The Agatha Christie Challenge – Sparkling Cyanide (1945)

Sparkling CyanideIn which Rosemary Barton, a rather reckless young heiress, dies from cyanide poisoning whilst dining at a posh restaurant – presumably suicide. However, a year later, a very similar fate befalls another member of that dining party. It takes Colonel Race, alongside Inspector Kemp, and a third law enforcement officer, to work out exactly what happened to both victims. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Yellow IrisThe book bears no dedication. Sparkling Cyanide was first serialised in the US in the Saturday Evening Post from July to September 1944 under the title Remembered Death, and in the UK in the Daily Express in a heavily abridged form in July 1945 as Sparkling Cyanide – a year later than its American serialisation. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in February 1945, and in the UK in December 1945 by Collins Crime Club. The book is an expansion of the short story Yellow Iris, that was first published in the Strand Magazine in July 1937. It also appeared in the book The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, that was first published in the US in 1939. Yellow Iris was not published in the UK until its appearance in Problem at Pollensa Bay in 1991.

DInner Party for sixThis book is a curiosity. I found it quite hard to read at first; the characters and the reminiscences didn’t hold my attention, and I found it strangely easy to put down and leave for several days (ahem weeks) before picking it up again and rekindling my interest. It’s separated into three “books”, each with an introductory quotation. The first book lets us share the reminiscences of the six survivors of the first dinner party and I found it, in part, a little confusing and, basically, an unattractive read. Once we reached the point where the second death is being investigated it suddenly seemed to gain life and entertainment and I was keen to read more of it. In fact, I read the final two thirds of it in two days, which is pretty quick and determined for me.

Champagne Afternoon TeaHowever, there is something about it that is strangely unsatisfying. Yes, the gallop to the final post is very exciting, but it’s also (in my humble opinion) hugely far-fetched and relies on a very risky gamble; that a group of people will all act in a certain way if a certain event takes place – sorry to be vague, but I don’t want to give away the game. I’m absolutely convinced that, if I were one of that group of people, I would not have acted in the way that the murderer – or indeed the detectives – predicted. It also suffers a little from the same fate that befalls Five Little Pigs; there is a considerable amount of repetition, particularly in the first section, about things that happened in the past, and you’ve no choice but to wade through it in order to get on with the more interesting things happening in the present.

Truth versus liesThere’s one interesting aspect to this book though, and it’s very appropriate to our own times, that if you tell a lie sufficiently frequently and with sufficient conviction, it’s accepted as the truth. Just as the denouement is about to get underway, the character who has finally worked out what happened and why, gives us this clue: “Consider for yourself how much has been taken for granted on one person’s word.” At that point the reader takes up this challenge and tries to work out to whom this refers, and what facts have been taken for granted that aren’t necessarily true. When I was reading it, I couldn’t remember whodunit from my earlier readings of it; and even this clue didn’t bring me to my senses, despite my trying to solve it. But it’s true; a web of hearsay deceit has been planted under our noses and we never tumble to it. It reminded me with hideous accuracy of the politicians of our day; when no one is held accountable for the truth, preposterous lies are accepted with absolute certainty as fact.

Military colonelIt’s a welcome return to the excellent Colonel Race, whom we first saw in The Man in the Brown Suit, way back in 1924, where he was a spy, a detective, and a wealthy big game hunter, not necessarily in that order. He assists Poirot in Cards on the Table, and Death on the Nile, although his prime interest is in political espionage rather than murder. It’s by means of a letter of introduction from Colonel Race that local police chief Colonel Carbury meets Poirot in Appointment with Death.

AllahabadAs a result of those previous meetings, you get the feeling that if someone has met someone else in another part of the world, Colonel Race will nearly always be a mutual acquaintance. Race only becomes involved in the Sparkling Cyanide case because he is a friend of George Barton, whose wife Rosemary may have taken her own life. When he encounters Mary Rees-Talbot as part of his enquiries, she notes that they haven’t met “since you disappeared so mysteriously from Allahabad that time”. When Inspector Kemp meets the cantankerous General Lord Woolworth alongside Race, the general spits out an anti-police polemic until he espies the Colonel, and breaks off with,”“Seen you somewhere. Now where -?” Race’s answer was immediate and came with a smile. “Badderpore, 1923.” “By Jove,” said the general. “If it isn’t Johnnie Race! What are you doing mixed up in this show?” Race smiled.” Rather like God, Race clearly moves in mysterious ways and is omnipresent.

