I’ll always have a special soft spot for this book since it was the first Agatha Christie novel I’ve ever read back in my early teens. While I probably wouldn’t recommend it to someone else as a first taste of Christie, it’s a fun adventure romp that holds up surprisingly well on a re-read and is one of Christie’s better thrillers. Also, the current coronavirus situation and its restrictions have a way of colouring things I watch and read; reading about someone embarking on an adventure in a far-off country (on a cruise ship, no less!) left me with a wistful pang that otherwise wouldn’t be there.
Anne Beddingfield is the daughter of a brilliant but penniless archaeologist, who, after the sudden death of her father, goes to London in search of adventure and thrills. While standing on the tube platform one day, she witnesses a man fall onto the tracks. Another man claiming to be a doctor confirms the death, then accidentally drops a scrap of paper with a cryptic message while leaving the scene that could only have come from the pockets of the deceased.
Shortly after, an unidentified young woman is found strangled at an empty house belonging to Sir Eustace Pedler, MP, with a mysterious man in a brown suit the only lead. Convinced that the murdered woman, the accident in the tube and the fake doctor are all connected, Anne works out that the message on the scrap of paper refers to a ship departing for South Africa in just a few days. She spends the last of her inheritance on a ticket and hops onboard, finding her perilous adventure as she becomes entangled in an intrigue involving a criminal organisation headed by a secret mastermind and stolen diamonds. It also becomes obvious that some of her fellow travellers aren’t what they seem and that her life is in grave danger. Cue all the red herrings, miraculous escapes and dramatic reversals.
I completely forgot that Colonel Race, one of Christie’s major recurring characters, was in this novel; interestingly, you get to find out more about his personal and emotional life here than in all other books combined. It was fun to see him through Anne’s eyes as one of the strong silent types she’d encountered in her beloved Rhodesian romance novels. Sir Eustace Pedler, also onboard the ship with Anne, is the book’s secondary narrator, with his personal diaries giving an insight into the aspects of the story Anne wouldn’t be privy to. They also lend a comical touch as he complains about his troubles with his many secretaries. He’s easily one of Christie’s most entertaining characters.
Anne is cut from the same cloth as many other of Christie’s plucky resourceful heroines, but she’s rather more quirky and loveable than most of them and is a lot of fun to follow. At the very beginning, Anne mentions her love of The Perils of Pamela, a weekly film series about a spirited adventuress, and you can’t help but wonder how much of this book is Christie’s way of poking fun at this type of adventure story. Anne’s observation that Pamela is not particularly clever and gets entrapped by the Master Criminal every week feels like a knowing wink when, later on, Anne herself acts carelessly and gets into precisely the same kind of trouble.
Though the book is not exactly a travelogue about South Africa, there’s enough detail to convey Anne’s sense of wonder and delight at having found herself in a strange exotic country (and the 1924 colonial attitudes are mercifully kept to the minimum). As expected, the romance is the novel’s weakest aspect; I’d have chalked it up to Christie writing a romance in a vein of melodramatic adventure stories where the heroine falls instantly in love with a dangerous but misunderstood handsome stranger, but the truth is that it’s just never been her forte.