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All great mystery series have to begin somewhere, and the ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ is where Agatha Christie began her reign as the legendary Queen of Mystery in 1920 – a position she held through-out the Golden Age of detective fiction – and on until her death in 1976.
Most of the classic Christie elements are already apparent in ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’. Murder occurs in a country house. The potential suspects are limited by the circumstances and they are all concealing secrets. Death occurs due to poison, the favourite weapon of this wartime pharmacy dispenser, and the detective gathers all the suspects together one final time to unveil the solution to the mystery.
Of course, this novel is also the debut of Hercule Poirot, Christie’s most famous detective, arguably second only to Sherlock Holmes in all time popularity. Poirot goes on to appear in 33 Christie novels, and countless radio, TV, and movie portrayals.
‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ is narrated by Poirot’s foil, Captain Arthur Hastings, who is even more dim-witted than Sherlock’s Watson. Hastings appears in many of Christie’s short stories, but only in ‘Styles’ and seven other novels, as well as the Christie play, ‘Black Coffee’. Hastings is loyal to a fault, gallant, and completely trustworthy, though he tends towards fanciful solutions which are gently mocked by Poirot. He has already revealed his ambitions as a detective, when Poirot tells Hastings, “We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.” Hastings takes this advice to heart, and Poirot uses his bumbling attempts as a perfect cover for his own investigation.
In our first encounter with Poirot, Hastings provides the prototypical description of Poirot, which was expanded, but never seriously altered over the following half century of his literary career. “Poirot was an extraordinary looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible. I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandyfied little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police. As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day.”
Poirot, in the 1916 setting of this work, is a newly arrived refugee, already retired from the Belgian police service, living in Styles St. Mary, not far from Styles Court, a country house in Essex. Hastings has returned from the front on medical leave, and has been invited to stay at Styles Court by his old friend John Cavendish. Within a few weeks, murder arrives at Styles quite unannounced, despite all the simmering tensions already in play.
The victim in this case is Emily Inglethorpe, formerly Emily Cavendish, life heir of her husband’s large estate, and stepmother to John and his brother, Lawrence, who have excellent financial reasons for putting an end to this usurper of their inheritance. The cause of death is found to be strychnine poisoning, and it is clearly the work of someone in the household. Other than John and Lawrence, the suspects include; Alfred Inglethorpe, Emily’s newly acquired husband; Mary Cavendish, John’s wife; Evelyn Howard, Mrs. Inglethorpe’s long suffering companion; Cynthia Murdoch, the orphaned daughter of a family friend; Dr. Bauerstein, conveniently an eminent toxicologist; and Dorcas, a longtime maid to Mrs. Inglethorpe.
Inspector Japp, another Christie regular, also makes his first appearance, as the inept representative of Scotland Yard, called in to solve the case, by the befuddled local authorities. Japp, as always, eventually gets most of the credit, but it is Hercule Poirot, brought in by Hastings, who applies ‘the little grey cells’ and finally solves this baffling case. The exact connection between Hastings and Poirot is never explained, we only know they were once close friends, a minor omission that has always caused me a degree of irritation.
All the suspects have deep secrets, and a reasonably good motive to kill Mrs. Inglethorpe. On the day before the murder, she is heard having a heated argument with someone, at first assumed to be her husband, Alfred, or her son, John. She then had a light supper and retired to bed, taking her private document case up to her bedroom. This would prove to be her final meal. The household is awoken in the middle of the night by her screams, as she slowly dies an agonizing death behind a locked door, which must be forced before medical attention can come to the rescue. Despite the heroic efforts of the local doctor, Mrs. Inglethorpe is soon pronounced dead. Once the emergency has passed, it soon becomes apparent that foul play has occurred and the police are brought into investigate. Though Japp and the local police find few clues, Poirot later discovers a coffee cup smashed into powder, the despatch case with a key in the lock, a suspicious piece of paper covered with the word ‘possessed’, and a dark stain on the bedroom floor. Of paramount importance is a missing document, apparently removed from the despatch case, then burned to ash in the fireplace grate. Poirot is required to use all of his great deductive skills and psychological insight to eliminate a slough of red herrings, before he finally arrives at the solution to what happened at Styles Court.
‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ is not the best of the Agatha Christie novels. The style is still a little immature, and has not quite jelled into the classic Christie style. Oddly, many critics also find Hastings dull wits to be rather irritating, though this has never caused me any unease. Of course, for Christie fans, this is clearly a must read. Any book that gives birth to those three inimitable characters, Poirot, Hastings, and Japp, clearly deserves the attention of every mystery fan. It is also the book that launched a literary career that has few rivals. At last count, Christie had sold around two billion novels, making her the best selling single author of all times, well ahead of Chairman Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ at only 800 million, and close to halfway towards The Bible’s estimated 5 billion copies printed worldwide over several centuries. Agatha Christie is more than just another mystery author, she has been a cultural phenomenon for the better part of a century. ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ began that whole process, and for that reason alone, it should be on every mystery lover’s list.
Still, it is not necessary to read ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’, simply because it is an important part of our mystery heritage. It stands alone as a well written, intriguing, mystery novel that is extremely well plotted, contains entertaining dialogue, and holds just enough of the dark shadow of the war that parallels the story, to set the historical context without interfering with a quite excellent mystery read.
It is not the best of Agatha Christie, but it is still a must read. I give it four stars out of five.
This is the only Poirot novel in the public domain. It can be downloaded for free online, or bought in various eBook editions with the original illustrations for less than a dollar! Have fun with this good murder!
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