Good brainIn the Christie canon, Race is a good man; he gets things done, and isn’t afraid to put his head into the lion’s den, so to speak. And although he’s got a good brain, and patiently thinks things through, he’s also not afraid to get things wrong, in public, as he does a couple of times in this book. It’s a shame that this is the last we see of him; Christie never chose to feature him again. Even when we get to consider its original appearance as the short story Yellow Iris, in Problem at Pollensa Bay, which will be right at the end of this Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s a Hercule Poirot story – Christie changed it to Colonel Race for this book.

MahoganyWhat of Chief Inspector Kemp? This is the only book in which he appears. We know that, as an officer from Scotland Yard, he doesn’t usually deal with common or garden murders, but the presence of Stephen and Sandra Farraday (an MP and the daughter of a Lord) numbering among the suspects, the case requires his sensitive touch. Race (naturally) is an old friend. Here’s Christie’s description of him: “Kemp was slightly reminiscent of that grand old veteran, Battle, in type. Indeed, since he had worked under Battle for many years, he had perhaps unconsciously copied a good many of the older man’s mannerisms. He bore about him the same suggestion of being carved all in one piece – but whereas Battle had suggested some wood such as teak or oak, Chief Inspector Kemp suggested a somewhat more showy wood – mahogany, say, or good old-fashioned rosewood.” Coming from a more privileged background, and enjoying the benefits of great wealth, Race is there to smooth out any rough edges that Kemp might have, intelligent, though ploddy, policeman that he is.

Brook StreetAs usual, there are a few references to check out. First: locations. This is a very London-centric story. The Bartons and Iris live in Elvaston Square, which, sadly doesn’t exist in real life, although there is an Elvaston Mews in South Kensington, a stone’s throw from the Royal Albert Hall. Other London locations in the book are Cadogan Square, the home of the Rees-Talbot family, and Brook Street, home of the Woodworths. Both are real; in fact, Brook Street has already been used as a location in Five Little Pigs and Evil Under the Sun; Christie must have had some personal experience of this address.

fairhaven-golf-clubOutside the centre of London, Chloe West lives at 15 Merryvale Court, Maida Vale and 21 Malland Mansions, Earl’s Court, is a flat where, let’s just say, Farraday pays rent but he doesn’t live there. Both of those addresses are fictitious, albeit in real-life suburbs. Ruth meets Victor at the Rupert Hotel, off Russell Square, and the Compradour, Mille Fleurs and the Luxembourg clubs and restaurants are all mentioned; but they’re all totally made up. However, Farraday asks his wife if they could go to Fairhaven for the golf – this is actually an area near Lytham St Annes on the Fylde Coast, where there is still a fine golf club bearing its name. Finally, the little place in the country that the Bartons take for the summer months is in Marlingham, Surrey; it doesn’t exist, but there is a Warlingham – just a slip of an upside-down letter separates them.

HouriAnd now some other references, that I thought were worth investigating. Browne reflects on his meeting with Rosemary Barton, and concludes: “as beautiful as a houri – and probably just about as intelligent!” Maybe you already knew that houris are the virgin companions who await Muslim faithful in paradise, according to the holy Quran. I didn’t. I understand the notion that they would be beautiful; apparently that relieves them from the burden of being intelligent too. I wondered if this was an early example of islamophobia – I sense not, but am open to arguments on this one if you know better!

Master of the HorseAnthony Browne proudly boasts to Rosemary that there was a chamberlain to Henry VIII with the same name. It’s true; Sir Anthony Browne (1500 – 1548) was appointed Master of the Horse in 1539, having proved his loyalty to the king three years earlier when he was sent to contend with the Catholic protesters during the Pilgrimage of Grace. The king so trusted him that, at the end of his life, he gave Browne a dry stamp with which to sign letters in the king’s name. Impressive!

Cachet FaivreRosemary asks Sandra Farraday, whilst in the ladies’ toilets (even in Christie-land ladies all go to the toilets together) for a Cachet Faivre to help with her headache. This was a pain medication containing caffeine and quinine. There’s a scene in Noel Coward’s The Vortex where one of the characters asks the butler to fetch her one; and in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, hotel landlady Lottie remarks, “Half the young fellows as come here now don’t have anything except a cachet Faivre and some orange juice.” Sounds like the mid-20th century version of a Red Bull.

