Saturday, September 8, 2018

Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair At Styles

Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair At Styles
(This book is no longer under copyright)
Originally published in 1920 by John Lane Company
This was the first Hercule Poirot mystery, narrated as so many of them were to be, by Captain Arthur Hastings.  Hastings is recovering (although at no point in the book does he seem to be suffering from any physical constraints) from an injury suffered in the War.  He winds up as a houseguest as a result of an invitation of an acquaintance, John Cavendish.  The household includes John Cavendish, his wife Mary, his brother Lawrence, his step-mother Emily Inglethorpe, her new husband Alfred Inglethorpe, and assorted servants.  A number of family friends round out the cast.  And Poirot, whom Hastings had met in Belgium before his injury, is living, along with a group or Belgian refugees, in the village.
Interestingly, we can set this book very precisely.  Hastings tells us that “the 16th of July fell on a Monday,” and a quick consultation makes it certain that the year was 1917.  On the night of July 16/17, Mrs. Inglethorpe dies—murdered—having taken a large dose of strychnine. The poison seems certain to have been in either a cup of coffee or a cup of cocoa (probably the former), in her bedroom, to which all the doors were locked (it’s what appears to be the usual English house thing, in which bedrooms are connected by doors to other bedrooms on either side and to the corridor.  A quantity of paper having been burned in the fireplace leads Poirot to conclude that Mrs. Inglethorpe had acquired a standard will form and written out a will, which she, or someone, decided to destroy.
Everyone’s suspicions center immediately on her husband, who is 20 or more years younger than his wife (who is around 70).  But evidence is hard to find, and it appears that no one is being entirely open about their movements during that night. 
Inspector Japp  arrives shortly after the inquest.  What’s interesting here is Poirot’s comment to Hastings:  “Do you know who that little man is?...That is Detective Inspector James Japp of Scotland Yard…Jimmie Japp.”  If you are familiar with the A&E versions of the Poirot mysteries, describing him as a “little man” will amuse you.
The official investigation results in an arrest and trial (and a not guilty verdict); Poirot, meanwhile has kept his views to himself, ultimately revealing the how, the who, and the why of the murder.
All the elements that we see throughout the series are already present:  Poirot’s eccentricities (as they appear to the English); Hastings’ cluelessness; the man and woman who may or may not be in love and one of whom may or may not be the murderer.  The book wraps up quite convincingly, with Poirot tying up all the loose ends and making everyone—except the killer—happy.  I read this book at least 40 years ago, and enjoyed it both then and now.  As is the case with many series mysteries, the Poirot books need not be read in order; if there is any growth or change in the continuing characters, there is little enough that it doesn’t matter.  (Curtain probably should be left until last, though.)  I don’t think that Christie’s work is of as high a standard as many people do.  I think Dorothy Sayers, for example, is a better writer (although Christie may plot better) and that Ngaio Marsh gives us a much more interesting series, one in which the main characters do grow some and change some.  Still, Christie’s work holds up well and is worth the time.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this--and especially the precise dating. I have been rereading Christie lately and while there are limitations, her setting up a puzzle to be solved is incomparable. Diane