THE BOOK PAN, 1975 pp 190
The PAN cover depicts the elements that kick the story off – diamonds, a camera film, a London tube ticket – plus, oddly, the misrepresentation of a rendezvous note (it should read ‘Kilmorden Castle 1 71 22’). All the PAN covers of this era (1965 – 1975) were well designed, and this one is in marked contrast to that of the previous edition, which adds a good twenty years to the ages of the heroine of the story.
The book is dedicated to “E.A.B.” This refers to Major Ernest Belcher, whom the Christies had accompanied on a world tour to promote the British Empire Exhibition of 1923. The tour took in South Africa, during which time Agatha Christie started sketching the notes for this book. Belcher had requested that she include him in it, as the villain, and she obliged.
Anne Beddingfeld finds herself alone in the world after the death of her archaeologist father and sets out to look for adventure. It is not long in coming; she is standing on a platform at Hyde Park Corner underground station when a man, staring fixedly over her shoulder, takes a step back in terror, falls off the platform and is electrocuted. A man in a brown suit, claiming to be a doctor, rifles the dead man’s pockets and then rushes off, dropping a piece of paper in the process. Anne picks it up …
Deeply suspicious of, and intrigued by, what she has seen, Anne plunges her life savings into the hire of a first-class cabin aboard the Kilmorden Castle travelling to South Africa, and awaits developments.
CHARACTERS AND ATTITUDES
The heroine Anne is the first of many young-women-on-their-own who get embroiled in outlandish adventures, and the story is the second of Swigatha’s who-is-the-hidden-hand-behind-world-political-and-industrial-upheaval plots.1 Unlike some of the later ones of that ilk, this one is nicely-paced, certainly for the first half of it, and the characters are at least given some time to settle in.
Anne is very-strong-willed and brave, unusually opinionated and, one might think, someone whom Agatha Christie would strongly identify with (or would like to). She is one of the most interesting characters in any swigatha.
The MP-cum-envoy Sir Eustace Pedler is a very amusing character, and particularly reveals this in his diary extracts: Belcher should have been delighted with his portrayal. Suzanne Blair is that rare beast in these books, a society woman with brains; and Colonel Race, unlike in later stories, is allowed emotions and opinions. The caveman figure of Anne’s lover ‘Harry’ seemingly has ‘strong silent type’ etched on his forehead but his rudeness to Anne when she tends him is beautifully done.
Even so, the discussions of ‘what women really want’ do go on a bit and a faithful, modern adaptation of this story would attract a great deal of opprobrium nowadays. That is no reason not to do it – in fact, it is more reason to do it.
It must have been quite unusual for a Golden Age crime fiction writer to have two young unmarried people shacked up alone together in the middle of nowhere for a month, and even more unusual for it to have the writer’s obvious hearty approval.
Here is a typical entry from Sir Eustace’s diary:
There are many fools in this world. One praises God for their existence and keeps out of their way.
Anne reacts to Suzanne’s suggestion that they take Colonel Race into their confidence:
“Do you know Anne, I think the best thing would be to confide in him and tell him the whole story.”
I objected vigorously to this unsporting proposal. I recognised in it the disastrous effects of matrimony … Suzanne, by reason of her married state, was yearning to lean upon some man or other.
Anne explains to Colonel Race why women worship strength:
“Papa always said that in the beginning men and women roamed the world together, equal in strength … They were nomadic, you see. It wasn’t till they settled down in communities, and women did one kind of thing and men another, that women got weak. And of course, underneath, one is still the same – one feels the same – and that is why women worship strength in men: it’s what they once had, and have lost.”
Here is another interesting take by Anne – she is referring to how relationships develop, but it could equally be seen as an interesting view of human history:
“It’s the things that are apparently conquered that always do win, isn’t it? They win in the only way that counts.”
In the event, the ‘apparently-conquered’ murderer does in fact win out in the end; Anne is alone in feeling quite pleased about it.
SWIGATHA RATING 7/10
This book starts well but deteriorates into absolute hokum by the end. There is one ludicrous character (whom everyone knows) who manages to variously impersonate a ship’s stewardess, the Reverend Chichester, and Pedler’s secretary, Miss Pettigrew, without anyone realising it.
Even so, the book gets a decent overall rating because of the strength of the two main characters, Anne Beddingfeld and Sir Eustace.
Agatha Christie was always at her best when writing about things she had herself experienced, in this case the southern African continent.
WHERE IT LED
Colonel Race was to re-appear in three future books, alongside Hercule Poirot for Cards on the Table and Death on the Nile, and then again in Sparkling Cyanide. There were also later toned-down versions of the bronzed South African ‘Harry’ (Stephen Farr, from Hercule Poirot’s Christmas) and various copies of the young-woman-against-the-world Anne (The Mystery of the Blue Train, Destination Unknown, They Came to Baghdad to name but three).
People staring fixedly over other people’s shoulders was also a key element of the plots of The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side and A Caribbean Mystery.
There was a TV production in 1989 which I have yet to see but which was by all accounts dreadful; the Christie family hated it. 2
1 In the years immediately following the First World War there was a huge level of civil unrest, particularly in Europe in countries such as Italy and Germany; there was civil war in Russia, plus wars of independence in Ireland, Greece, Turkey, across the Middle East and elsewhere.
2 Agatha Christie on Screen, by Mark Aldridge