EatonsLucilla Drake remembers when Eaton’s Syrup was administered as a health tonic when she was young. At one time, Eaton’s in Winnipeg had the reputation of being the largest department store in the world and was a leader in the world of mail order sales, with a wide range of tonics and medicines, including a kidney cure mixture, a sore throat mixture and a “syrup of Eucalyptus, White Pine and Wild Cherry Compound”. It was clearly a cure-all medicine; I’ve found a 1906 account of treatment of malaria which included Eaton’s syrup during convalescence. The company was acquired by Sears Canada in 1999, and the company closed down in 2018. However, the Eaton Centre in Toronto is still a go-to shopping mall.

wedding rings Iris receives a proposal of marriage. However, she replies, “I’m not of age. I’m only eighteen.” Today, of course, Iris would be well within the legal maturity for marriage. However, back in 1945, you had to be 21 to get married without parental consent. Even today, there are some countries (China and the Central African Republic) where a man has to be 22 to get married, even with parental consent.

AgamemnonLord and Lady Kidderminster are said to look at each other “so might Agamemnon and Clytemnestra have stared at each other with the word Iphigenia on their lips”. Very classical. I’m sure you know, but Agamemnon was the King of Mycenae who commanded the Greek forces in the Trojan War. The goddess Artemis required Agamemnon to kill Iphigenia as a human sacrifice in order for his troops to reach Troy. They were tough times in those mythical days.

Rudyard KiplingColonel Race confronts one of the characters and accuses them of not being who they say they are. That person replies, “for the Colonel’s Lady and Judy O’Grady are sisters under the skin”. I’d heard that reference before but never known its derivation. It’s from a rather crude poem called The Ladies (c.1890) by Rudyard Kipling, where a chap recollects all the women he’s slept with and concludes that, despite their differences in class and race, basically, they’re all the same.

tennysonAs mentioned earlier, quotations introduce each of the three sections that make up the entire book. Part one, entitled Rosemary, begins with “what can I do to drive away remembrance from mine eyes?” which is the opening line from a poem by John Keats written in 1819. Part two, entitled All Souls’ Day, begins “that’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance”, which even I remembered was a line by Ophelia in Hamlet. Part Three, Iris, begins “for I thought that the dead had peace, But it is not so…” which comes from section sixteen of Tennyson’s Maud, published in 1855.

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. Despite many times alluding to the size of Iris’ inheritance when she comes of age, there’s only one sum mentioned in this book – £200, which is the amount that Victor cons out of Lucilla. That’s around £6000 in today’s value, that the little swine took.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Sparkling Cyanide:

Publication Details: 1945. Fontana paperback, 16th impression, published in December 1989, price £3.25. The cover illustration simply shows a popped champagne cork and a calendar page for 2nd November that has been partially burned. Not sure of the significance of the burning.

How many pages until the first death: There are two ways to consider this. We discover that Rosemary died on page one. However, if you’re waiting for a real-time death, you have to wait until page 120. That sounds like a long wait; however, this impression has many more spaces and gaps in its printing than most earlier Christies. Page 120 is about halfway through the book.

Funny lines out of context: One can always rely on Christie’s somewhat archaic use of the “E” word.

“His satisfaction was short-lived, for another thought struck him with the force of a physical blow. He ejaculated out loud.”

“His name soon became known as that of a “coming” young man.”

Memorable characters:

Having been rather spoilt by Christie with her characterisations in her more recent books, this is one area where this book disappoints. You have the strong independence of Ruth Lessing, the devil-may-care bad-boy nature of Anthony Browne, and – perhaps – the political expediency and ambition of Stephen Farraday, but apart from that most of the characters are fairly bland.

Christie the Poison expert:

The clue is in the title! Although cyanide – cyanide of potassium as she refers to it – is the method of poisoning for both deaths in the book, Christie doesn’t go into much detail as to how it works or the effect on its victims. She just points out how it makes anyone who takes it turn blue – “the blue cyanosed face, the convulsed clutching fingers”, as Iris recollects. A third death is averted; however, that wouldn’t have been caused by cyanide poisoning.

Class/social issues of the time:

Most of Christie’s favourite themes crop up in this book, but only occasionally, and without great significance. Take, for instance, feminism and the role of women in society. Most of the women in this book have good social standing but only one, Ruth Lessing, could be described as independent and self-reliant. Rosemary relied on relationships; Sandra Farraday confirms that she couldn’t survive without her husband, no matter what he’d done; Iris demurely waits for life to come to her rather than the other way around. Feeblest of all, Lucilla Drake is depicted as a scatty windbag, powerless against the devious manipulations of her son.

