Author: Agatha Christie
Series: this is the first book featuring Hercule Poirot
Publisher: Tantor Media on audio, which is how I experienced it this time
Publication Year: 1920
Status: keeper, I think
The Mysterious Affair At Styles for purchase on The Book Depository
The Mysterious Affair At Styles for free, legal download on Project Gutenberg
Many years ago, when I was still young to every genre but fantasy, I stumbled across an Agatha Christie novel in my favourite bookstore’s bargain bin. DEATH COMES AS THE END had a lot going for it: it was set in ancient Egypt, I’d heard of the author, and it was only $0.25. I bought it, read it, and became an Agatha Christie fan.
Over the next decade, I sought out and read every one of her mystery novels. (I still need to find a handful of short story collections and a few of her general fiction titles.) It shouldn’t have taken me that long, really, but I refused to pay more than $1 for any of the books. I broke down and shelled out a little more in a few particular cases, but for the most part, I stuck to my budget. And at the end, I had a complete Agatha Christie mystery library and a working knowledge of crime fiction tropes.
It’s now been three years since I closed my last new-to-me Christie. I miss her. It's about time I gave her another go.
The first time through, I read her books whenever I could get them, with little attention paid to series order (which means nothing with mysteries anyways) or publication date. This time, I want to experience her in publication order so I can see how she developed as a writer. I'll doubtless run into a few dodgy patches where the short stories are concerned, since they were often published several years before they were collected, but I’ll give myself some leeway in the matter.
Which brings us to THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES, Dame Agatha’s first novel.
Hastings, our narrator, is an army man who’s landed himself some time away from the Great War due to an injury. He chooses to recuperate with his friends at Styles, a country house wracked by drama. The matriarch has recently remarried a much younger man. Her long time secretary-companion has resigned in protest. Her stepsons fear for their inheritance. It’s scarcely a surprise when she drops dead of strychnine poisoning. The only question is, which of her dissatisfied relatives did her in?
Luckily, Hastings’s old friend Hercule Poirot, a recently-retired Belgian detective, is staying in the nearby village. Poirot agrees to assist the police in their inquiries, with rather alarming results for all involved.
Since Dama Agatha served as my introduction to crime fiction, it took me a while to realize that while she popularized and perfected many of the genre’s tropes, she cribbed as much as she created. The Poirot/Hastings partnership upon which she built her considerably literary output is totally a riff off the Holmes/Watson dynamic. We’ve got an army man, newly returned to England and unsure of what to do with himself, who ends up assisting a brilliant detective. He scoffs a great deal, offers a few deceptively simple insights that prove of great worth to Poirot, and eventually chronicles their cases for the amusement of the masses.
Poirot, now, is a decidedly quirky fellow whose incredible deductive skills often seem odd to onlookers. He keeps things close to the chest and refuses to explain himself until the case is in the bag. This is partly for fear of tipping his hand and partly because he really, really, really loves to show off. He's the kind of detective who calls everyone together and spends an ungodly number of pages executing his Big Reveal, because it's no fun if you aren't flashy about it.
So Poirot and Hastings, they are not so unique as my younger self believed; however, that’s not to say they’re a total Holmes/Watson rip off. They’re very much a riff off an established tradition; Dame Agatha’s own take on a trope. The comparison is impossible to ignore, but it needn’t keep the reader from viewing Poirot and Hastings as interesting detectives in their own right.
Dame Agatha's awareness of her genre extends to all corners of the story. She's clearly familiar with how mysteries typically work, and with how those who find themselves in the midst of one are expected to behave. Her characters often reference standard mystery tropes, which the story itself works to refute--or to uphold in unexpected ways. It’s a twisty, turny tale with plenty of red herrings and a believable amount of tension. I remembered the murderer’s identity, but I’d forgotten many of the steps Poirot takes in unmasking this person. I had a marvellous time watching each piece fall into place.
I also enjoyed considering how this early novel fits into Dame Agatha’s body of work. It’s a little different from her later books in that it takes place several years in the past; most of her novels are contemporary to when they were written, if not when they were published. It’s also much more aware of itself as a mystery. I don’t recall so many references to the genre’s tropes and traditions in many of Christie’s subsequent books--at least, not until we meet Ariadne Oliver, apple-loving mystery writer and Christie’s authorial stand-in. At that point, Dame Agatha no longer references other writers’ outputs so much as her own considerable bibliography and the success or failure thereof.
THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES also sets up the social agenda Dame Agatha adheres to throughout her body of work; that is, it concerns upper class folks with upper class problems. The servants mostly conform to stereotypes; they’re stupidly devoted to their masters and mistresses, or they’re vain and cruel and subject to "all the flaws of their class." Thankfully, there’s not too much of that sort of thing in this particular book. It’s mostly a case of unquestioned privilege and the lamentable worry of how one will keep one’s venerable old home running if one’s stepmother cuts one out of her will. Can one survive with no more than a cook and a maid of all work? Is it even possible, or should one just throw in the towel and move to Argentina (Dame Agatha's characters are always and forever destined for Argentina)?
All in all, though, I had a great time revisiting this. I listened to the Tantor Media audio production, performed by Penelope Dellaporta, and look forward to enjoying as many of their audios as my library owns as I work my way through Dame Agatha’s backlist.
3.5 stars – really liked it
There are many, as one would expect of a popular novel that has remained in print for nearly a century. You can find them on the book blogs search engine.
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- One Year Ago: The Best of the Third Quarter
- Two Years Ago: Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
- Three Years Ago: The Third Quarter
- Four Years Ago: 31 Tales of Terror: Day 8, R.I.P. III: The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Thieves & Kings: The Shadow Book by Mark Oakley