#1 – The Mysterious Affair at Styles

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

Hercule Poirot

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”.

Hastings

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”.

10 thoughts on “#1 – The Mysterious Affair at Styles”

  1. I haven’t read this in a looooong time (I apologise for the fact that this will be mentioned regularly as you work through these in order…!), but I’m intrigued by the idea of how it would be regarded had Christie not written another book. Would it be a curio like Milne’s The Red House Mystery, or would we see it as a seminal work? Christie bestrides the genre so hugely that I think it’s difficult to know how different GAD would look without her — those ten years before Carr came along would have doubtless taken a very different shape.

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  2. I just finished reading this for the first time – don’t ask why it took so long – about a week and a half ago. It’s a pretty strong debut, and a good mystery, of that there can be no question. The clarity of Christie’s writing and her tightness are in evidence right from the start but it’s not the finished article (obviously) and she would go on the bigger and better things, and remarkably quickly too.

    One notable aspect was the modern feel of the book, streets ahead in that respect of pre-WW1 material. Having said that, there is a tendency to drop in casual anti-Semitic references and sentiments, the kind of thing that does stick out nowadays. It doesn’t spoil the book for me or anything, but it is noticeable.

    I found the narrator, Hastings, almost impossibly priggish and pompous and he was beginning to wear on my nerves a bit. I liked how Poirot was able to puncture that repeatedly but it still grated some.

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    1. I’d say Hastings was pompous, but not priggish. He is completely deluded as to his abilities and entirely at the mercy of a good-looking woman, but his heart is in the right place, even if his brain is not.

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      1. I’ll grant you that. 🙂
        To be honest, I’d kind of forgotten how the character came across as it been ages since I read any other books in which he featured. Actually, I was of a mind to reread another early(ish) book, Lord Edgware Dies but ended up putting it off for a bit for fear Hastings would irritate me too much again. That’s probably unnecessary but, that said, I can see why Christie dropped him in due course.

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  3. Leave it to me to discover this just as you have entered the 1930’s, John! Oh well, better late than never.

    I think this was a generally strong debut, even if it has its problems. Poirot is great, the murder method is clever (if totally unfair for armchair detectives to figure out), and the general reversals that Christie will employ throughout her career are quickly established. That final piece of proof that Poirot finds at the end is a ridiculous deus ex machina, but his examination of the evidence in the murder room is just fine. Clearly, the early Poirot benefits from Christie’s love of Sherlock Holmes!

    Christie’s 1920s novels are generally longer works, and this would have benefited from some cutting – one less trial might have done it. More and more, Styles works as an historical document, and I love the peek into World War I life amongst the gentry. I can’t believe the book’s almost 100 years old! I’ll write more about it in 2020.

    (If this comment is repeated, it’s the stupid way my stupid iPad works sometimes! Sorry!!)

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    1. I saw you’d responded to JJ’s comment about my site last week, so I’m glad you’ve decided to take a look. My main surprise in Styles was Poirot’s case for collecting evidence, which I can’t remember ever seeing again as he then tends to be more scornful of physical evidence, instead looking at the psychological.

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      1. It’s interesting that Christie professed to growing tired of Poirot and the litany of characteristics she had given him when she could have easily modified him as she went along. The case never appears again, but the extreme personality traits lasted at least through the 30’s. Maybe they grew less pronounce by Sad Cypress.

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