Consider Lucilla’s assessment of George’s domestic lifestyle: “George is very well looked after at present. What more can he want, I should like to know? Excellent meals and his mending seen to. Very pleasant for him to have an attractive young girl like you about the house and when you marry some day I should hope I was still capable of seeing to his comfort and looking after his health. Just as well or better than a young woman out of an office could do – what does she know about housekeeping? Figures and ledgers and shorthand and typing – what good is that in a man’s home?” Clearly she feels that a woman’s role is simply to support a man.

There’s also an amusing interchange between Colonel Race and Inspector Kemp about women in society. “”Do you think she is the type to slip incriminating evidence into a girl’s handbag? A perfectly innocent girl, mind, who has never harmed her in any way? […]” Inspector Kemp squirmed uneasily in his seat and peered into his teacup. “Women don’t play cricket,” he said. “If that’s what you mean.” “Actually, a lot of them do,” said Race, smiling. “But I’m glad to see you look uncomfortable.””

The book was published at the end of the Second World War, when the nations of the world looked to their political leaders for inspiration and help to see them out of the mess of the previous six years. Whether you can tie in the character of Stephen Farraday with that inspiration, I’m not sure; but I did enjoy Christie’s gently savage description of his rise up the ranks: “At twenty-two Stephen came down from Oxford with a good degree, a reputation as a good and witty speaker, and a knack of writing articles. He had also made some useful friends. Politics were what attracted him. […] Though by predilection a Liberal, Stephen realised that, for the moment at least, the Liberal Party was dead. He joined the ranks of the Labour Party. […] But the Labour Party did not satisfy Stephen. He found it less open to new ideas, more hidebound by tradition than its great and powerful rival. The Conservatives, on the other hand, were on the look-out for promising young talent. They approved of Stephen Farraday – he was just the type they wanted. He contested a fairly solid Labour constituency and won it by a very narrow majority. It was with a feeling of triumph that Stephen took his seat in the House of Commons. […]

“Nevertheless, once the excitement of actually being in the House had subsided, he experienced swift disillusionment. The hardly fought election had put him in the limelight, now he was down in the rut, a mere insignificant unit of the rank and file, subservient to the party whips, and kept in his place. It was not easy here to rise out of obscurity. […] One needed something above ability. One needed influence. […] He considered marriage […] some handsome creature who would stand hand in hand with him sharing his life and his ambitions; who would give him children and to whom he could unburden his thoughts and perplexities. Some woman who felt as he did and who would be eager for his success and proud of him when he achieved it.” In other words, a purely self-seeking, self-interested social climber with no thought of service to the nation. It’s not difficult to see in which direction Christie’s political loyalties swung from her description of the three main parties!

There are a couple of minor moments of xenophobia and racial issues, although perhaps not as much as in some of Christie’s books. Christine Shannon explains “that’s why I don’t like Dagoes. When they’ve drunk too much they’re not a bit refined any more – a girl never knows what unpleasantness she may be let in for.” That’s an example of both using a detrimental term and stereotyping an entire range of people to one type of bad behaviour. On another occasion, George Barton tells Race about Rosemary’s death and says that the cabaret was “one of those negro shows”. With the benefit of hindsight, and remembering the popularity of the Black and White Minstrels right up into the late 1980s, that’s actually quite polite for the time.

I was interested by the suggestion that a psychiatrist – or what Christie calls “a nerve specialist […] one of these modern men” advised George that “after a shock of any kind, the trouble must be faced, not avoided” and this is – perhaps – the reason that he calls for the dinner party to be “re-run” as it were at the restaurant where Rosemary died. It’s not often that Christie expresses concern for mental health in her books; it must have been a new consideration of the time. But there’s also some very backward-looking thought processes going on, when Race attributes one of the motives for the crime to “bad blood”. A character is associated with guilt because their mother is “feeble in intellect and incapable of concentration”, their father is “weak, vicious and a drunkard” and their sister is “emotionally unstable.” “A family history of weakness, vice and instability. Predisposing causes.” Talk about judgemental! Wouldn’t go down well in a court of law today.

Classic denouement: The denouement creeps up on the reader and you find you’re at that point of the book without it having been made obvious by the writer. Granted, it’s extremely exciting, but I wouldn’t call it a classic, as the perpetrator is not present at the time and therefore cannot be accused dramatically by the detectives. And there’s also the question of the outrageously unlikely modus operandi of the crime, which I’ll discuss in the next paragraph but one….

