Saturday, January 27, 2024

You Would Never Know The Mysterious Affair at Styles Was a Debut Novel


Scott D. Parker

For the past four years, I’ve tried to read along with the reading plans hatched by the folks behind Each year I’ve not completed all twelve books but I’m always game for a themed list like this that carries a reader throughout the year so I'm giving this year’s list a try. Unlike past lists that were, say, arranged by styles of murders, this year is simply chronological, and it begins at the beginning.

The Time Period

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is not only the first time we’re introduced to famed detective, Hercule Poirot, and his friend, Arthur Hastings, but it also is the first book Christie ever wrote. Talk about coming out of the gate at full speed. I’m still a freshman when it comes to Christie’s works—as best as I can tell, this is about the fourth or fifth book of hers I’ve read—but how she weaves this plot through the entire book is very impressive.

I’ve been doing some reading on Christie and I learned that Styles was written to win a bet. Christie’s sister didn’t believe the new writer could come up with a story where the reader cannot guess the actual culprit in the novel. Like many of the then-contemporary reviews stated in late 1920 and early 1921, the bet was won. 

Christie started the novel in 1916, which is why the setting is still during wartime. We get a good sense of what it is like on the homefront, at least in terms of a large country manor. Hastings is on leave from the war and ends up at Styles manor to recuperate. Poirot is a part of a group of Belgian refugees living near Styles and he knew the rich owner, Emily Inglethorp. I particularly appreciated Poirot as a refugee and not some famous detective who has an office and solves crimes. 

The Plot

Well, let’s be honest: the plot is wonderfully convoluted. As a listener (I heard the audiobook) in 2024, I was keen to see if I could figure out the killer, what threads were red herrings, and who had motive. Turns out I couldn’t, I kinda did, and everyone.

Much like Sherlock Holmes, Poirot keeps Hastings and other characters in the dark as the investigation progresses. There is always a legitimate reason why this happens (after Poirot explains it all) but it’s also Christie using her skill as a writer to tease just enough to entice readers to keep turning pages. 

The murder in question is that of Emily Inglethorp. She is poisoned. Now the only question is who did it and why. 

Christie tosses eight people in the mix. Alfred Inglethrop, the younger man recently married to Emily. John and Lawrence Cavendish, stepsons from Emily’s first marriage. Mary Cavendish, John’s wife. Evelyn Howard, a companion of Emily’s. Cynthia Murdoch, a friend of the family who works at a hospital dispensary. Dr. Bauerstein, a toxicologist who lives nearby. Dorcas, the loyal maid at Styles.

There are moments in the book where Christie (via Poirot) purposely keep things away from readers (and Hastings). To be honest, it reminded me of the middle section of The Hound of the Baskervilles where Holmes has Watson accompany Henry Baskerville to that manor while the detective does his own thing. Every writer is a reader and we absorb so many moments from other stories so things like this are bound to happen. 

What this does, of course, is let Poirot have that final last chapter where he sums up everything, and it is immensely satisfying. While I don’t think Poirot is as smart as Holmes, there were still a few moments when I heard the explanation and I realized I should have caught a clue. Shrug. I’m too busy enjoying the story. 

I borrowed my mom’s edition of the novel and it includes a different version of the final chapter. Christie originally had Poirot deliver the summation as part of a trial. Her editors encouraged her to change it up and just have Poirot relate all the details in the manor house. Much more effective because the Belgian detective can deliver all the clues with the flourish that reader have now enjoyed for over a century.

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