The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie’s first detective novel, which also introduced us to one of her most famous characters, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot first appeared in October 1920, and thus turned 100 this year. I revisited the book in celebration earlier in October (though I only got down to writing my thoughts/review now).
Agatha Christie began writing this one during the First World War when she was part of the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment), and working in a dispensary; her sister Madge had challenged her to write a detective story earlier. When she began thinking about and planning it, it was the setting she was in then that influenced quite a bit. Working in the dispensary at that point, ‘it was natural that death by poison should be the method’ (Christie, An Autobiography, p. 261 (Harper Collins, 1993 ed)). Not only that, one of the characters we meet, Cynthia Murdoch is just as Christie was then, working in a dispensary and surrounded by poisons. In deciding who the characters were to be, she also took inspiration from people she observed or chanced upon. ‘[W]hen I was sitting in a tram, I saw just what I wanted, a man with a black beard…’ (Christie, An Autobiography, p. 261 (Harper Collins, 1993 ed)). This bearded man went on to become Alfred Inglethorp in the book.
The book is set during the war (though published after it), and is like the Sherlock Holmes books Christie was fond of, being narrated by Captain Hastings, who is pretty much Poirot’s Watson (Christie herself describes him as such though Hastings doesn’t appear in all the Poirot stories, nor are they all told in his voice). Hastings is back home from the war front invalided when he runs into an old friend John Cavendish who invites him to stay at his family home, Styles Court, where Hastings has stayed before as a boy. Once there he meets John’s wife, Mary, sullen younger brother Lawrence, and young Cynthia Murdoch who is a VAD and staying at Styles as her mother was John’s mother’s friend. John’s mother he learns has remarried, and a much younger man, Alfred Inglethorp. None of the family seem to like him very much and Mrs Inglethorp’s companion, Evelyn Howard is most vocal in her disapproval. But Emily Inglethorp controls the purse strings and all her family is dependent on her for pretty much everything, though John as the eldest son will come into the house after her. One night Mrs Inglethorp who seems upset with her husband retires after dinner and later that night, dies—poisoned. Before these events, on a walk in the village Hastings had run into an interesting man he’d known before—a retired policeman, now there as a refugee from Belgium, Hercule Poirot; the refugees have incidentally been helped by Mrs Inglethorp. As soon as Mrs Inglethorp dies, Hastings calls in Poirot, just the man needed in such a situation. Meanwhile the case itself is entrusted to Inspector Japp (also a recurring character, and described by Christie in her autobio as a ‘Lestrade-type Scotland Yard detective (p. 290)). Working alongside Poirot or following him as he investigates, Hastings is puzzled by some of his actions and finds himself doubting Poirot, wondering if he’s lost his touch. Like Holmes, Poirot tells Hastings all he knows (or almost all) and all he has before him, and challenges him to reach his own conclusions, which Hastings does—but all the wrong ones. In the end, it is Poirot alone who manages to solve it and reveal all (in a characteristic denouement scene as we see in many of the books—in fact John Lane, her publisher had got her to change the scene she had originally written (An Autobiography, p. 284 )), while the police seem to have caught onto the wrong thread.
This book, even though it is Christie’s first book, brings us an excellent puzzle with plenty of twists and turns that have one wondering who could possibly have done it. While the characters are more or less likeable (even though most of the family is more or less living on the old lady), many of them seemed to have a possible motive for killing Mrs Inglethorp, but whose motive was strong enough for them to have done it? Christie keeps us guessing right till the end. Of course having read this one quite a few times, I did remember whodunit, but as I have written in other reviews of Christie’s books, she has so many subplots and threads that one can’t really remember them all. In this one, there is an entire trial that takes place which I didn’t remember at all. That’s what I love about Christie, there’s always something ‘new’ even when you’ve read a book many times. And as always there are plenty of secrets, red herrings, and a touch of romance, which makes this a cosy but also interesting read.
Do you enjoy the Poirot books? Have you read this one? How did you like it? Looking forward to your thoughts!
Cover image: my own.