Happy ending? Wedding bells in the offing for one couple, although there is a sense of sadness at the end of the book for those who died, which means this book definitely ends in a minor key.

Did the story ring true? NO!!!! As I mentioned earlier on, the whole set-up of the crime relies 100% on a group of people acting in one particular way – like a herd instinct – when presented with a particular set of events. And I just don’t believe it. But I can’t explain that to you without giving away the game.

Overall satisfaction rating: There are a few passages where the writing is highly entertaining, and the detective investigations are highly readable. But it’s also very slow to start and is spoiled by its stupid resolution, so on balance I’m downgrading it to a 6/10.

The HollowThanks for reading my blog of Sparkling Cyanide and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is The Hollow, and the welcome return of Hercule Poirot. I can’t remember much about the book but I do remember that a few years back we saw a stage adaptation of the story – and it was pretty awful! So I’m hoping that the original book is much better. Only one way to find out! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)

The Man in the Brown SuitIn which we meet Anne Beddingfeld, orphaned (if you can be orphaned at her age) and inquisitive adventuress, who witnesses the death of a man at Hyde Park Corner tube station and subsequently gets caught up in a realm of intrigue which takes her from London to Marlow to South Africa, on the hunt for the mystery man named “the Colonel”. Unsurprisingly, she does discover his identity; but rest assured gentle reader, I won’t give the game (or the name) away.

MarlowChristie dedicated the book to her husband Archie’s old teacher, E A Belcher: “To E.A.B. In memory of a journey, some Lion stories and a request that I should some day write the Mystery of the Mill House“. He did indeed have a property called Mill House – in Dorney, although in the book Christie transports it to Marlow. She based the character of Sir Eustace Pedler on Belcher, and in her autobiography recalled how she found it very difficult to flesh him out in print until she hit on the brainwave of having Pedler narrate part of the book himself. Hence the book is three quarters narrated by Anne, and one-quarter by Pedler. The two different narrative voices add to the vitality and rhythm of the book, which is a very entertaining read, even though it is at times ridiculously far-fetched.

MilitaryOne of the criticisms of the book at the time of publication is that it was not a detective whodunit in the tradition of her earlier works, but more of a general thriller. Some were disappointed to find that Hercule Poirot does not make an appearance. You wouldn’t have guessed, reading this in 1924, that the one character in it who would feature in later Christie books would be Colonel Race; for although he plays an important part in the book, he doesn’t strike me as having much of a personality that would make him worthy of future inclusion. Christie obviously thought differently, as Sir Eustace points out when describing Race: “He’s good looking in his way, but dull as ditch water. One of these strong silent men that lady novelists, and young girls always rave over”. I think it’s a shame that Anne doesn’t reappear in later books – although she’s a bit bossy and a little patronising, using the knowledge she gleaned from her late father of Palaeolithic times to bully and intimidate, she’s nevertheless a jolly girl, with lots of spirit and daring, never flinching in the face of disaster. Still, I guess she ends up happy and contented – even if in a rather unconventional lifestyle for the time – and Christie felt it was best to leave her where she settled.

NurseAlthough you get the sense that Anne hasn’t had a very exciting life before the book starts, she’s clearly a thoughtful and perceptive person who makes insightful comments on life. “”My wife will be delighted to welcome you” insists Mr Flemming, her solicitor and wannabe guardian, when he offers her the chance to live with them for a while. “I wonder if husbands know as much about their wives as they think they do. If I had a husband, I should hate him to bring home orphans without consulting me first.”” Mrs Flemming is sweetness and light when they meet, but then she overhears their conversation. “A few minutes later another phrase floated up to me in an even more acid voice: “I agree with you! She is certainly very good looking.” It really is a hard life. Men will not be nice to you if you are not good looking and women will not be nice to you if you are.” Anne and Mrs Flemming rub along as best they can under the circumstances, until it is time for Anne to leave: “she was a good, kind woman. I could not have continued to live in the same house as her, but I did recognize her intrinsic worth”. She’s cheeky with Lord Nasby, she’s resourceful enough to save Harry Rayburn’s life with her nursing skills, and she’s even able to release herself from capture by cutting through the gag that binds her; but despite all that, when it comes to the crunch she’s more traditional than you might expect, in matters of the heart and stereotypical gender roles. In conversation with Colonel Race: “”So you don’t consider women as `weak things`?” I considered. “No, I don’t think I do – though they are, I suppose. That is, they are nowadays. But Papa always said that in the beginning men and women roamed the world together, equal in strength […] that is why women worship physical strength in men: it’s what they once had and have lost.”[…] “And you really think that’s true? That women worship strength, I mean?” “I think it’s quite true – if one’s honest. You think you admire moral qualities, but when you fall in love, you revert to the primitive, where the physical is all that counts.” Perhaps it’s no surprise when Anne backs down to Rayburn’s insistence that she leaves for Beira: “This is man’s work. Leave it to me.” The intertwining narrative from Sir Eustace makes an excellent contrast because he is disreputable, and, in common parlance, something of a perve; and it feels wrong that Anne should nevertheless quite like him, but she does. Women, eh? Just can’t understand them. They always like the bad boys.

