Book Review: The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles
by
Agatha Christie

Rating:

I’d known about Agatha Christie’s books, but I’d never read one until I picked up The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Published in 1920, it is Christie’s debut detective novel and is set in England, outside London. Christie introduces her now well-known character, Hercule Poirot, a Belgian refugee and “one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police.” Poirot became a long-running character in Christie’s writings and appeared in thirty-three novels, two plays and more than fifty short stories.

In this story, Poirot investigates the poisoning death of Mrs. Emily Inglethorp at the family estate, Styles Court in Essex. Emily’s two stepsons and others at Styles are convinced that Alfred Inglethorp, their mother’s new and much younger husband, is the killer. And he has a  motive, they believe: Emily’s fortune. As a favor to his friend Hastings, also a guest at Styles and narrator of this story, Poirot investigates Emily’s death. Hastings is recovering from war wounds thanks to John’s hospitality and has always wanted to be a detective. He happily becomes Poirot’s eager assistant.

In a thorough and sometimes indirect and mysterious style, Poirot interviews family members and guests including stepsons John and Lawrence Cavendish; John’s wife, Mary; Emily’s loyal friend, Evie Howard; and Emily’s protégé, Cynthia Murdoch. Maids and gardeners also share important clues and Christie includes helpful floorplans to explain the layout of the house, crucial to understanding the events of Emily’s death.

One of the major issues is Emily’s will. There have been many versions and a last-minute revision. No one is sure what changes have been made and a lot is at stake. John and Lawrence, country squires, have no real source of income and they also fall under suspicion. Another fact to sort out is the strychnine that killed Emily. How was she poisoned and who acquired the strychnine? There are several possibilities. A curious side character is Dr. Bauerstein, who happens to be a poison expert. He’s staying in the village while recovering from a nervous breakdown.

Hastings may be Poirot’s helper, but Poirot likes to keep his ideas close to the vest, leaving Hastings, and the reader, in the dark for periods of time. He gets it all right, of course, in genius style because he quietly notices details and considers possibilities others have discarded. Poirot’s methods are amusing to witness because they show how people become frustrated when they don’t get immediate answers.

I enjoyed reading this mystery, which is not solved until the final pages, but which Poirot fully explains to his naïve assistant.

I must mention, however, several racist characterizations in the book, something Christie has been criticized for and which are completely unnecessary to the storyline. Although I’m unsure of when this happened, the Anti-Defamation League complained about Christie and American publishers were allowed to remove offensive descriptions from some of her books. There are several articles about Christie’s depictions.

ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews, May 14, 2018: “The erasure of race in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None by Blake Allmendinger”

The New Yorker, August 16, 2010: “Queen of Crime – How Agatha Christie created the modern murder mystery” by Joan Acocella

Canadian Jewish News, January 23, 2020: “Was Agatha Christie an Anti-Semite?” by Michael Taube

So although The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a clever story and marks the introduction of Poirot’s character, these comments took away from my reading experience.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

32 thoughts on “Book Review: The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

  1. That’s a good one, although not my favorite of the Poirot books. I just finished reading the first Miss Marple book (Murder at the Vicarage) and it really does keep you guessing.

    1. Hi Stephanie – I think because of the times we are in, it’s more on our minds. And I think that’s good. I also think it’s important to mention, so thank you for reading and commenting. I thought Styles was very clever, otherwise. Which Agathat Christie book did you read?

  2. A.Christie lived and wrote her books a hundred years ago. Times were different and shouldn’t be compared to ‘now.’ We watched many Miss Marple movies on TV, and always comment on the incredible mind this lady had!

    1. Hi Gisele. Thank you for reading and commenting. I agree that times were different, but I do think it should be mentioned. It did take away from my enjoyment of an otherwise clever story.

    1. I’d never read an Agatha Christie book before this. I run a mystery book club at the library where I work, but mysteries have never been my go-to genre. That said, I’ve read some excellent ones since and have learned a lot. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. I used to read her books when I was young and enjoyed the tv series too. It’s true that she casually employed racist stereotypes. Her writing provides something of an historical window on those beliefs and suggests how common they were. I believe she was a product of her time, but I also agree with removing those references from her writing.

    1. Hi Lynette. I think I feel the same way. It’s good to see how other people feel. I believe it needs to be mentioned because when you say you like a book, it implies support for everything that’s in it. Thank you for reading and commenting. I hope you are doing well. 🙂

  4. I’ve not read this one. I have seen many Poirot TV episodes, and although have to acknowledge that David Suchet is brilliant, boy, does he irritate me – and maybe that’s the point.

  5. I’ve only ever read And Then There Were None, but I”ve been intending to read more of her work, especially a Poirot mystery. Thank you for sharing this review! I’ve never read anything about the author’s life or views, and it’s disturbing to hear that racism and anti-Semitism are issues in her writing.

    1. You’re right, Jennifer. People can say it was just the way things were, or representative of that period of time, but I think it’s important to bring it up. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  6. I love most of Agatha Christie’s books, because they are character-driven and not all about bloodshed and killing. Some are better than others, which is understandable given how many of them she wrote in her lifetime. I am also bothered by some of the racial references, which were common at the time she wrote them (let’s be honest, in 60 years some of the books we love and think are just fine are going to contain phrases and ideas that have been proved to be offensive), but I don’t think that removing those phrases would take away from the story line or plot at all. If it were my call, I would remove them when publishing newer additions.
    I can’t remember the name of it, but she did write one book which seemed to excuse, if not glorify, domestic abuse. The main character’s boyfriend actually tries to strangle her in fit of jealous rage, and the main character ends up wanting to marry him, even knowing he might be dangerous. She sees it as love and excitement. That book bothered me, and it would take much more than deleting a few sentences to make it better. So that one is NOT on my bookshelves!

    1. Hi Ann – thanks for reading and commenting. I agree with everything you say. Having read only this Agatha Christie book, I can’t talk about everything she wrote. These characterizations jumped out at me because of the times we are in. I think the other book you describe would have bothered me too. The question is whether to read these books with the perspective of 100 years ago, or with a modern perspective. I appreciated the clever plot and many other parts of the book and I’m sure her Poirot character deserves the fans it has. While I would never want this blog to become a place for heated debate about political or social issues, I felt I had to point these descriptions out because they altered my reaction to the book. Thanks again for leaving such thoughtful comments!

    1. Hi Robbie – my mystery book club for work met last week. We had one woman who had read all of Agatha Christie’s books. Overall the group didn’t think The Mysterious Affair was her best, but they named Orient Express and Then There Were None as better stories. I’d only read this one! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

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