How could I not read this during my Agatha Christie month? After all, it’s 100 years since it was first published. 100 years and Agatha Christie is still an important part of the literary canon. The fact that this year sees the release of another adaptation of Death on the Nile only proves that. As a writer, she is so often dismissed as being a writer of cosy crime but she has continually shown her longevity. It’s ridiculous to think that people still underestimate her but that’s always been the problem with the literary canon. And I understand that there are more than a few unsavoury moments that haven’t aged particularly well over the years but she’s not alone there.
For 100 years, retired Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, has been captivating readers with his incredible abilities. The Mysterious Affair at Styles was his novel debut and introduced he world just what his little grey cells could do. This is helpfully achieved thanks to Captain Arthur Hasting’s narration. He is a stand-in for the reader and takes all of the clues at face value. He believes that he has enviable detective skills but the quirky little Belgian is always on hand to prove him wrong. Hastings, like the reader, underestimates the retired detective from the start but ends up being wowed by his insight.
It is thanks to Captain Hastings that Poirot is first brought into the affair at Styles. He is recovering at the home of his friend, John Cavendish when the lady of the house is found poisoned. Emily Inglethorp was a rich woman and, upon her death, her entire fortune went to her new husband, Alfred. When it turns out that he has a strong alibi for the night of the crime, it is the other residents of Styles who become the prime suspects. These involve John and Lawrence, Emily’s stepsons from her previous marriage; John’s wife Mary; and Cynthia Murdoch, the daughter of a family friend. Discovering that Poirot is staying nearby, Hastings asks him to offer his opinion on the case.
Despite this being her first novel you can see the classic structure that she carried through her later novels. There’s the big country house, the handful of possible suspects, and plenty of red herrings. There isn’t as much Poirot as I generally like and he clearly hadn’t quite sorted out the characterisation yet. Still, it all feels very familiar and it’s a very strong debut. It has plenty of twists and quite brazenly leads you in all of the wrong directions. You can see the skill she had for weaving intricate plot strands together. Although, if I’m honest, there is a certain tightness missing in this novel. It’s almost as if she tried to be a bit too clever with this one. There are maybe one too many clues and it makes things a little messy.
However, that is not to say that this novel isn’t both entertaining and important. The Mysterious Affair at Styles is an interesting novel because it is so heavily entrenched in a specific time and place. We find ourselves in Essex during the First World War. It is a time of unrest and decline. This is reflected in the narrative itself. We hear accounts from servants that speak about clashes and relationships breaking up. It’s a spectacularly clever and well-written book that is evocative of the time in which it was written. There is a strange air over this novel and it is a really fascinating piece of literary history. It showed that there was greatness in her but it would take her a bit of time to get reach her full potential.
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