Agatha Christie wrote The Man in the Brown Suit whilst on a world tour with Archie Christie, her first husband, in 1922 and it was first published as a serial in The Evening News in 1923 in 50 instalments under the title of Anna the Adventurous. I think that’s an apt title as Anne Beddingfield, one of the two narrators of this book, longs for adventure, enjoying the cinema films of The Perils of Pauline. Agatha Christie, though thought it was ‘as silly a title as I had ever heard‘. But as The Evening News were prepared to pay her £500 for the serial rights she said nothing and bought a Morris Cowley with the proceeds.
She had the idea for the story from Major Belcher, a friend of Archie’s who had invited him to go with him on a grand tour of the British Empire to organise an Empire Exhibition. The Christies dined with Belcher at his house, the Mill House at Dorney and he had urged Agatha to write a detective story about it. He suggested the title The Mystery of the Mill House and wanted her to put him in it.
Agatha sketched the plot whilst she was in South Africa when there was a revolutionary crisis and decided that the book was to be more of a thriller than a detective story, with the heroine as ‘a gay, adventurous, young woman, an orphan, who started out to seek adventure.‘ But she found it hard to make the character she had chosen based on Belcher to come alive, until she hit upon the idea of writing it in the first person and making the Belcher character (Sir Eustace Pedler), Anne’s co-narrator.
I found this information in Agatha Christie’s An Autobiography, but I haven’t added the details she also added that give away who the murderer is (for of course there is a murder) – maybe she thought anyone reading her autobiography would have read all her books.
Anne’s adventure begins when she sees a man fall to his death on the live rails at Hyde Park tube station. He had a terrified look on his face and turning round Anne sees a man in a brown suit, who quickly becomes The Man in the Brown Suit both to her and the newspapers. He announced he was a medical man and that the man was dead, and as he left the station he dropped a piece of paper with some figures and words scrawled on it in pencil, which Anne picked up. A second death follows, this time a young woman is found strangled at Mill House, the home of Sir Eustace Pedler, MP. She was thought to be a foreigner. Anne decides to investigate and the trail takes her on board the Kilmorden Castle sailing to Cape Town.
The action takes place mainly on board ship and in South Africa which Agatha Christie describes so well from her own experiences. Like Agatha, Anne suffers terribly from sea-sickness; both stayed in their cabins for three days until the ship reached Madeira and like Agatha, Anne just wanted to go ashore and be a parlourmaid. At that point in her life, Agatha had told Archie: ‘I would quite like to be a parlourmaid’. (An Autobiography page 300)
This book features the first appearance of Colonel Race, who appears in three more of Agatha Christie’s books. Anne describes him as ‘one of the strong, silent men of Rhodesia‘ and was very taken with him - ‘easily the best-looking man on board.‘ (page 54)
The novel is a mix of murder mystery and international crime organised by an arch-villain known as ‘the Colonel’, involving violence (but not graphic) and suspense. As usual there are a number of suspects and Anne has to work out who she can trust and who to believe. I found it a bit too drawn out for my liking, too many time lapses and coincidences to convince me of the plot’s credibility, but it held my interest to the end even though I knew the culprit’s identity.