Agatha Christie: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Mysterious_affair_at_stylesThe Mysterious Affair at Styles
Agatha Christie
First published in the US, 1920, John Lane
296 pages (in the first edition)
Source: Project Gutenberg

‘Look after her, Mr. Hastings. My poor Emily. They’re a lot of sharks – all of them… There isn’t one of them that isn’t hard up and trying to get money out of her.’

I’ve only really begun properly reading Agatha Christie in the past few years, a delay caused largely by my own aversion to Sunday-night television. My quest to read the CWA top 100 crime novels, plus the annual challenges I’ve been doing, have caused me to engage with her properly, and I have to say I’ve been impressed. I think Christie’s gift to the ‘golden age’ of mystery fiction may have been a sense of humour and a lightness of tone. Compared with other writers of the 1920s I have read, she is a lot more approachable and fluid.

So I decided to delve into the Christie back-catalogue to her first novel (and the first appearance of her Belgian super-sleuth Hercule Poirot), 1920’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It seems like Christie hit her winning formula instantly with Styles. What became the standard features of a Poirot mystery – from the setting through to the denouement – emerge fully formed. As does Poirot himself:

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.

The country house setting is Styles Court in Essex, where our narrator/Watson figure Captain Hastings is invited to stay by his friend John Cavendish. Cavendish plays the part of country squire, but in fact the financial reins at Styles are in the hands of his stepmother Emily. She has recently remarried, to an ‘absolute outsider’ called Alfred Inglethorp. Despite the fact that Inglethorp is an obvious rogue, the family has to put up with him. Only Evie Howard, an old family retainer, speaks out against him, and has to leave as a result. Other suspects-to-be are Cynthia Murdoch, a protégé of the family who works at a local dispensary, Dr Bauerstein, described as an expert in poisons, the medically-qualified wastrel brother Lawrence Cavendish, and John’s beautiful but resentful wife Mary. ‘A lot of sharks – all of them.’

Before long, Mrs Inglethorp is poisoned to death in her room and everyone seems to assume her husband is to blame. Of course, things are not so simple.

Remember_BelgiumPoirot, a former luminary of the Belgian police force, is one of a group of Belgian refugees (Styles was written in 1916, when Belgians were all the rage) sharing a house in the village of Styles St Mary. Hastings has met him previously and knows of his reputation, so persuades Cavendish to bring him into the case.

After all, though he was old, Poirot had been a great man in his day.

In what is regarded as the true golden age fashion, Mrs Inglethorp’s death is not particularly regretted by anybody and benefits almost everybody, leaving Poirot, Hastings (and of course the official police) free to puzzle out the crime in an atmosphere untinged by grief. Means and opportunity become the key questions. Who bolted the door? Where is the missing coffee cup? Who knew about the duplicate key? When was the poison taken? Who did the inevitable new will (unfortunately burnt) benefit and who was left penniless? Obscure clues have to picked up: ‘A scribbled over old envelope, and a freshly planted bed of begonias’ proves there is a missing will.

In his 1972 review of the crime genre, Bloody Murder, Julian Symons pans Styles pretty thoroughly: ‘Agatha Christie’s book is original in the sense that it is a puzzle story which is solely that, which permits no emotional engagement with the characters.’

However, I don’t agree. For starters, I developed an affection for Captain Hastings and Poirot. Hastings is a classic comic creation, fancying himself something of a detective and regarding Poirot as a has-been of limited utility – ‘a great man in his day’. He has an eye for the ladies, falling for women left, right and centre, regardless of marital status, age or suitability. Mary Cavendish is described as having ‘wonderful tawny eyes’. Mrs Raikes from the village is a ‘pretty young woman of the gipsy type’. Cynthia is ‘a fresh-looking young creature, full of life and vigour.’

She tossed off her little V. A. D. cap, and I admired the great loose waves of her auburn hair, and the smallness and whiteness of the hand she held out to claim her tea. With dark eyes and eyelashes she would have been a beauty.

His brand of doting chivalry would be a severe disability in a more effective detective, but luckily he is very far from effective, as Poirot realises:

‘Yes, he is intelligent. But we must be more intelligent. We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.’
I acquiesced.
‘There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.’
I was pleased with the compliment. There had been times when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.
‘Yes,’ he continued, staring at me thoughtfully, ‘you will be invaluable.’

Poirot too is played for laughs. His trademark vanity is showcased in multiple scenes.

”Not so. Voyons! One fact leads to another—so we continue. Does the next fit in with that? A merveille! Good! We can proceed. This next little fact—no! Ah, that is curious! There is something missing—a link in the chain that is not there. We examine. We search. And that little curious fact, that possibly paltry little detail that will not tally, we put it here!’ He made an extravagant gesture with his hand. ‘It is significant! It is tremendous!’

So, if you haven’t read Styles, I’d urge you to get hold of a copy (it’s free on Project Gutenberg) – it is a massively enjoyable read.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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25 Responses to Agatha Christie: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

  1. Rich – Thanks for this terrific post. Funnily enough, Christie is said to have had quite the time getting this novel published. In fact, if I’m right it took quite a while and several revisions to get it accepted. The final product though is a great introduction to these characters. I think it also gives us some insight into their backstories and later interactions.

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    • realthog says:

      Yes, it was rejected by, I think, about twenty publishers before finally being bought. Odd, in a way, because I believe she’d already established a name as a short-story writer, so you’d have thought publishers would have been keen to get hold of a novel. Perhaps the fact that it was wartime put a damper on book publishing in general; I wouldn’t know.

