The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

StylesI 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)

Suggested Reads: Murder on the Orient Express

I am unlikely to have time to go and see Murder on the Orient Express this weekend due to a busy work and childcare schedule but I couldn’t resist posting something that might tie in with its release. An added bonus would be that this will be my first post about Dame Agatha – it’s fairly amazing that I managed to go fifteen posts without so much as mentioning her name!

I initially toyed with doing a top five listing of my favorite Christie stories but it has been such a long time since I read many of them that I am not sure my memory would be entirely reliable. Another option was to write something about Christie’s legacy but that wouldn’t be particularly personal.

Instead I decided to do some suggestions of other Christie stories that I would recommend to those who loved this movie and want to investigate some of her other works. Below are a number of reasons you may have liked the movie with a suggestion or two to match. I am confident that if you do try them you will find a great read!

You Liked MOTOE Because… Of The Exotic Setting

DeathontheNileChristie’s work doesn’t always feature settings as magnificent or appealing to the imagination as the Orient Express but when Poirot or Marple do travel they often do so in style.

Death On the Nile is a great example of this. Here Poirot is approached by a beautiful woman while traveling in Cairo who has recently married but now finds that she is being stalked by her husband’s lover. While Poirot initially declines to assist believing there to be no crime, events take a murderous turn.

While much of the novel is spent aboard a steam ship on the great river itself, we get a sense both of the country and of the experience of travelling before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Also consider Murder in Mesopotamia, another Poirot story which is set against the backdrop of an archaeological dig.

You Liked MOTOE Because… Of Its Ingenious Solution

ABC MurdersChristie’s plotting is one of her greatest strengths and she pulled off some wonderful surprises throughout her career. Some are famous such as the solution to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but I’d rather focus on two stories that don’t get quite the same press but which I think are quite brilliant.

The ABC Murders is, to my mind, Christie’s best book that people just don’t know about. Perhaps that reflects its title or the lack of a major modern movie adaptation. In short, Poirot is challenged by a serial killer to anticipate his moves and stop him before he kills again. The serial killer is working alphabetically and leaves an ABC Railway guide near the body as a calling card. The solution is wonderfully simple and just as cunning and memorable as that of MOTOE.

A Murder Is Announced is a Miss Marple novel which has a wonderful hook: someone has placed an advert letting people know when and where a murder will take place. Inevitably the whole village seems to gather at the indicated date and time expecting a game and are shocked when a murder really is committed. Once again, the genius of this story lies in its cunning simplicity.

You Liked MOTOE Because… Trains

DeathintheCloudsWell, once again Dame Agatha provides and if trains are your thing, consider The Mystery of the Blue Train or The 4:50 From Paddington.

I’d prefer to switch gears though and suggest Death in the Clouds. Sure, the murder takes place in the skies instead of on tracks but some of the elements of this story are quite memorable and the solution to how a murder is conducted mid-flight is really quite clever.

If you are planning to watch rather than read my suggestions, I seem to remember that the David Suchet adaptation is not one of the better ones though so you may want to chase it down with a viewing of the quite wonderful (and not particularly faithful) adaptation of The 4:50 From Paddington, Murder She Said!

You Liked MOTOE Because… Of Its Star-Studded Cast

NoneWell, books aren’t really star-studded so let’s shift formats and switch to films. The good news is that there were a heap of film adaptations made in the seventies and eighties featuring some really big name stars. The Albert Finney Murder On The Orient Express is a great example – it features Sean Connery and the wonderful Ingrid Bergman among its cast.

Though I think some parts of the adaptation stretch a little too far from Christie’s original (especially the bacchanal sequence), the recent 2015 adaptation of And Then There Were None is quite chilling and features a superb cast that includes Charles Dance, Sam Neill, Aidan Turner and Toby Stephens. It also comes closer than most adaptations to using the actual ending of the novel.

So, there are some of my suggestions for some literary (and movie) chasers to wash down your viewing of Murder on the Orient Express with. Hopefully you loved the movie and I hope it won’t be too long before I get to go see it myself. If you have any comments or suggestions of your own, please do share – I’d love to read them.