I think one of the primary reasons for me re-reading this one is due to the number of commenters, such as blogging associate Moira Redmond, who have recalled really enjoying or loving the female protagonist in this book, Anne Beddingfeld. Personally I didn’t have those feelings and I was wondering whether this was more to do with dim memories about the story than anything else. Let’s see shall we…
The opening prologue sets up for the reader in a matter of paragraphs an organised crime network, the leader of which is only known by the alias the “Colonel,” who incidentally is also planning to retire. This leaves one of his underlings planning not for a final payment, but for a more long term financial settlement if you get my drift. However, the “Colonel” is not your average adversary… and this of course is where our protagonist Anne Beddingfeld comes in; a woman who has recently lost her father and is keen to enjoy her new found freedom. A desire for adventure is in her blood, fuelled by the vicarious excitement she has obtained from books and the local cinema. It all begins one afternoon when Anne witnesses a man accidently falling backwards onto the tracks of a London tube station, a fall precipitated by the man getting the fright of his life. Her suspicions are further aroused when a “doctor” views the body, though he seems more interested in frisking the corpse. A dropped piece of paper gives Anne a cryptic clue. This death is then soon linked with another, of a woman killed in an empty house, up for rental. The suspect in this latter case is a man in a brown suit. Yet Anne has little time to consider this aspect of the investigation, as she hurries to make the next boat to Cape Town, a decision based on the partial deciphering of the clue on the scrap of paper. It is from here that the mystery rapidly expands with the various passengers implying dual identities or hidden secrets and events leave Anne with mixed feelings as to who she can trust and who she can’t. The ship journey is only one leg of this adventure though, with a bucketful of peril heading Anne’s way once she disembarks.
So have I got a new fictional BFF in Anne Beddingfeld? Well the short answer is …. No! For the slightly longer answer we need to take into consideration the plot type Christie is working with….
At the start of the novel Anne describes to us the heroine in jeopardy plotlines she sees at the cinema, in particular the episodic films of The Perils of Pamela (a name which links back to the earlier work of real life author Arthur B Reeves, who wrote The Perils of Pauline in 1914):
‘Nothing daunted her. She fell out of aeroplanes, adventured in submarines, climbed skyscrapers and crept about in the Underworld without turning a hair. She was not really clever, the Master Criminal of the Underworld caught her each time, but as he seemed loath to knock her on the head in a simple way, and always doomed her to death in a sewer gas chamber or by some new and marvellous means, the hero was always able to rescue her at the beginning of the following week’s episode.’
There are times when Christie pastiches the style of such stories in the text, such as when Anne goes alone to the crime scene:
‘Did the woman who had come here ‘smiling to herself’ a few days ago feel no chill of premonition as she entered this house? I wondered. Did the smile fade from her lips, and did a nameless dread close round her heart? Or had she gone upstairs, smiling still, unconscious of the doom that was so soon to overtake her? My heart beat a little faster. Was the house really empty? Was doom waiting for me in it also?’
Yet in the main when it comes to the start of Anne’s own adventure beginning you can see Christie subverting the tropes listed in the description of The Perils of Pamela, such as when Anne uncovers a clue at the crime scene but it turns out to be a dead end. Equally we have Anne’s less than pleasant start to her boat journey: ‘It is most undignified for a heroine to be seasick. In books the more it rolls and tosses, the better she likes it. When everybody else is ill, she alone staggers along the deck, braving the elements and positively rejoicing in the storm.’ Anne also eschews the tendency to indulge in excessive travel writing when she makes it to Africa, ‘I guarantee no genuine local colour.’ Then there is Anne’s reluctance to tell Colonel Race what she knows, her reluctance being based on her anxiety that he would ‘take the whole matter out of my hands. And it was my mystery!’ Though perhaps this line can be interpreted differently, as you could see it as a sign of Anne being rather Pamela-like, throwing caution to the wind and foolishly going it alone.
So if you are looking for an independent spunky female protagonist I would look elsewhere, as unfortunately the poisonous tropes of The Perils of Pamela, which initially are overturned, soon begin to evade and overtake the narrative, crippling Anne’s earlier expressions of sense and reason and driving her into walking into more than one trap, the worst of which is not set by the “Colonel,” but is the trap of matrimony which her he-man love interest lures her into. Despite his lack of interest in her, his rudeness and low opinion of women, dear old Anne is hooked from her first encounter with him, with her affections expanding under the often savage language and treatment of her beloved. And I think it is Anne’s endorsement of women enjoying submission, (‘women like to be mastered, but they hate not to have their sacrifices appreciated,’), as well as their supposed worship of masculine strength and male primitiveness, which left a bitter taste in my mouth. I feel like Anne in this respect stands apart from later Christie female protagonists. Unsurprisingly I found myself rapidly repelled by both Anne and her love interest, with my attention shifting on to other characters such as Colonel Race, (a much better choice of husband in my opinion) and Sir Eustace Pedlar MP.
In fact I found Pedlar’s role in the story, especially through his diary excerpts, delightful comical interludes in the narrative. His expressed reluctance for adventure, as a counterpoint to Anne’s lust for it, as well as his tactics for upsetting his overly-efficient secretary, were highly enjoyable. I think it is also from this quarter that we get some of the book’s best one liners.
Thrillers are not Christie’s speciality, but I think the exclusion of “villain ideologies,” short of the love of money, from this text probably makes this one of her better ones. Readers will pick up quite easily what is going on, yet I think the identity of the “Colonel” is withheld for quite a while in the text, despite mirroring certain aspects of the mysterious lead criminal in The Secret Adversary (1922). Whilst Anne increasingly got on my wick, this was a middling read taking all things into account. The ending is somewhat hammy, though given the protagonists this is only to be expected. So I end this review baffled as to the attraction over Anne? Anyone want to leap to her defence?
P.S. Do you know what the most appropriate clothing is for a heroine sleuth during a night time watch? Shoes with good grip? Flexible trousers and jumper? No I think you’ll find it is a ‘thick flannel dressing gown’ and slippers, which apparently Anne felt were great for those moments when you need to ‘spring up and take an active part in anything that happened.’
SPOILER P.P.S. I also noticed on this re-read that this is probably Christie’s first experiment with allowing the culprit to partially take on the role of narrator. Of course when it comes to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Endless Night this role is occupied solely by the criminal and in some ways is perhaps better camouflaged as a consequence. However I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this matter.