SmutsSeveral times through the book Anne refers to The Perils of Pamela; presumably this is either a film or a book that has so far satisfied her need for adventure. Back in 1922 when this book is set, there was no such thing on the screen as The Perils of Pamela. There was, however, The Perils of Pauline, a series of melodramatic short films where our heroine got into tight scrapes before being rescued by a handsome man. If this is Anne’s staple entertainment, it’s really no surprise then that her views on the status of women put the sisterhood back by a number of years. Talking of 1922, it’s quite unusual for the author to pin down the actual date of a novel so precisely. In Christie’s book, The Kilmorden Castle set sail on 17th January 1922 bound for Cape Town. In reality, there is no such place as Kilmorden, let alone a castle standing there. Pedler joins the ship so that he can personally deliver secret papers to General Smuts, who was the South African Prime Minister from 1919 to 1924. It was indeed a time of social unrest in the country, with many instances of miners striking, so maybe Pedler’s rather savage desciptions of the industrial discontent (even seen from a right-wing British perspective) were not that far from the truth. The Christies had travelled round the world throughout 1922, including some time spent in South Africa, so no doubt she was keen to put to good use whatever observations she had made of the political and social situation there.

Victoria FallsIt also explains why the book at times loses focus and reminds you more of a travelogue than a thriller, the writer almost showing off about all the places they have visited. Cape Town, Johannesburg, Muizenberg, De Aar, Kimberley, Bulawayo, The Matoppos (now Matobo National Park, where Anne and Race visit Cecil Rhodes’ grave), The Karoo (the desert), The Victoria Falls, and an island on the Zambezi all feature distinctively. In Cape Town, Anne is followed round Adderley Street (one of the most notable streets in the city) and orders two coffee ice-cream sodas at Cartwright’s. The attention to detail regarding location in this book is somewhere between fascinating and overwhelming.

DiamondAs is often the case with Christie, the plot is based on an event that took place a long time in the past. In this instance, it’s the theft of some De Beer diamonds and the framing of two innocent prospectors into the bargain. These diamonds were apparently worth £100,000 when the theft took place, just before the war, according to the dancer Madame Nadina in the Prologue. That’s over £8m in today’s money. Not a bad haul; no wonder people died as a result. The other interesting sum of money that’s quoted in the book is the £87 that it costs Anne to travel 1st class on the Kilmorden Castle from Southampton to Cape Town. That’s about £3500 today. She got a bargain.

Passenger shipAlthough The Man in the Brown Suit predates Murder on the Orient Express by ten years, there were a couple of scenes that forcefully reminded me of that latter – and much better known – book. When Anne stays awake until 1am awaiting something to happen in her cabin – and it does – she is interrupted by a knock at the door by an inquiring night stewardess, whom Anne fobs off with an innocent denial. She looks down the corridor and can only see the “retreating form of the stewardess”. For some reason this strongly reminded me of the “story of a small dark man with a womanish voice dressed in Wagon Lit uniform” and a woman in a red kimono: “who was she? No one on the train admits to having a scarlet kimono. She too has vanished. Was she the one and the same with the spurious Wagon Lit attendant?” (both quotes from Murder on the Orient Express). Suspicions about the Rev Chichester also made me think of people playing parts in Murder on the OE. “If Mr Chichester had indeed spent the last two years in the interior of Africa, how was it that he was not more sun-burnt? His skin was as pink and white as a baby’s. Surely there was something fishy there? Yet his manner and voice were so absolutely it. Too much so perhaps. Was he – or was he not – just a little like a stage clergyman?” Of course, Christie would return to the idea of someone impersonating a clergyman in At Bertram’s Hotel.

