The Mysterious Affair at Styles
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.
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.
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