Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie (1924)

File:The Man in the Brown Suit First Edition Cover 1924.jpg


This was Agatha Christie's fourth book, and while certainly not one of my favorites, it was intriguing.  Very much an international thriller sort of book; there is murder, but it's not center stage; this isn't really a whodunnit.   Her characters are marvelously modern.  Now you couldn't pick them up and set them down in a Danish police procedural; but Christie cozy style is at least still imitated, and this book could have been easily published today.  I was reminded again and again of Rhys Bowen's Royal Spyness mysteries, which I love.  Bowen, writing in the 21st century, has more sex, but Christie still has created a sexy leading lady in Anne.  The Man in the Brown Suit shared the same sort of rompish, screwbally quality. Anne is a great heroine, witty, courageous, smart, sexy.  Her villain is marvelously droll and witty, and I wish she or he had their own book.  Anne could have starred in her own book too - I wonder why Tommy and Tuppence got later books but Anne and Co. did not?  She definitely could have.  
With better plots though.  Quite frankly all of Bowen's Royal Spyness mysteries are much better plotted than The Man in the Brown Suit.  Christie's plot was really, really twisty.  You almost need a scorecard to keep up with everything that is going on and everyone in the book.   She certainly learned over time to distill her characters down a bit, which makes them both more stereotypical and at the same time more memorable.  The Murder on the Orient Express with its huge cast of characters is probably the best example of this; each one stands out, even though some of them only get a few lines and some description. The Man in the Brown Suit is still climbing towards the Agatha Alps, although she's definitely on her way.  



Ears are démodé nowadays.  They are quite like the "Queen of Spain's legs" in Professor Peterson's young day.  Démodé means "no longer fashionable"or "out of date."  


From Lippincott’s Month Magazine  “Our One Hundred Questions”  Volume 42, July to December, 1888.  14. What is the origin of the phrase “The Queen of Spain has no legs"? The following answer, by " One of a Thousand," is similar in sub stance with a hundred others, although the name of the monarch is variously given : Philip III of Spain, surnamed "The Pious" (1578-1621), married Margaret of Austria April 18, 1599. This queen on her first entry into Spain passed through a town famous for its manufacture of silk stockings; the authorities, wishing to compliment her, sent her a costly pair as a present, which was, however, indignantly refused by the queen's chamberlain, who informed the delegation that "the Queen of Spain had no legs." The Queen, on hearing of this remark, burst into tears, exclaiming, " I will go home again ! I would never have come to Spain had I known that my legs were to be cut off!" When the story was repeated to her husband, he is said to have laughed for one of the only two times in his life. Since then there has been a popular saying that officially the Queen of Spain has no legs. Etiquette was so strict at this time that Philip's death is said to have been caused by his sitting too long by an excessively hot fire because the proper official to remedy the trouble was absent. The story, like the story of Philip's death, is probably apocryphal, invented to burlesque the rigid etiquette of the Spanish court. “The custom," says “Incognita," “of concealing the feet of Spanish women, dates back to the Spanish Goths and Germans described by Tacitus. Mediaeval artists were forbidden to paint the feet of the Virgin, and it was contrary to court etiquette to allude even to the possibility of the Queen of Spain having legs." It is said that Mirabeau, when offered a petition to be laid at the feet of majesty, replied, “Majesty has no feet." “Mary Andrews" has another story to tell in explanation of the proverb : This saying probably arose from the strict court etiquette of Spain, which forbade any man whatsoever on pain of death to touch the queen of Spain, and especially her foot. The queen of Charles II  almost lost her life from this custom. She was fond of riding, and, having received several fine horses from Andalusia, she had a mind to try one ; but had no sooner mounted than the horse pranced, and, throwing her, dragged her over the ground, her foot having caught in the stirrup. All the court were spectators, but dared not touch her on account of this court rule. Charles II. saw the accident and the danger his wife was in, and called out vehemently; but the inviolable custom and untouchable foot restrained the Spaniards from lending a helping hand. However, two gentle men, Don Luis de las Torres and Don Jaime de Soto Mayor, resolved to run all hazards despite the law of the queen's foot, the law del pie por la reina. One caught hold of the horse's bridle and the other of the queen's foot, and in taking it out of the stirrup put one of his fingers out of joint. This done, the dons immediately went home. The queen, recovering from her fright, desired to see her deliverers. A young lord told her majesty they were obliged to flee from Madrid to escape the punishment they deserved. The queen, who was a Frenchwoman, knew nothing of the prerogative of her heel, and thought it a very impertinent custom that men must be punished for saving her life. She easily obtained their pardon from the king.  

