The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie
The Man in the Brown Suit was Agatha Christie’s fourth novel, and it is an absolute adventure, from the first page to the very end. It all starts with a secret agent named “Nadina”, who has stolen some De Beers diamonds, “keeping” them from a heist performed years before. Then the reader is introduced to newly orphaned Anne Beddingfield, who moves to London to live with her father’s former solicitor and his wife (aka for the chance of adventure). While at the Hyde Park tube station, Anne witnesses a man falling onto the track (he dies). A doctor in the crowd examines the man and pronounces him dead. When the man leaves, he drops a note, which Anne promptly picks up and pockets. The note reads “17.1 22 Kilmorden Castle”. Anne keeps the note.
The dead man’s death (his name as “L B Carton”) is ruled accidental, and he had in his pocket a real estate agent’s information on a house for let in Marlow. The very next day after the incident, Anne reads in the newspaper that a dead woman has been found at the Mill House in Marlow. Furthermore, the Mill House in Marlow is owned by an MP, Sir Eustace Pedler. The woman’s murderer is a suspect known to be wearing a brown suit. Anne puts two and two together and realizes that it was not a “doctor” that examined the man from the tracks. Anne takes matters into her own hands and goes to the Mill House to investigate, where she picks up a canister of undeveloped film. She discovers that Kilmorden Castle is actually a ship sailing on January 17 1922 from Southampton to Cape Town. Anne books a room, and once on board she meets a whole cast of characters, including Suzanne Blair, Colonel Race [Race also appears in other Christie novels], Reverend Chichester, and Sir Eustace Pedler (the MP who owns the Mill House in Marlow). Pedler has two employees also on board: Guy Pagett, and a man named Harry Rayburn.
After a mishap with getting the right cabin, the evening of the 22nd, a man gains entrance into Anne’s cabin. Anne realizes that the man has been stabbed, tries to help his wounds, and he in turn is curt toward her. They have a row, and the man leaves her cabin. Several nights later, Anne is spending time with her acquaintances, and Colonel Race tells the tale of a diamond theft (about a hundred thousand pounds worth) several years earlier. Supposedly, the theft was championed by John Eardsley (the son of a South African gold magnate) and his best friend Harry Lucas. The two were eventually arrested, and Eardsley’s father Sir Laurence, disowned his son. Later, Eardsley was killed in the war, and his father’s fortune was passed to his next of kin. Lucas was MIA. While Race is recounting the tale, Harry Rayburn enters the cabin, hears the story, acts strangely, and then leaves. Race then reveals that he is actually the next of kin.
Anne becomes close to Suzanne and reveals to her the steps that have brought her aboard the Kilmorden Castle. The two quickly deduce that the piece of paper with the mysterious message could actually be referring to the very cabin where Anne is staying (cabin 71). They also realize that this cabin was earlier booked for a “Mrs. Grey” — one of Nadina the Russian dancer’s pseudonyms. Anne and Suzanne figure out that Nadina was likely the body found at the Mill House. They also found diamonds inside the photo canister (which was dropped in Suzanne’s cabin on the 22nd), and conclude that it is likely that Harry Rayburn could be the “man in the brown suit”. When Anne is attacked on the deck of the ship, and Harry Rayburn comes to her rescue and saves her. After the rescue, she proposes that Rayburn is actually “Harry Lucas”, to which he vehemently disagrees, and the two go their separate ways, once again on bad terms.
After arriving in Cape Town, Anne finds herself lured to a home in Muizenberg, where a bearded Dutchman imprisons her. She recognizes the voice of another person at Muizenberg, the Reverend Chichester, talking with the Dutchman about the Colonel. The next day, Anne escapes and goes back to Cape Town, where she discovers that Harry Rayburn has gone missing. When Eustace Pedler asks Anne to come on as his secretary for his trip to Rhodesia, she accepts, and once they board the train, she is reunited with Colonel Race, Suzanne, and Pedler. Anne meets Pedler’s new secretary, Miss Pettigrew.
Once in Bulawayo, Harry sends Anne a note, and she follows the trail by the hotel to meet him. She is chased by someone not Harry, and she falls into the ravine. She awakes in a hut on an island in the Zambezi, about a month after falling into the ravine. Harry Rayburn rescued her again, and reveals to her that someone caused her to fall. Spending time together, Anne and Harry fall in love, and Harry confides in her the his true identity of being Harry Lucas, and the diamond discovery he made with his best friend John Eardsley years ago. The two were caught up with a woman going by the name of “Anita Grünberg”, who stole their real diamonds and substituted fake ones. In the war, when Harry was listed as MIA, he came to Africa under a new name, Harry Parker. Harry realized that Anita was working with a man named Carton (the dead man from the tube). Harry explains to Anne that Carton actually killed Nadina at the Mill House (Harry had followed them there). Harry also suspected that the diamonds ended up on the ship, which Anne confirms (these were in the canister that was dropped in Suzanne’s cabin on the 22nd).
That night, the Dutchman and his crew attack Harry’s island. Harry and Anne escape, create a “code” for future communications so neither is deceived again, and Anne returns to Pedler, and her friend Suzanne. Sir Eustace is traveling ahead, and Anne finds out that diamonds are somewhere in his luggage. She also receives a telegram from “Harry” asking her to meet him. She ends up running into Chichester (who actually turns out has been acting as Pedler’s secretary, Miss Pettigrew). It is revealed that Sir Eustace is the Colonel, and he takes Anne hostage, forcing Anne to write to Harry to lure him to his office. Anne writes the note, but does not include the “code”. Once Harry arrives, Pedler thinks he’s captured them both, but Anne pulls out a pistol and she and Harry turn the tables on him. Race eventually turns up to help, but somehow Pedler escapes. Race reveals that Harry is actually not Harry Lucas, but John Eardsley. John is the true heir to the fortune (which Race earlier claimed to be). Anne and Harry marry, and move to his island in the Zambezi.
The Man in the Brown Suit is one of my favourite Agatha Christie novels, undisputed. More than a mystery, the Man in the Brown Suit is actually more a story of adventure. There are no lulls or boring points in this book; it is all action-packed and filled with details. Christie calculated every character, every move, every last facet of the book so that the reader has to pay close attention. This novel is a stimulating brain-teaser, but it still reads incredibly well, to the very last sentence. An unlikely duo, Anne and Harry are refreshingly different than any of Christie’s other protagonists.
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