Happy New Year and welcome to the first proper post of the blog!
Agatha Christie started to write her first detective novel in 1916 and after being rejected by a number of publishing houses, it was published by The Bodley Head in 1920.
The story is presented as being the definitive account of the notorious “Styles Case”, written to “silence the sensational rumours that still persist”.
Mrs Inglethorp, the lady of the manor, dies from suspected poisoning in the early hours of the morning, and the narrator, Hastings, asks his host’s permission to involve the discreet Hercule Poirot in determing whether foul play has occurred. Poirot examines the deceased’s room and identifies the following key pieces of evidence: a coffee-cup that has been ground into powder, a despatch-case with a key in the lock, a stain on the floor, a fragment of some dark green fabric, a large splash of candle grease, and an empty box of sleeping powders.
From these Poirot is able to weave a net that finally catches a ruthless, but probably over-clever, killer.
Having first read and watched Agatha Christie from a young age, I had assumed that the gathering of all the suspects for the final denouement where the great detective explains all the clues that they have cryptically referred to before revealing who the murderer is, was the norm in detective fiction. However, having read all the British Library Crime Classics, along with re-reading the works of Josephine Tey and some of Dorothy L. Sayers, I’ve found that Christie’s approach is radically different. Normally, a mystery is presented from the perspective of a competent policeman such as Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French or John Bude’s Inspector Meredith, and we follow their train of thought as they investigate various possibilities, and while there may be twists and turns in the narrative, the significance of items is not normally deliberately masked from the reader. Instead with Christie, we are often given a narrator who completely misreads the hints provided by the sleuth (or sometimes is deliberately deceived), and this influences the reader’s judgment. Already in her first book, she has created a template that would be used successfully many times over, and created a distinctive central character.
In terms of this book as a stand-alone, if Christie had never written another detective story, would we be talking about it as a seminal work, in the same vein as Trent’s Last Case? Perhaps not, but I think it would at least be classed as a forgotten gem by those in the know. What do you think?
Recurring character development
As a refugee from Belgium, he has been offered hospitality along with seven of his countrypeople by Mrs Inglethorp.
He is hardly more than five feet, four inches tall, but carries himself with great dignity. His head is exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perches it a little on one side. His moustache is very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire is almost incredible.
He has been a member of the Belgian police force, and in his day was celebrated for his flair in solving some of the most baffling cases.
He has a despatch-case that contains forceps, envelopes, and test tubes for the collection of evidence.
His eyes turn green like a cat’s when he is excited.
He occasionally smokes tiny Russian cigarettes.
Unexpectedly, based on the usual TV and film depictions, he runs and leaps, gambolling wildly, after discovering one particular piece of evidence, and later tears down the street, hatless and gesticulating as he runs.
He sometimes builds houses from playing cards as “with precision of the fingers goes precision of the brain”.
Having been invalided from the Front and after spending some months in a convalescent home, was invited to stay at Styles by his friend John Cavendish.
He is aged thirty at most.
He met Poirot in Belgium and believes that he has built on his methods of detection.
Between the crime and the trial he is given a job at the War Office.
His first name and military rank are not given in this book.
Detective Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp
A little, sharp, dark, ferret-faced man.
Works for Scotland Yard.
Worked with Poirot in 1904 on the Abercrombie Forgery case in Brussels, and then later to catch “Baron” Altara in Antwerp.
Signs of the Times
The story is set in the summer of 1917.
Due to the war petrol is rationed, but due to her charitable activities Mrs Inglethorp can still get some.
Mary Cavendish is working for the Women’s Land Army and Cynthia Murdoch for the Voluntary Aid Detachment. John Cavendish drills twice a week with the volunteers.
Men of fighting age, such as the pharmacist’s previous assistant, are being conscripted into the armed forces.
The activities of the War Office that Hastings works for were taken over by the Ministry of Defence in 1964.
The principle of double jeopardy is referred to. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 now allows for a re-trial in serious cases if there is “new and compelling evidence”.
Vintage Reading Challenge
Mrs Inglethorp fulfils the category “Who – Matriarch/patriarch of the family”.