What’s most remarkable about this book, Christie’s first, is how clean and clever and modern it is. You can hear the rusting hinges of the Victorian world (and worldview) as they creak and moan in the distance, but the action in the foreground unfolds at a Machine Age clip. All of Christie’s core narrative strengths and many of her characteristic tricks are present here at the creation. Hercule Poirot is present, too, in more or less full-blown form. The egg-shaped head, the comically solemn reference to his “little gray cells,” the impish condescension toward would-be fellow-sleuths (including Hastings, who begins his career as a Watson-like foil and narrator), the habit of seizing exuberantly upon clues while remaining coy about their significance—it’s all on display in this tale of murder by poison at an English country house. Christie borrows freely from the Sherlockian model, but she also improves on it. Instead of depicting an imperious dash across an often-rickety narrative scaffold (as Arthur Conan Doyle tended to do), she treats us to a steady amble through a plot of near-maniacal complexity. As an example of fair-play clueing and sleight-of-hand storytelling, this work marks a great leap beyond most of the detective fiction that had come before it, and it sets a standard that few writers who came afterward have even tried to meet. Arguably, it crams in too many clues and too much mystification for a book of this size; in later efforts, Christie would muster her strengths and marshal her tricks with a less anxious hand. But why argue with a début novel that is also an enduring masterpiece?
AGATHA CHRISTIE. The Mysterious Affairs at Styles (1920).