As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I have been an Agatha Christie fan (specifically her Poirot stories) for a long time now. I’ve spent many evenings reading her crime novels, trying my best to work out ‘whodunnit’ before the true culprit is revealed at the end.
There is something about Christie’s novels that gives them an enduring appeal to readers, even in a world so far removed from the world in which they are set. Perhaps it is exactly because they are so far removed from reality that makes them so enjoyable. Like a fantasy or sci-fi novel, to most modern readers the world of wealthy country houses, dressing for dinner, and old-fashioned etiquette is something we have never experienced nor are ever likely to. This means that the murder mysteries become fun; we don’t worry about the grief caused or feel morally outraged. We just want to explore the hidden motives and secrets that are inevitably held by the suspects.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Christie’s first novel, the first time we meet the Belgian detective and contains so many of the elements that I personally love in her books: the country house setting; a range of deceptions from almost every member of the family and friends; red herrings, and, most – importantly, the drawing room exposition and revelation of the guilty party at the climax of the novel.
The story is narrated by Captain Hastings, and tells of the events when he is staying with the Cavendish/Inglethorp family at Styles. One night Mrs Inglethorp dies in dramatic circumstances and the suspicion of murder by strychnine poisoning is soon established. Luckily for the family and Captain Hastings, retired Belgian detective Poirot is staying in the village, a refugee of World War 1, and he is happy to put his mind to use in trying to solve the case. After many twists and turns, he finally reveals the true killer.
This really is a fantastic novel. At times some elements seemed almost cliché but then I had to remind myself that this novel was where it all started – this is where Christie established some of the patterns that she would use in her future books. It is storytelling at its best and (as I have said before about Christie’s novels) she keeps it short enough to be enjoyed in one or two sittings. She establishes the characters so well – Poirot’s infuriating intelligence and ability to see what the other characters (and the reader) can’t within the evidence; Captain Hasting’s inability to recognise his own stupidity and blind trusting nature (and his soft spot for young pretty women – I love his impetuous proposal to Cecilia – which has become a running joke within my family whenever we watch the ITV series of adaptations!).
A brilliant introduction to the characters for anyone who hasn’t read any of Christie’s Poirot novels, but also a wonderful reminder of why she is so brilliant for those who have read and enjoyed her other books. Definitely a must-read.