Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) by Agatha Christie

And now, back to the beginning.

I really shouldn’t need to justify an Agatha Christie, especially one as well-known as this, to this audience, but you never know. There are some who might think that “Oh, this was her first book, so it wasn’t that good,” or “It’s probably totally different than anything she wrote after this.” As The Green Capsule notes in his review (linker below) neither of these things are true of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

World War I is underway and Captain Arthur Hastings is staying at Styles after his convalescence with the blessings of his old friend, John Cavendish. The estate is peaceful, the weather is good, and there are even a few young ladies for Hastings to admire. Heck, his old friend Hercule Poirot is here as a refugee from Belgium, thanks to the charity of Emily Inglethorp. The only issue is that said matriarch has married the disreputable Alfred (who Hastings doesn’t like), who everyone knows is a gold digger just after her money. But other than that, things are peaceful.

Then one night, a scream awakens the household. Emily’s bedroom is locked, and when the doors are broken down she’s found in her death throes. At first, it is assumed that she died of natural causes. But Dr. Bauerstein (who Hastings also doesn’t like, get used to this), is suspicious, and further examination confirms his fears: strychnine. And of course, the disreputable husband is everyone’s first suspect, but why is Poirot doubtful?

Reading this book, I was honestly surprised at just how Christie-like it feels. You would think that an early book like this would at least feel different, and while it does differ in some key respects, such as in Poirot’s physicality and the focus on physical clues over psychological ones (but there are plenty of those as well), it honestly has so many elements that Christie would use again and again in her later books that if you were to tell me that this was a later book or some kind of Christie parody I would probably believe you. It has:
  • Death by poison
  • Complicated family relationships and wills
  • Disguise
  • Characters misinterpreting conversation
  • Characters giving looks that are not understood
  • A non-locked room mystery despite looking like a locked room mystery.
It’s all a little overwhelming. These elements aren’t pulled off with the skill that you’d see in later works and stood out as a little obvious to me, but I was honestly amazed at how well they’re done here. I know that Christie had written before this, but for a first mystery novel this is very good. It’s shorter than most of her work, and the characters aren’t as well-drawn as they could be, but I can forgive that. It mostly falls under fair play; there are a few clues (especially the final one) which aren’t given, but there are some valid deductions (the fireplace!) and I think that a reader can work out a good chunk of the plot.

There are a couple of issues with the work, such as some pacing and plot threads that don’t go anywhere: most of the stuff with Bauerstein peters out, the courtroom scene is good but somewhat unneeded, and in the end the solution requires you to know about how strychnine works and a certain aspect of British law. This aspect has been used in other murder mysteries, but considering how important it is to the plot I can’t blame someone for feeling a bit cheated, seeing as these elements are not hinted at. I admit that it would be difficult to do so, at least in regards to the law aspect, without giving the game away, but it still feels like a cheat.* Alfred Inglethorp is also a bit of a non-entity for most of the story, which is odd considering how important he is to events. This is somewhat justified by the fact that Hastings is narrating and has no interest in being near him, but nonetheless.

Reading this book has also convinced me that Christie was parodying ignorant Watsons. I never really got the general dislike I’ve seen for Hastings among other mystery fans: he seemed inoffensive to me, and his narration was the only thing that made Dumb Witness bearable. In this one, I get why people don’t like him. He acts like a dolt, makes the obvious mistakes, jumps to every wrong conclusion, etc. Now, I know that from an in-universe perspective he isn’t familiar with Poirot being right about everything, but from a reader’s perspective it gets tiring. That is more of a personal gripe than an actual flaw of the book though.

All in all, I really did like this book, more than I expected honestly. It’s a well-done mystery plot, only suffering more from the conventions of the era than serious flaws that break the book. I really, really enjoyed it, and since it’s free on Gutenberg thanks to the march of copyright you really don’t have an excuse for sitting down and reading it sometime. Recommended.

Check out The Green Capsule's review here for...pretty much the same opinion as mine! Yay!

*Note: After writing this review, I read the chapter on this book in John Goddard’s Agatha Christie’s Golden Age, an analysis of the puzzle elements of the first 21 Poirot’s (which is a very good read). He discusses the strychnine at length, and while he says that the reader will “still need a chemist’s knowledge” to correctly interpret it, he does show that another key part of the solution is fairly presented. I’ll give Christie a half point on this one, as someone might be able to figure out the outline of what happened if they can interpret this clue correctly.