AGATHA CHRISTIE. The Mysterious Affairs at Styles (1920).

14 Feb

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. MysteriousAffairStyles.jpgThe 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?


Posted by on February 14, 2013 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle


6 responses to “AGATHA CHRISTIE. The Mysterious Affairs at Styles (1920).

  1. Cavershamragu

    February 15, 2013 at 1:09 AM

    Great stuff Mike – and I quite a gree, it’s a terrific debut, and I write as somebody who approached her work from a place far away from idolitry. In fact I don’t think she got anywhere near it again for several years – it’s really clever in many ways and is one of the few of her books from the 1920s that i’ve re-read with pleasure. Did you ever see the TV version with David Suchet? it was a rather good ‘prequel’ that presented Poirot with hair and Hastings as a soldier recovering from shell-shock.

  2. John

    February 15, 2013 at 10:53 AM

    One of the best debut novels which promised so much and led to a career that more than lived up to the promise. The trick of the murder is so simple and yet so ingenious. The story as a whole utterly mesmerizing. Christie only wrote one real prequel told in flashback with Poirot recalling his days on the Belgian police force (“The Chocolate Box”). With all the pastiches of Holmes and Bond and Nero Wolfe and many others I wonder why there has NEVER been one for Poirot. None that I know of at least. Just like the references to unwritten cases of Holmes like the giant rat of Sumatra (now with at least five different versions) there were references in Christie’s novels and short stories to Poirot’s early cases. Surely there are enough Christie fans who would heartily welcome more stories about the sleuth who uses his little grey cells so masterfully.

  3. Mike

    February 15, 2013 at 10:54 AM

    Hi, Sergio. I did see, and vaguely remember, that episode of the Suchet series. Very amusing, with the hair and all, and one of the more effective efforts to mount the Poirot novels on the small screen. (I tend to think that the “Poirot” series did best with short stories.) Of course, another amusing sidelight of this novel (and of the TV version, if I recall correctly) is that it features Poirot discussing his impending to retirement. Retirement—as if he didn’t have a 50-odd-year career still ahead of him!

  4. Mike

    February 15, 2013 at 11:22 AM

    John: Your question about why no one has attempted to write up pastiche versions of HP’s early cases is very well taken. The answer, I suspect, is no writer has the puzzle-plot chops to pull it off. With Holmes or Wolfe, a pastiche writer can focus on character and scene; readers, after all, don’t expect a story about either of those great detectives to have a very tricky plot. And any writer who could equal Christie as a plotter would probably want to do so using his or her own characters.

  5. Richard

    February 15, 2013 at 11:52 AM

    I reread this one last summer and concur with your, and John’s assessment of the novel. It’s still not my favorite of the Poirot novels, but it’s a very good one.

  6. Mike

    February 15, 2013 at 12:18 PM

    Thanks again for the comment, Richard. “Styles” isn’t my favorite Poirot, either. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be “Murder in Retrospect” (“Five Little Pigs”). Or maybe “Murder After Hours” (“The Hollow”). Or “Death on the Nile.”


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