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14 November 2008
Review: ACRC#4: THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT, Agatha Christie
First published by Bodley Head in 1924. This edition published by Harper Collins in paperback in 2002, 381 pages, ISBN 978-0-00-715166-0
This Agatha Christie's 4th novel, and as she did in the first 3, you can see her experimenting with a different style of murder mystery.
In the Prologue, in the dressing room of a Russian dancer in Paris, through a meeting she has with another Russian, we learn 3 things. Firstly neither of them are Russian. Secondly they have both been working for an arch criminal who is on the point of retirement. The "Colonel" has, even during the First World War, organised a series of "stupendous" coups including jewel robberies, forgery, espionage, assassination, and sabotage. Thirdly we learn the story of the theft of some South American diamonds before the war. The dancer knows where these diamonds are and intends to exchange them for some of the "Colonel's" accumulated wealth.
THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT is narrated by two characters. The first, whom we meet in Chapter 1, is Anne Beddingfeld. It is she who witnesses the death of a strange-smelling man when he falls off an Underground platform and is electrocuted on the rails. She also sees a man dressed in a brown suit who pretends to be doctor, inspects the body and pronounces the man dead, and then rushes away, dropping a scrap of paper with a cryptic message on it as he does so.
The second narrator is Sir Eustace Pedler MP who keeps a diary. We begin reading extracts from his diary in chapter 8. Inevitably the paths of the two narrators converge. A young woman dies in a house that Sir Eustace owns called Mill House, and he is forced to return from abroad. He is then asked by the British government to travel to South Africa, where he has business interests, to deliver a message in person to the government of Rhodesia.
After that the setting, with all the characters we've met so far, and a few more besides, moves to a ship going to South Africa, and then the action moves to South Africa itself.
I have my reservations about THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT.
I think Agatha Christie tried to move from a murder mystery to a thriller with connections to the world of organised crime, unionism, espionage and romance. The result is a longer book with a lot of time lapses in it, caused mainly by the distances between locations, and the nature of what happens to the first narrator Anne Beddingfield. Some of the scenarios don't quite work and the result is confusion rather than a genuine puzzle for the reader to solv.
Christie tried also to show her awareness of political events in South Africa, and we get occasional mentions of General Smuts thrown into the mix.
And finally, it is a plot where definitions of good and bad are blurred, and in the long run evil goes unpunished.
The book sees the first appearance of Colonel Race; he later appears in Cards on the Table, Sparkling Cyanide, and Death on the Nile.
The Wikipedia entry gives a lot of plot details, reactions of reviewers at the time, including a comment about the fact that she had not used Hercule Poirot, but had in fact introduced another "detective" in the form of Colonel Race.
My rating: 3.8
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