Palaeolithic ManAs usual Mrs Christie gives us some unusual references, words and phrases for us 21st century types to decipher. First of all there are all Anne’s technical terms that she learned from her father, and that she uses to bamboozle opponents: “Frankly, I hate Palaeolithic Man, be he Aurignacian, Mousterian, Chellian, or anything else”. Aurignacian pertains (perhaps unsurprisingly) to Aurignac, in France, home of a Palaeolithic culture somewhere around 40,000 years ago. Mousterian relates to a period of Neanderthal Man earlier than the Aurignacian era, typified by the use of flints worked on one side only. It’s named after Le Moustier, the rock shelter area of the Dordogne. My OED states that both words were first used in the early 20th century – so Mrs Christie was spot on the ball with her up to date knowledge and terminology. Chellian, on the other hand, is a 19th century term that has fallen into disuse, but was the name given by the French Anthropologist G. de Mortillet to the first epoch of the Quaternary period when the earliest human remains were discovered, the word being derived from the French town Chelles. Anne is also into head shapes: Brachycephalic (short-headed), Dolichocephalic (long-headed) and Platycephalic (flat-headed); there may be a few more cephalics that I missed out.

AsafoetidaAnne doesn’t enjoy her first few days at sea. From the safety and security of her deckchair, she observes: “brisk couples exercising, curveting children, laughing young people”. What kind of children? To curvet – apparently – is to make a leaping or a frisking motion like a horse. When Anne retreats to her cabin she notices a dreadful smell: “Dead rat? No, worse than that….Asafoetida! I had worked in a hospital dispensary during the war for a short time and had become acquainted with various nauseous drugs.” Asafoetida is an acrid gum resin with a strong smell like that of garlic, obtained from certain Asian plants of the umbelliferous genus Ferula, and used in condiments. So now you know.

Upper BerthSir Eustace moans about having to play Brother Bill and Bolster Bar on board ship. Have you ever heard of these? I hadn’t. And after a bit of a search online and in my OED, I still can’t find anything that seems appropriate. If you’ve got any ideas, please let me know! Talk that his cabin might be haunted reminds him of The Upper Berth. This was a short ghost story published by Francis Marion Crawford in 1886 about a room on a train where passengers who have stayed overnight have died horrible deaths. And when he’s holding court telling his hunting adventures (seems in such bad taste today), he relates: “this friend of mine…was trekking across country, and being anxious to arrive at his destination before the heat of the day he ordered his boys to inspan whilst it was still dark.” Ordered them to do what? Apparently it’s a word of Afrikaans descent, meaning to yoke (oxen, horses, etc) in a team to a vehicle, or to harness a wagon. He also uses the phrase on the bust to mean “get drunk” – although I can’t see this usage anywhere else. I wonder if it’s an early example of on the p*ss?

Beche de merAnne refers to bêche-de-mer (useful if you visit the South Sea Islands). She says she doesn’t know what it is, and nor did I, so I looked it up and it’s an edible sea cucumber. I think I preferred not knowing. ““It would hardly be respectable,” said Suzanne, dimpling.” Dimpling? Does that mean making a dimple appear on your face? Apparently it does, but I’ve never come across it as a verb. Another odd word formation is: “I was to be arrested on some charge or other – pocket-picking, perhaps.” I’d never come across “pocket-picking” before. “Pickpocketing” would be a much more common phrase. I wondered if “pickpocket” was a recent word, but no, it’s been in use for 400 years. Weird one! Among the souvenirs that Anne and Suzanne consider buying are mealie bowls (South African term for maize) and fur karosses. A kaross is a cloak or sleeveless jacket like a blanket made of hairy animal skins, worn by the indigenous peoples of southern Africa (OED). Eardsley’s son is described as “quite a parti”. A what? Again from the OED: A person, especially a man, considered in terms of eligibility for marriage on grounds of wealth, social status, etc – originally a late 18th century term taken from French.

bibleAnd once again Christie shows my heathenry by offering a Bible quotation I don’t recognise. In conversation with Race, Anne says: “they win in the only way that counts. Like what the Bible says about losing your life and finding it.” A little research unearths two possible references. Matthew 10:39 – “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” But I think more likely: Luke 17:33 – “Whoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.”

