Like many artists across the world, The Women’s Company was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. We were in the preliminary stages of many projects, both as a company and as individual members, as well as in the midst of co-producing a new play to premiere at the 2020 Edmonton International Fringe Festival. Overnight, we all lost jobs and projects across the country.
When it became clear that this would not be just a two-week lockdown and a few precautions, we shifted gears and began to think about a project that could be done in isolation. Eventually, we arrived at the idea of an audio drama, based on a classic work of literature, something that anyone could access for free during isolation.
To our surprise and delight, a few of Agatha Christie’s earliest works had passed into the public domain in 2020, and were available from Project Gutenberg. I have read many Agatha Christie books in my life, but I was interested to see one I hadn’t encountered before, an early novel called The Man in the Brown Suit.
Interestingly, The Man in the Brown Suit is not a typical Agatha Christie mystery novel. Rather than the manor houses, complex puzzles, and experienced detectives (be they amateur or professional); The Man in the Brown Suit is an adventure story in the classic style. There is a mystery to be sure, but there is also romance, action, and globe-trotting adventure.
It is also one of her most personal novels. The book has many parallels to the incidents and settings of a round-the-world work trip taken by Agatha Christie with her first husband, Archie Christie, and headed by his old teacher from Clifton College, Major Ernest Albert Belcher.
Dining with the Christies before the trip, Belcher had suggested setting a mystery novel in his home, the Mill House, and had insisted on appearing in the story as well. While he is the inspiration for the central character, Sir Eustace Pedler, many other characters that appear in the novel are pulled directly from Christie’s life as well. Major Belcher’s secretary, Mr. Bates, is certainly the inspiration for the character of Guy Pagett. Likewise, the hot-headed Harry Rayburn bears a striking resemblance to Archie Christie. However, it is in the young and adventurous Anne Beddingfeld that Christie draws her most successful fictionalisation… of herself.
While a rollicking adventure on its own, The Man in the Brown Suit presents a secret snapshot of that time in Agatha Christie’s life. She has captured her own youthful hopes, lust for adventure, and the romantic ideal of her husband, but this would all soon come crashing down around her. Just over a year after its publication, Agatha Christie vanished in the night. The subsequent police investigation would uncover a very public affair between Archie Christie and Nancy Neele, another former associate of Major Belcher. More than a thousand police officers, 15,000 volunteers, and several airplanes searched the countryside, and Christie’s disappearance was featured on the front page of The New York Times. When she was discovered 11 days later, she was checked into a hotel in Yorkshire under the name Mrs. Neele from Capetown, South Africa. Four months later, she finally granted Archie the divorce he had privately asked for months earlier.
Of course, Agatha Christie would go on to become an incredibly renowned novelist and playwright, eventually becoming the most successful novelist in history. Just over a year after her disappearance, Agatha boarded the Orient Express to Baghdad where she met Max Mallowan, an archaeologist 13 years her junior. They were married within a year. She accompanied Mallowan on his archaeological expeditions, and her travels with him provided inspiration for many of her novels, including Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express. They remained married until her death in 1976 at the age of 85. Through all the heartbreaks and struggles, successes and failures, Agatha always remained, at heart, a true adventurer.