The Mysterious Affair at Styles
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.
Poirot, 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.’
‘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.