Rating: Four out of five
Year of Publication: 1924
Motive for Murder: Identity/Betrayal
Plot: In an underground station, Anne Beddingfield is baffled when she saw a stranger stand on the platform suddenly losing his balance and fell onto the track. His face was in horror moments beforehand because of something behind her back– or is it someone?
From the dead man’s pocket a scrap of paper fell with numbers and two words scribbled on it. She decides to keep it. The next day, she reads on the paper a woman murdered in Marlow. The media suggest its relation to the ‘tube incident’ and highlight the suspect as ‘The Man In The Brown Suit.’ The latter fact triggers Anne’s curiousity, for she recognised the suspect as the “doctor”. He came forward on the tube platform moments after the stranger had died and checked him. Yet, when she tells the police that it then dawned at her that the “doctor” might have been fake, they do not believe the young woman.
Meanwhile, she happens to figure out the words on the paper, which triggers her jumping on the first opportunity on a voyage to South Africa.
Little does she know what awaits her on the ship. First and foremost, a dangerous European crime gang. A week after the departure an man knocking on her cabin door in the small hours, injured and bleeding. Then, an attempt to her life.
A young woman butting in is the least the gang expected. As the ship docks in Cape Town, more surprises for ‘Anna the Adventuress’ are in store. Gradually she realises that ‘The Man In The Brown Suit’ is not the murderer but hunts for the gang’s leader the “Colonel.” What does he want from the other?
Those who read The Secret Adversary might grin at the book’s title. It’s ‘Brown’ once again! Only that he is not the Mastermind but merely the colour of the suit of a suspect. It is a very clever way on Christie’s part to entice her growing readers at that time.
Furthermore, I suppose Christie’s decision to ‘continue’ with the ‘brown’ keyword was due to the fans’ positive feedback as regards to the thrills in Tommy and Tuppence’s first appearance. Published two years after the second novel, the protagonist, Anne Beddingfield is a cross between the Beresfords. Her involvement in revealing a high-profiled plot and crime is also accidental. What is more, the young pretty orphan woman is ‘accompanied’ by the diarist Sir Eustace Pedler.
Christie’s using a first person account by creating two distinctive voices is considered a brave move. Anne’s is Hastings’s female version –only not conservative in the least, while Sir Eustace Pedler is more or less Lawrence Hargrave (And Then There Were None). On the one hand, their individual narrations provide readers with two distinguished style of writing and selection on accounts of events. On the other, it is fascinating that both seem to grow some kind of appreciation to one another despite their contrasting characters and age. More importantly, theirs are balanced overall. It is not easy to have done so and I think Christie has done a marvellous job.
As for Sir Eustace’s diary, I wonder as to the inspiration for such character. Mind you, he is a bully, sexist and sarcastic, which make them most interesting. While reading I was thinking whether the authoress had derived him from a certain person she had met during her round-the-world trip for ten months in 1922 accompanying her ex-husband in promoting Britain. For in her letters to her mother she was telling her about one of the delegation members; a major, who was ‘”a most unpleasant man” with an odious temper and delusions of grandeur who managed to upset the local dignitaries at every port’.
Knowing Christie so far it might have been the case; bearing in mind her ability to catalogue unpleasant situations and people and then use them in her books ingeniously .
As for the plot, it has move away from espionage; although there is a touch of intelligence in it as for the presence of Colonel Race. Rumours on board Kilmorden Castle are that he is in the voyage in his ‘personal capacity.’ Miss Beddingfield cannot fathom this, for it is obvious that he does not come to South Africa for neither business nor holiday. Besides, I did wonder how he was going to achieve his assignment when the passengers (see Cast of Characters) knows about his credentials.
What I like most from the sub-plot is the suspicious secretary, Guy Pagett. For Anne knows he was in Marlow on the day of the murder. Besides, his behaviour is strange during the voyage and he has a swollen face when they arrive in Cape Town.
Be that as it may, Christie’s take on sexism is spot on. In between Anne’s narrations there are things that might not have been perceived as undermining women in the twenties. Firstly, Sir Eustace’s remark on a pair of nice legs of hers and moreover that he wished she had been his secretary so that he could’ve held his hand at any time. Secondly, a proposal from a much older man –the village doctor- following the death of her father; that marriage is suitable to the orphan Anne for Safety and Comfortable Home. Thirdly, her father’s colleague, who once clasps her and remarks about ‘her neat little waist.’ He tries to kiss her, too. Oh, some men! I cannot help but recall Jimmy Savile Scandal lately.
The icing of the cake is little things about the authoress herself in Anne. The scene in which the protagonist wants to bring stray cats she saw on her journey in Rhodesia resembles Christie’s determination to rescue a dog in the desert in her archaeological memoir Come, Tell Me How You Live (1946). In the end, Anne has a son, whose age might have not been far from Christie’s Rosalind Hick (born in 1919).
