Damsels in Distress; Stern, Silent Rhodesians; and Imperial Dreamlands: Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)
by Mark Wallace
Once again I have been perusing the work of Agatha Christie, this time a relatively little-known, relatively early novel called The Man in the Brown Suit (1924). The title of the book is a particularly uninteresting one. A man in a brown suit is far from a noteworthy phenomenon, and, prima facie, there is little reason why one would want to read about him. Christie was not a particularly good titler of books: she often used generic titles involving Murder (…in Mesopotamia, …on the Orient Express, …is Easy, etc.) or Death (…on the Nile, …in the Clouds, …Comes as the End, etc.) and also had a fondness for using nursery rhymes (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe; Five Little Pigs; And Then There Were None; etc.). But The Man in the Brown Suit perhaps takes the prize as the most boring title she ever used.
But Brown Suit is not a boring book. It is interesting in that it is uncharacteristic of Christie. It is less a detective novel than an adventure novel. It is very much in the vein, indeed, of John Buchan’s Greenmantle and such works. A dash of espionage, some foreign travel, embroilment in huge political conspiracies, a daring and reckless central figure. Christie’s protagonist and narrator (of most of the book) is an 18-year-old girl called Anne Beddingfield. Here is a notable point of difference from Buchan. Buchan’s hero in Greenmantle, The 39 Steps and others in the series is Richard Hanny, and he is a bachelor who surrounds himself with loyal and similarly adventurous male friends. Women don’t get a look in. (Note: the romantic interest introduced by Hitchcock in the famous film version of Steps does not exist in the novel.)
In feminizing the genre, Christie introduces a few notes not found in writers like Buchan. One notable motif in Brown Suit is that of the damsel in distress, that age-old and much critiqued trope. Christie is self-consciously working with this trope from the beginning and throughout, as is evidenced by the narrator’s repeated references to “The Perils of Pamela”, obviously a play on the famous silent-era serial The Perils of Pauline (1914), which is still today a byword for damsel-in-distress narrative. One could make the case that Christie is satirizing this trope:
Pamela was a magnificent young woman […]. She was not really clever, the Master Criminal of the Underworld caught her each time, but as he seemed loath to knock her on the head in a simple way […], the hero was always able to rescue her at the beginning of the following week’s episode. I used to come out with my head in a delirious whirl […]. (11)
Thus Anne recognizes a certain formulaism and unreality about the series, but at an emotional level it retains its impact. This is a central theme of Brown Suit, both interesting and irritating. Christie/Anne is constantly displaying a consciousness of the improbabilities of the plot, but such a plot is still evidently emotionally satisfying for both narrator and author.
Also differing from Buchan is the inclusion of a romantic subplot – indeed it is so central that one might consider it co-plot rather than subplot. Anne’s thirst for Perils-of-Pamela-style adventure is from the beginning indistinguishable from her desire to find romantic love. She has a very specific ideal of romantic love: “stern, silent Rhodesians” (11). This tag recurs several times in Anne’s narrative to describe the man of her dreams. Here enters the complicating factor of imperialism. Rhodesia had recently – just the preceding year, in fact – been annexed by the British, so Anne’s romantic desires are firmly focused on the figure of the imperial conqueror.
So, the excitement of the imperial project is inscribed in Brown Suit. While England is a place of “butchers and bakers and milkmen and greengrocers” (9) and of “drab utility” (11), the imperial battlegrounds of South Africa and Rhodesia are loci of adventure and excitement, of attractively inarticulate men of action and of romantic opportunity. This initial set-up dichotomizing boring, utilitarian England and the exciting, adventuresome realm of foreign affair (imperialism and war) is strongly reminiscent of Buchan (see the opening of The 39 Steps) and of Erskine Childers’ seminal spy novel The Riddle of the Sands (1903). It is here that Anne can play out the battle within her between the woman of action and the submissive damsel in need of rescue. Even in the closing pages of the book, Anne writes of her lover: “I followed him as meekly as the Barotsi woman I had observed at the falls, only I wasn’t carrying a frying-pan on my head” (189-190). Thus Anne has neither sought nor found emancipation, but she has found a true master, one such as could only exist in the dreamlands of imperialism.
This, then, is a very different Christie. The youth of her heroine gives her much scope to reflect on gender, desire and on the search for fulfilment in life. Poirot might be little more than a brain inside a utilitarian shell of a body, but Anne is a more complete human being in certain respects. Her idealization of the “stern, silent Rhodesian” type may seem immature, and even troubling in the context of the imperial struggles (and indeed the trade union struggles mentioned in the book) of the time, and they demonstrate Christie to have been at a far remove from any insight into the workings of imperialism. In Brown Suit, imperialism is a fantasmic construct. But that is not a reason to avoid the book, for the fantasy of imperialism was as important as the reality. As Conrad depicted in Heart of Darkness, the genuine belief in the imperialist mission by those removed from it was central to its perpetuation: “that great and saving illusion“, as Conrad’s Marlow called it. This illusion would appear to be a central dynamic principle behind The Man in the Brown Suit, a work which is in itself energetic and readable, though unlikely to be much remembered were it not for Christie’s more straightforward detective works.