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      • Thanks for that background, Realthog. That’s what I’d thought; nice to get some factual corroboration. Perhaps it was wartime exigencies; perhaps it was something else. It’s good for all of us though that Christie broke through that barrier.

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  2. tracybham says:

    For some reason, when I read this several years ago I did not enjoy it that much, and it put me off reading more Christie for a few years. Once I started reading more Christie, I have liked every one I have read, so I don’t know if I was in the wrong mood or what. I do think I should go back and try this one again.

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  3. heavenali says:

    It’s sometime since I read The Mysterious Affair of Styles – I remember really enjoying it.

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  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I think it’s wonderful – an amazing way to start a career and she really hit her stride with her first book!

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  5. Juxtabook says:

    As you say she is funny, and whatever her faults I always really enjoy an Agatha Christie and I am always taken aback by the number of things she does really well, which the constant negative jibs on her ‘quality’ always make you forget between reads. Somehow her books are always greater than the sum of their parts.

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  6. I re-read this one a couple of years ago and thought it stood up remarkably well. I remember thinking that I doubt there are many authors whose debut novels will be able to be read and enjoyed equally well 90 years after their publication.

    Since participating in your year challenges (especially last month’s dreadful Ellery Queen experience) I’ve been thinking about Christie and the negative jibes that Juxtabook above mentions – I think it’s too easy to dismiss her (I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it myself) – perhaps familiarity breeds contempt? or the fact she is a female writer? or something else? – but all the snide criticisms in the world don’t change the fact that as a canon of work hers has no equal – still read and enjoyed, still adapted in a myriad of ways, enjoyed by many different cultures if the sales in translation are anything to go by (at least some of which you’d think would not engage with the kinds of societies she depicts). Admittedly it’s helped the work has been managed well by those in charge of her estate but a canny nose for business by her descendants doesn’t explain people mobbing David Suchet in the street wherever he goes (I witnessed such a mobbing in my little city at the bottom of the world when he was here for a stage play earlier this year – it was at a restaurant and the poor man barely got time to eat a morsel – we were sitting close enough to hear that everyone who went to his table talked about his role as Poirot)

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    • dfordoom says:

      bernadetteinoz said:

      “I think it’s too easy to dismiss her”

      There’s a very good reason many people want to dismiss her. She sold between two and four billion books. That kind of success breeds an enormous resentment among modern writers and critics whose book sales can be numbered in the thousands (or in some cases the hundreds).

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      • realthog says:

        There’s a very good reason many people want to dismiss her. She sold between two and four billion books. That kind of success breeds an enormous resentment among modern writers and critics whose book sales can be numbered in the thousands (or in some cases the hundreds).

        That’s easy and glib enough to say, but I’m not sure how true it is. For me, while I’ve enjoyed some of her books (including Styles). there’ve been plenty of others that I haven’t, much. Even at her best she seems to me a tad limited in scope. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest that she so obviously floats other people’s boats and, since I don’t write detective fiction (or at least in any recognizable form), I have no cause for jealousy. If I thought her books were bad then, yes, I might feel some irritation, but, as I say, very few of them are actually bad.

        So I think you ought to apologize to writers and critics everywhere for having smeared them in such an unwarranted manner. 🙂

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      • westwoodrich says:

        See also: Harry Potter.

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  7. I’ve always enjoyed this one – surprised it’s on Gutenberg though, it’s most definitely still in copyright

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    • Santosh Iyer says:

      This book along with The Secret Adversary are in public domaim in US. Hence both are available in Gutenberg.

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      • Yes, all pre-1923 literary copyrights have now expired in the US but in Europe and elsewhere its 70 years from the death of the author (so 2046 in Christie’s case) – Gutenberg should be limiting access to the US with geo-IP and they are not, which is very irresponsible and in fact illegal.

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    • westwoodrich says:

      They’re as bad as Pirate Bay, that Gutenberg lot.

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      • Not they’re not Rich 🙂 They are usually pretty careful about that they include it seems to me – but they do need to use some sort of geo-IP where territorial differences occur! I’m surprised the Christie estate isn’t making a fuss …

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      • Santosh Iyer says:

        Another example. The Philo Vance books by S.S. Van Dine are in public domain in Australia but not in US. However, the people of US can access the books through Gutenberg Australia.
        Regarding Christie estate not making a fuss, they realise that they are in a losing game. All the Agatha Christie books, all the TV episodes amd all the films are available on Pirate Bay which despite several blockings by ISPs can be accessed anywhere in the world through proxies.

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  8. Great review Rich, and I agree with you: it’s still a very readable book and a good introduction to the canon.

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  9. Helen says:

    Great review. Styles was the first book I read in my Agatha Christie Challenge (https://fennell-books.squarespace.com/the-great-agatha-christie-challenge/) and liked it very much. Some of the ones that followed were less good, but they weren’t the “country house murder” type books. Christie is brilliant at capturing the small village, country house type vibe, with all the good and the bad that go with it.

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  10. Flighty says:

    I enjoyed rereading this book earlier this year.
    Thanks to my mum I’ve long been a Christie fan and have probably read most, if not all, her books.

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  11. FictionFan says:

    It always surprises me how seldom Christie’s humour is mentioned in reviews – it’s one of the things I most love about her. That, and the fact that I find her detectives so likeable…

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  12. I am reading the Monogram Murders right now, and just 30 pages in it doesn’t feel like the Poirot I know. 😦 Agatha’s style of writing seems so simplistic and yet apparently is not so easy to replicate.

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