26 September 2008

Review: ACRC: #1, THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES, Agatha Christie


Originally published 1920, reprinted Harper Collins 1997, 204 pages.

This account of the Styles Case is penned by Captain Hastings, a war hero invalided home from the Front. He is invited down to Styles Court by his friend John Cavendish to spend some of his convalescent leave. In the village Hastings runs across his old friend Hercules Poirot, an elderly Belgian, once one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police, but now a refugee assisted by John Cavendish's mother Mrs Inglethorpe. While Hastings is staying at Styles, Mrs Inglethorpe dies in suspicious circumstances, in a seemingly locked room. Through Hastings Poirot becomes involved in the case, and the "little grey cells" are put to work in England for the very first time.

Without creating any spoilers I want to list a few points about this book. They are not really in any particular order.
  1. Although it was published almost 90 years ago, it is very readable even now.
  2. It was actually Agatha Christie's debut novel.
    When we review such a novel these days, we tend to say something like, "really good for a debut novel." With THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES, her publishers must have thought they'd hit the jackpot! She burst onto the scene, 30 years old, and, by the time STYLES was published, married for 5 or so years, and mother to a baby daughter.
  3. This is Poirot's debut novel too, and Inspector Japp who figures in many of the later Poirot novels also makes his first appearance. While Hastings is a relatively young man, only 30 years old, Poirot is quite old, perhaps in his 50s??. Japp for example reveals that he had worked with Poirot on a case in Brussels and Antwerp in 1904, and he was already a celebrated sleuth.
  4. This novel is set towards the end of World War One, and Christie makes a number of observations about the privations of life in England during the war, rationing, and shortages, and a style of living that is fast disappearing. The house at Styles for example once had a much larger domestic, household and garden staff, but is now "making do". The Cavendish brothers have inherited money, John lives the life of a country squire, and Lawrence, the younger brother is delicate and follows literary pursuits. Other members of the family are working in "acceptable" occupations, for war time that is, a nurse, the land army, and a companion.
  5. The War features not only in Hastings' convalescence, but alos in the fact that one of the characters is a German spy.
  6. In STYLES Christie is exploring the scenario of a classic locked room mystery. The room in which Mrs Inglethorpe dies has 3 doors all apparently bolted on the inside. You can almost see her cutting her teeth on a classic crime fiction puzzle.
  7. In many ways Hastings is Poirot's foil, just as Watson was for Holmes.
  8. In the long run we see the resolution of the threads in a couple of ways that became a pattern in later books: all the characters are called together and Poirot reveals all, and the finer points are explained carefully to Hastings so that he (and we) finally understand how it all fitted together. Throughout the book Poirot jumps to conclusions but keeps them to himself, making us wonder what we've missed. Nor are we always told of the things he finds out. He disappears off to London for a day or two for example, but neither we, nor Hastings, don't always know why he went there, what he did, and what he found out. I don't think Christie always "played fair" with the reader.
It's been so long since I originally read THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES that I really had forgotten most of the detail, so it didn't really feel like I was re-reading it.
I'll be interested to hear how my fellow "challenge companions" went.

My rating 4.5

2 comments:

Lourdes said...

Having just started the challenge, I read this recently. I concur with your comments, especially about how readable this is, 90 years later. I guess that's why Christie is still so beloved!

stacybuckeye said...

Just read this first book for the challenge and loved it.

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