‘The Man In The Brown Suit’ was an amusing distraction with a likeable main character, an improbable plot, exotic locations and some wonderful views of how travelling from England through Africa worked when you were English, white and wealthy.
Anne Bedingfeld is a young woman who has lead a sheltered life and, after the death of her father, is hungry to leave the village she grew up in behind her and head out into the world in search of adventure. She finds one when she sees a man fall to his death at Hyde Park Tube station and takes it upon herself to investigate the circumstances.
She throws herself fearlessly and energetically into a situation that she doesn’t understand and finds herself travelling to Africa to try and understand the mystery behind the man’s death. Along the way, multiple attempts are made on her life and she falls in love (at a truly amazing speed) with Mr tall dark and possibly lethal. It’s a wonderful experience for a woman who grew up wishing she was the heroine of the Saturday Matiné Serial ‘The Perils Of Pauline’.
What I liked most about the book were the two characters from whose points of view the story is told. Anne Bedingfeld is full of passionate surprises. I enjoyed her enthusiasm for life especially in the face of adversity. I also enjoyed the extracts from Sir Eustace’s diary, which, with their why-does-this-keep-happening-to-me? All-I-want-is-a-quiet-life descriptions, act as a counterpoint to Anne’s narrative and which became even more interesting when I reached the end of the book and understood what they really were.
I loved the pleasure Anne took in seeing Cape Town for the first time. I rather liked that she struggled for words to express it. Feeling beauty and being able to describe that beauty is not the same thing. The second takes some emotional distance that rather spoils the moment, so Anne’s wordless wonder is entirely in character.
I admired the way Anne threw herself into surfing. No training. No prep. Just give it a go and don’t give up. Then her description
‘Surfing is like that, you are either vigorously cursing or else you are idiotically pleased with yourself’.
Her whole adventure seems to me to be like her surfing – she just throws herself into it and it works or it doesn’t.
Anne’s reaction when she realises that’s she’s made a mistake and placed herself in a vulnerable position captures both her humour and her peculiar pluck. Her interior monologue goes like this:
‘It reminded me forcibly of Episode Three in ‘The Perils of Pamela’. How often had I not sat in the sixpenny seats, eating a tuppeny bar of milk chocolate and yearning for similar things to happen to me? Well, they had happened with a vengeance and somehow it was not nearly so amusing as I had imagined. It’s all very well on the screen. You have the comfortable knowledge that there’s bound to be an Episode Four, but in real life, there was absolutely no guarantee that ‘Anna The Adventuress’ might not terminate abruptly at the end of any episode.’
Then we get to the baddy and the spell is broken, We came dangerously close to ‘Vee Haf Ways of Making You Talk’ with this line.
‘And I can tell you, young lady, we’ve more ways than one of making obstinate little fools talk.’
I wonder if this already a cliché in 1924.
Still, I liked Anne’s mental response. It demonstrated exactly the right amount of stiff upper lip.
‘It was not cheering but it was at least a respite.’
The things that surprised me most was the insta-love between Anne and our brooding male lead. At first, it seemed a little out of character for Anne and too much of a nod to romance by Christie. As things went on, they became more interesting. I started to understand that Anne is excited by dangerous men and by being treated roughly and wondered if her insta-love was just a socially acceptable way of expressing insta-lust. Despite her sheltered background, Anne seems to be a woman who knows her own tastes and the kind of man who can satisfy them. By the end, it seemed to me that Anne was an archetype of a woman who enjoys power-exchange relationships. She’s a strong, fearless woman who likes to surrender her power for a time to her lover so that she can experience something a little different. I wonder if this was seen as risque at the time or was just regarded as an expected form of submission?
The thing I liked least about the book was the Prologue. It could have been deleted and nothing would have been lost. It seems to me to show a lack of confidence in the readers’ willingness to figure out what the plot is about. It plods, it’s cliché-ridden and it sits outside of the narrative style of the rest of the book.
It didn’t help that I listened to the Prologue and the first chapter using the the ‘Alison Larkin Presents’ version of the audiobook. The narration didn’t work for me. It seemed to be trying too hard. I sent it back and got the version by Emilia Fox instead. That worked well and carried me through the rest of the book. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.