My criticism is the scene when Anne manages to escape from the crooks. She cut herself free with a piece of glass found in the room where she had been kept. It was plausible; yet her running away from the house which was not locked. Considering that the gang was supposed to be professional and ruthless, the minimum security was incomprehensible. On the other hand, it could have been ‘the Colonel’’s little game to her. Did she pass the test?
–Anne Beddingfield and Suzanne Blair manage to decipher the scrap paper in Anne’s possession, which leads to a breakthrough on board Kilmorden Castle
-Anne is saved by ‘the Man in the Brown Suit’ after she trips over the rocks
-Guy Pagett was visiting his wife when he was in Marlow on the day of the murder
-Sir Eustace Pedler is not in Cannes on the day a woman was killed in his house
-Colonel Race genuinely loves Anne
-The diamonds are inside the wooden giraffe instead of in a roll of film
-There is no stewardress on duty at night on Kilmorden Castle
-Nobody in London identifies the photograph of the woman murdered on the Daily Budget
-Anne receives a letter with a Bolivia stamp
Cast of Characters:
A. The party on board Kilmorden Castle:
Anne Beddingfield (the heroine, the daughter of a renowned palaeontologist)
Sir Eustace Pedler (the diarist)
Guy Pagett (Sir Eustace’s secretary)
Harry Rayburn (a.k.a. Harry Lucas)
Colonel Race (under-cover Intelligence Officer, who also investigates ‘the Man in the Brown Suit’)
Suzanne Blair (a socialite, Anne’s partner in crime)
Mrs. James (who waits at the Mill House)
L.B. Carton (the man who falls onto a track in a tube station)
Nadina (a.k.a. Anne Grunberg, a famous ballet dancer in Paris)
Lord Nasby (the proprietor of the Daily Budget)
Count Stephanov (a.k.a. Rev. Edward Chicester and Miss Pettigrew)
The Most Fascinating Character: Guy Pagett
His employer describes him as ‘a zealous, painstaking, hard-working fellow, admirable in every respect….’ More interestingly is the depiction about Pagett’s face; a kind of a Middle-Aged assassin Pope Borgia would have employed at. I know such a face, for I connected it straightaway to such man in the first series of ‘the Borgias’; a discreet and lone man doing all the bloody work to rid of the Pope’s enemies.
To my mind Paggett reminds me of Jason Rudd’s (The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side) regarding the face and his mannerism. He is scrupulous and faithful to his Master. He puts up with Sir Eustace’s whims and errands. His criticism to the other’s eccentric attitude is matter-of-fact whilst his nonchalant attitude towards Sir Eustace’s bully is frustrating. I believe Amy Carnaby (The Labours of Hercules) would understand him very well.
Anne’s suspicion on him is because his lying about going to Florence, when he was actually somewhere else. Furthermore, she thinks it was Pagett who was strangling her the night before the end of the voyage. Besides, she reckons that he appears to follow her movements in South Africa. As a result, it makes her believe that he is part of the crime gang.At one point she and Suzanne Blair conclude that he might be ‘the Colonel’ himself.
When she finally encounters him about his alibi, the truth about his having a family is beyond belief. It surprises Sir Eustace as well. As for me, it is indeed fascinating that over eighty years ago a secretary must be a single. A discrimination? Having been able to hide the fact for a number of years from his employer, Pagett is a real player to my mind.
Unfortunately, there is a lack of his voice in the book. It is mostly through Sir Eustace’s and Anne’s that readers understand him a great deal.
The villain’s confession (to Anne Beddingfield):
‘Like all women, you’ve no idea of business. The job I took on was to supply certain explosives and arms-heavily paid for- to foment feeling generally, and to incriminate certain people up to the hilt. I’ve carried out my contract with complete success, and I was careful to be paid in advance. I took special care to over the whole thing, as I intended it be my last contract before retiring from business. As for burning my boats, as you call it, I simply don’t know what you mean. I’m not the rebel chief, or anything of that kind – I’m distinguished English visitor, who had the misfortune to go nosing into a certain curio-shop – and saw a little more than he was meant to, and so the poor fellow was kidnapped….’
Colonel Race (to Anne Beddingfield):
‘Anne, this isn’t Harry Luca. Harry Lucas was killed in the War. This is John Harold Eardsley.’
Suzanne Blair (to Anne Beddingfield):
‘That gives us two links connecting Sir Eustace with the tangle. The woman was murdered in his house, and it’s his secretary who gets stabbed at the mystic hour of one o’clock. I don’t suspect Sir Eustace himself, but it can’t be all coincidence. There’s a connection somewhere even if he himself is unaware of it.’
‘”The Man in the Brown Suit,”’ she mused. ‘Who was he, I wonder? Anyway, he was identical with the “doctor” in the Tube. HE would have had time to remove his make-up and follow the woman to Marlow. She and Carton were to have met there, they both had an order to view the same house, and if they took such elaborate precautions to make their meeting appear accidental they must have suspected they were being followed. All the same, Carton did not know that his shadower was “The Man In The Brown Suit”. When he recognised him, the shock was so great that he lost his head completely and stepped back on the line. That all seems pretty clear, don’t you think so, Anne?’