IT FEELS LIKE the first day of spring here—temps in the 60s and the world finally beginning to wake to COLOR. My camellias are starting to bloom in that gorgeous coral-pink shade I love, and I’m excited to say that The Walled Garden comes out eight weeks from now!
You’ll recall my delight at hearing my protagonist, Lucy Silver, referred to as a “young detective” in a recent review. Continuing the theme of examining Lucy’s literary predecessors, I’d like to introduce Anne Beddingfeld from Agatha Christie’s 1924 classic, The Man in the Brown Suit. Originally titled The Mystery of the Mill House (a title I actually prefer), it was eventually serialized in The Evening News as Anna the Adventuress, “as silly a title as I had ever heard,” Agatha writes in her autobiography, “though I kept my mouth shut, because, after all, they were willing to pay me £500 . . . .”
Newly orphaned (once again, no troublesome mothers on the scene to prevent their daughters from going off on adventures), Anne goes to London and witnesses an accident in a Tube station. A man is killed when he steps back onto the line, and Anne recovers a scrap of paper dropped by the man posing as a doctor who examines him, with this notation: 1 7 * 1 22 Kilmorden Castle. Then a woman is found dead at the Mill House, and the two mysteries are linked. Passing a shipping office, Anne realizes Kilmorden Castle is not a place, but a ship. When she goes in to inquire, the clerk tells her it leaves on the 17thfor Cape Town and that a first-class ticket is £87, the exact amount of her legacy. Struck by the coincidence, she books it. “I was now definitely committed to the adventure.”
So, a little history. In 1922, Agatha Christie set sail with her first husband, Archie, and other members of a British trade mission on a ten-month voyage around the world, visiting South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Canada. “Going round the world was one of the most exciting things that ever happened to me,” she says in her autobiography.
In 1924, a little more than a year after they returned to England, she published The Man in the Brown Suit, her fourth mystery novel, and it’s easy to see how Agatha’s deep longing for adventure and her desire to see the world inspired Anne’s adventures. Some of the incidents in The Man in the Brown Suit are directly taken from Agatha’s own experiences, and the tour’s maddeningly frustrating leader, Major Belcher, has amusingly become the charming but petulant Sir Eustace Pedler, MP. His journals, “of which he has kindly begged me to make use,” form a delightful counterpart to Anne’s first-person narration.
I received the book as a Christmas gift in the 1970s when I was around 13. Though Anne and I were separated by fifty years, a continent, and the Atlantic Ocean, I understood her instantly. Anne longed for adventure in her tiny English village in the 1920s just as I longed for adventure in my boring small town in Washington state in the 1970s.
“I yearned for adventure, for love, for romance, and I seemed condemned to an existence of drab utility,” Anne says early in the book. “The village possessed a lending library, full of tattered works of fiction, and I enjoyed perils and lovemaking at second hand, and went to sleep dreaming of . . . strong men who always ‘felled their opponent with a single blow.’ There was no one in the village who even looked as though they could ‘fell’ an opponent, with a single blow or several.”
So, she’s off on her adventure—and so are we. And what an adventure it is: an intriguing, attractive man who staggers into her cabin at 1:00 am, saying, “Save me. They’re after me,” stolen diamonds, master criminals, train journeys across Africa, kidnapping, narrow escapes, and multiple marriage proposals for our heroine.
Anne’s first sight of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, “made me catch my breath and have that curious hungry pain inside that seizes one sometimes when one comes across something that’s extra beautiful. . . . I knew well enough that I had found, if only for a fleeting moment, the thing that I had been looking for ever since I left Little Hampsley. Something new, something hitherto undreamed of, something that satisfied my aching hunger for romance.”
I can’t tell you how much I envied Anne that when I was 13, and even now, decades later, I still do. The closest I’ve ever gotten to that feeling was probably my first sight of Oxford: the curve of the High Street from Carfax to Magdalen, walking through Radcliffe Square, and meditating in peaceful, green quadrangles.
The story ends well for our fearless girl detective, Anne Beddingfeld, though Agatha couldn’t have known in 1924 that her marriage to Archie Christie would famously unravel two years later, leading to her sensational disappearance (still being debated and written about), and ultimately, a painful divorce. In many ways, Agatha Christie’s 1926 disappearance inspired the one I gave my character, Elizabeth Blackspear, for different reasons, in The Walled Garden.
But the first freshness of a young woman setting off, full of energy and excitement to see the world, lives on forever in Anne.
May her adventurous, girl detective spirit never grow old!
Read more about Agatha and her grand adventure, 100 years ago this year, here: https://www.agathachristie.com/news/2022/agatha-christies-grand-adventure