I had initially planned for my next Agatha Christie read to be The Man in the Brown Suit but in an act of absent-mindedness I contrived to leave it at work and was stranded without a read. My Audible collection came to the rescue and I quickly settled on a recording of the story read by David Suchet. Incidentally, if you do wish to listen to this on audio, his reading is superb.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles is narrated by Captain Hastings who, after receiving an injury at the front, has returned to England for convalescent leave. At a loss for what to do he visits a friend at their country house, Styles. This house is owned by his friend’s stepmother who inherited it for the remainder of her life upon her husband’s death along with the majority of his fortune. This has made her stepchildren reliant on her for financial support. She had been fairly generous, if controlling, with them in previous years but we learn that things have changed following her marriage to a much younger man.
Several days later Emily Inglethorp is found dead in her boudoir from an apparent case of strychnine poisoning though it is not clear how the drug had been administered. Hastings suggests that the family bring in a friend of his, Hercule Poirot, who he has discovered is staying in the village as a refugee and the family agrees after being persuaded of his discretion.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie’s first published novel and so it also introduces one of mystery fiction’s most iconic characters: the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot with his egg-shaped head, military moustache and desire for neatness and order. While the character would become richer over the years and play a larger role in later adventures than he does in this narrative, it is striking just how well formed he already is at this point.
Rather than focus on the things that are already in place here, I was more interested in a couple of things that felt a little different from the character or the style of the later mysteries.
Firstly, it is immediately apparent that this is a book that evokes a sense of the period in which it was written in a way that few other Christie stories do. Here we see a family whose circumstances are actually being affected by the war and throughout the book there are references given that remind us of this. Economies are being made at Styles and we hear Emily Inglethorp complain that her stepchildren are not doing enough to help the cause. And, even more noticeable, a woman is working in a professional capacity.
Given Christie’s popular image as a stodgy, conservative voice, I was struck by how Christie writing in 1916 is a progressive voice for that time. Her women are strong and patriotic, whether they are working to put Styles on a war footing or serving in a pharmacy. Meanwhile the males are mostly coasting on financial handouts, not seeking to contribute while believing that they are owed a living. The contrast is striking and gives the lie to the notion that Christie was someone who deplored progress.
The question of Christie’s politics is, of course, contentious and I think more complex than it appears. Part of the problem is that her longevity meant that many of her later works were written when she was a much older figure, seemingly from a bygone age. Those novels seem to wistfully reflect on the past and while I think that there is some acceptance of the need for progress in those later books, that can often be overlooked by readers. While I do not think you can base an opinion on a single novel, I would argue that at the very least it illustrates that there was a period of her career where Christie was more forward-thinking and perhaps even a little disapproving of her supposedly beloved establishment.
Secondly, while Poirot’s later adventures usually put a primary importance on the analysis of the psychological factors of a case, here he seems almost entirely focused on the question of motive and opportunity. While Poirot may later berate Hastings for what he suggests is an obsessive focus on the clue, here we see him finding scraps of a will in a fire grate and some of those unlikely strands of fabric stuck on a door latch.
Thirdly, in this case we actually see a suspect being brought to trial. I am not entirely sure that trial writing was really a strength of Christie’s and the narrative does seem to slow quite significantly at this point yet its inclusion is important and does serve a real purpose in the story.
Finally, here we have a version of Poirot that is living in difficult circumstances as a refugee and yet is managing to retain his sense of pride. This is essentially the same character we will see later and yet he is not initially the master of the crime scene through reputation but because of his inherent competency.
So, the final question I want to consider is whether this book, were it not the first Poirot mystery, would be considered a particularly noteworthy one. I say that because I think it is one of those books that anyone with an interest in GAD should try for its significance to the genre but that is not necessarily a mark of quality.
I personally rather enjoy The Mysterious Affair at Styles but I do think the mystery itself is one of Poirot’s less interesting cases. Certainly there is an element of the resolution (the identity of the killer) that I think is quite clever and utilizes Christie’s soon-to-be iconic skills at misdirection well but the cast of suspects are not particularly interesting either in variety or motive.
Also there is also an element of the resolution (the means of death) that I think is too clever and technical for me to be entirely happy with it. Not so much because it isn’t fair play but because it isn’t ingenious enough to be interesting and the death could have been contrived in a simpler way.
Still, I would reiterate that I did enjoy revisiting the novel. It is fascinating to see how much of the Belgian detective’s character is already in place in his first appearance and there are some wonderful moments along the way, not least one of Hasting’s customary and misguided acts of chivalry.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At a country house (Where)