Meaning, I suppose, that like the Queen of Spain's legs, her ears must be hidden, although more for fashion's sake than propriety in her case.  I can't find who Professor Peterson is.


What was that smell?  Dead rat? No, worse than that - and quite different.  Yet I knew it!  It was something I had smelt before.  Something - Ah! I had got it.  Asafoetida!   I encountered this word twice in as many weeks, spelled slightly different but the same word. From Dictionary.com:  "a soft, brown, lumpy gum resin having a bitter, acrid taste and an obnoxious odor, obtained from the roots of several Near Eastern plants belonging to the genus Ferula,  of the parsley family: formerly used in medicine as a carminative and antispasmodic."  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asafoetida.


"But I tell you, Sir Eustace, there's something very queer about that cabin."  
Memories of reading The Upper Berth floated through my mind.  Frances Marion Crawford was a Victorian (albeit American) novelist , historian and short story writer.  Some of his short stories are among the classics of horror, including the above-mentioned "The Upper Berth" (1885-1886).  Here is the description of the story, from Goodreads:  "Every now and again, the smell sea water permeates the air, as if the cabin had been flooded and never properly repaired. The porthole opens repeatedly in the night with no conceivable reason. And the last few passengers who have slept in the upper berth have run through the ship like men possessed to throw themselves into the ocean. Mr. Brisbane, resident of the lower berth, and the ship's captain wait up all night to get to the bottom of the mystery... and neither will ever sail on that boat again."  I suppose sailing on a ship where weird things started happening would remind someone of this famous story.

"It tickled my sense of humour to employ the fellow, with his Cinquecento poisoner's face and his mid-Victorian soul."  By the twenties, Agatha Christie would have been aware of this concept of "the Victorian" probably made most famous by the Bloomsbury and Lytton Strachey.  "Mid-Victorian" is defined by the dictionary as "having rigid social standards."  Calling Pagett "mid-Victorian" would have identified him immediately to the reader in the 1920s as a type, certainly middle class, perhaps hypocritical, serious minded, anti-intellectual.  Cinqucento, on the other hand, is a word meaning the 16th century, specifically referring to the Italian renaissance.  This is entire line is a very intellectual joke, meaning in essence that Pagett looks like a Borgia and acts like Queen Victoria - a study in opposites that fascinated Sir Eustace.


The Man in the Brown SuitThe Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the fourth published mystery by Agatha Christie, she proves that she is brilliant in creating memorable characters; there is a cast of them in The Man in the Brown Suit, including one a memorably witty, sexy and smart leading lady named Anne Beddinfeld, and a delightful villain (I won't spoil any more).  This doesn't approach the peaks of the Agatha Alps of characters found in classics like And Then There Were None or that famously huge cast of characters in Murder on the Orient Express.  But she's definitely scaling towards those heights. The Man in the Brown Suit certainly feels modern, and could quite possibly be published today.  You won't find these characters palling around with the folk found in Danish police procedurals; but they would feel right at home in a Rhys Bowen whodunnit.   What you have to forgive in favor of the great characters is a twisty turny plot.  You need a scorecard to keep track of what's going on, which detracted from the mysterious aspects of it.  In the end, I wasn't sure why they did it or even how, but I certainly enjoyed the trip.



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