes, though. It feels like such an innocent world in The Secret Adversary (and in The Secret of Chimneys as well). I can only wonder if this was simply a reaction to the trauma that WWI inflicted on the British people, and surmise that, perhaps, what they really needed was to believe that a pair of innocent children could, with little money, good intentions, sparkling wit and a reasonably stylish outfit could, in fact, save the world. Because there is nothing even remotely convincing or realistic about this plot, but somehow, it’s impossible to care because it is all so delightful.

This was my first time reading The Secret Adversary, and I doubt that it will become one of my favorites although I thoroughly enjoyed it. I went into it convinced that Tommy and Tuppence were lifted wholesale from Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles – imagine my surprise when I actually looked it up and learned that T & T predated N & N by a dozen years. I should’ve known better, though – The Queen sets trends, she doesn’t follow them.