So it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Man in the Brown Suit:

Publication Details: 1924. My copy is a Pan paperback, published in 1973. The cover illustration is the usual photo representing some of the clues or events of the book, but, interestingly, the artist got one of the details wrong. It shows the piece of paper dropped at the scene of the crime at Hyde Park Corner tube station. But it reads Kilmorden Castle 1. 7 22 and not Kilmorden Castle 17.1 22 as in the book. Sack the illustrator!

How many pages until the first death: 16; and then the second death is reported two pages later. A double whammy, one might say.

Funny lines out of context:
“In other words, the chimpanzee is a degenerate.”
“These earnest, hard-working young men with weak stomachs are always liable to bilious attacks.”
“Every now and then he galvanized himself to further efforts by ejaculating something that sounded like Platt Skeet”.

Memorable characters:
The two narrators are very lively characters, well drawn and full of quirkiness – especially Sir Eustace, with his frequent observations on the loveliness of ladies and the irritations of his colleagues.

Christie the Poison expert:
On vacation for this novel. Will no doubt be back soon.

Class/social issues of the time:

Foreigners – It wouldn’t be a Christie if she didn’t get some suspicions over foreigners in the text somewhere. Perhaps it’s no surprise that The Daily Budget is something akin to the Daily Mail of today: “In an upper room of the Mill House the body of a beautiful young woman was discovered yesterday, strangled. She is thought to be a foreigner…” Interesting that it’s not a foreigner that’s suspected of perpetrating the crime, but is the victim; it’s one of those examples of where there is a slight suspicion of “blame the victim”. Anne later goes on to interrogate the housekeeper at the Mill House. She saw the man suspected of being the murderer. “A nice-looking young fellow he was and no mistake. A kind of soldierly look about him – ah, well, I dare say he’d been wounded in the war, and sometimes they go a bit queer aftwards; my sister’s boy did. Perhaps she’d used him bad – they’re a bad lot, those foreigners.”

Also unsurprising that Pedler and his secretary Pagett have the same belief. “On the face of it, a Member of Parliament will be none the less efficient because a stray young woman comes and gets herself murdered in an empty house that belongs to him – but there is no accounting for the view the respectable British public takes of a matter. “She’s a foreigner too, and that makes it worse,” continued Pagett gloomily. Again I believe he is right. If it is disreputable to have a woman murdered in your house, it becomes more disreputable if the woman is a foreigner.”

Race – I’m still trying to make my mind up whether Christie is a latent racist or not. There are some very iffy comments that I’ve already read in the next book (see below), but I think on the whole the references to race in this book are simply the norm for the time. She uses the term “kafir” a great deal; she describes some of the souvenir tat as “absurd little black warriors” which feels a bit patronising to me; and there’s a rather awkward scene when Anne regains consciousness after an attempt on her life: “Someone put a cup to my lips and I drank. A black face grinned into mine – a devil’s face, I thought it, and screamed out.”

Classic denouement: It’s almost as though there are two denouements. The first occurs about two thirds of the way in, with the full explanation of Rayburn’s identity and his part in the story. The second, concerning the identity of “the Colonel”, slowly and excitingly becomes clear over a good twenty pages or more. And whilst it doesn’t have the classic Poirot-type set up of a room full of suspects and a man pointing “j’accuse!” it works in a much subtler and satisfying way. I had forgotten the identity of “the Colonel” and it came as quite a nail-biting surprise.

Happy ending? Of course. Anne and her man live happily ever after albeit in a rather unconventional manner and location. As for the master criminal, that person appears to get off scot-free. That might annoy the reader’s sense of justice, although Anne herself is not unhappy with the outcome.

Did the story ring true? Frankly, no! Of all the Christies I have re-read and written about so far, this is most definitely the most far-fetched. The plot leaps from coincidence to coincidence, and occasionally you have to break off and laugh at how monstrously Christie handles the reader’s credulousness.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. On the minus side you have the ridiculous coincidences that render the plot so unlikely as to make it laughable, its tendency to stray into travelogue and an awful lot of Barbara Cartland-like romantic nonsense towards the end that comes close to being nauseating. However, Christie gets away with it by having some extremely good characters, rather witty conversations and creating an old-fashioned “rattling good read”.

Secret of ChimneysThanks for reading my blog of The Man in the Brown Suit and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment – but don’t tell us whodunit! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge it’s 1925, and time for The Secret of Chimneys. It sounds a little like an Enid Blyton adventure, but there I think the similarity ends. Still using her South African experiences, the story will also introduce us to Superintendent Battle – and that jolly girl that goes by the name of Bundle. I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!