A hot summer morning getting the PT Cruiser’s air conditioning repaired – so to keep myself from stressing too much about the upcoming prognosis, I sat in the shop revisiting a classic whodunnit. Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1921) is a genre milestone for two reasons: it’s the mystery grand dame’s first novel — and the debut of her first established character, Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. As such, it’s a big moment in the history of old-fashioned detective fiction.
It’d been decades since I first read this cozy little puzzle, so I had scant memory of its story. As a mystery, Styles doesn’t measure up to peak Dame Agatha, though it has its considerable charms. Narrated by Captain Arthur Hastings — a Watson who managed to be so consistently wrongheaded that he makes Sherlock Holmes’ foil look like a master of deductive reasoning — the book centers on a murder at an Essex country place peopled with a large cast of likely suspects. When wealthy philanthropist Emily Inglethorpe is poisoned, the first one suspected is her unpleasant newish husband, Alfred. Over the course of this compact mystery, though, nearly everybody in Styles Court — not one, but two stepsons; servants; foreign looking doctor, et al — gets accused, only to have each accusation overturned by the man with the “little grey cells.”
Poirot conveniently comes into the picture after Hastings, who describes his own ambitions to some day become a detective, happens upon the famous sleuth at the village post office. When murder most foul is perpetrated, Poirot gets called in on Hasting’s recommendation, even though our narrator can’t help wondering if the elderly detective is as acute as he used to be. Of the all the great classic sleuths, the refugee Belgian is arguably the most lightheartedly portrayed: an egg-headed (we’re told his pate is shaped like one) egotist prone to preening and baiting the unquestionably dim Hastings. To be fair, Poirot’s mistreatment of our narrator is largely justified — at one point in the story, Hastings doesn’t give the detective information necessary to solve the case.
Poirot’s comic mien contributes to both Hastings and the inevitably equally wrongheaded Scotland Yarders underestimating him, but we, of course, know that he’ll tidily wrap it all up. Though it’s not made clear in this book (one suspects because Christie didn’t yet realize it), Poirot’s persona was, in part, a tactic used by the detective to get suspects to reveal more than they intended. He was, in his caricature foreigner fashion, a precursor to Lieutenant Columbo.
As a slice of period country life, Styles has its moments of mild humor (some of it concerning bachelor Hastings’ hapless pursuit of a comely suspect), though Christie’s handling of this material isn’t as smooth as it would later get. (You don’t go to Agatha Christie for sparkling character comedy, even if some of the movie adaptations of her works make it appear that way.) Still, when we arrive at Hercule’s drawing room explanation, the ultimate solution proves satisfying enough that we forgive this young writer’s occasional stilted constructions. Better Poirot puzzles were ahead (Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile among ‘em), but as a first step Styles remains a diverting summer read.
Kept me from worrying too much about my car repairs, at least — which is exactly what you want from a work like this, right?