The Man in the Brown Suit–Agatha Christie

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It is a common thing to denigrate the thrillers that Agatha Christie wrote. They aren’t as good as her cozies, people will tell you. I’m not at all sure that’s strictly accurate. I think the thrillers are more parody than earnest fiction, and as such, they’re amazing.

Regardless, if you like the early 20th century thriller, you’ll probably like her thrillers, too, so it’s all good.

This is one of her thrillers. It follows the thrilling (HA!) adventures of Anne Beddingfeld, an impoverished orphan. Her father, an esteemed anthropologist, dies and leaves her penniless. She moves in with her lawyer’s family in London and looks for a job, but in the course of so doing, she encounters a man on the train. Clearly from a more enjoyable climate, with a tanned face and a jacket that smells like mothballs, he becomes alarmed at something behind her and steps off the subway platform, dying instantly. The man behind her announces he’s a doctor and examines the body, but as he’s leaving, Anne follows and discovers a piece of paper that he dropped, a paper that smells of mothballs. It came from the dead man’s jacket, clearly, and has a series of numbers and words on it.

Later it comes out that a beautiful foreign woman was found strangled that same day, in an empty house. The dead man had that house’s address in his pocket. A man in a brown suit had been seen leaving the empty house and is the presumed killer.

Anne realizes that the numbers and words refer to a boat that is sailing from London to South Africa. She spends the rest of her money on a first-class ticket and takes off. There she encounters Suzanne Blair, a rice society lady, her friend Colonel Race, and Sir Eustace Pedler, who owns the house the dead woman was found in.

She also encounters a suspicious pastor and a very touchy young man who is serving as Pedler’s secretary.

During the course of the journey she and Suzanne become friends and confidantes, and Suzanne has a film canister filled with uncut diamonds dropped into her cabin in the middle of the night. Colonel Race tells a story of two young men who were caught smuggling diamonds out of Africa. The rich one was disowned and then killed in the war, and the poor one was reported missing in action. Clearly these two events are related.

Once they land in Africa, Anne is kidnapped and held hostage, escapes and takes the newly opened job as Pedler’s secretary, is lured into a ravine where she nearly dies, and solves the mystery of who stole the diamonds and why they framed the two young men, as well as unmasking a criminal mastermind.

I think what I love most about the earlier Christie books is the atmosphere. The early 20th century was a tumultuous time and it’s hard for modern writers to get all the details and differences correct. It’s hard to believe that this book is not quite a hundred years old, because while there are many familiar aspects, the differences (no planes!) are so dramatic.

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