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.

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.