Saturday, September 10, 2011

Murder Most Foul

Not something that can be said about most books, but in some instances returning to reread a book from younger years can turn out to be a very good thing. At one time I worked my way through the full list of Agatha Christie mysteries over a period of several months, but that was long in the past and little memory of those books remains apart from a small sense of the writer’s style and the fact that they were English murder mysteries. Something from the other day, maybe a conversation, maybe something I read or saw at the library, but something encouraged me to go back and reread one of the old Agatha Christie novels. As it happens, the first one I put my hand to in the library was the writer’s debut novel.

Written in 1916 and first published in 1920, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie’s first published mystery, and the book which introduced readers to her Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. The blurb on the inside flap of the first edition explains an interesting fact about the novel’s genesis: ‘This novel was written as the result of a bet, that the author, who had previously never written a book, could not compose a detective novel in which the reader would not be able to “spot” the murderer, although having access to the same clues as the detective. The author has won her bet, and in addition to a most ingenious plot of the best detective type she has introduced a new type of detective in the shape of a Belgian.

The story concocted by a yet unpublished writer can only be described as the classic whodunit. ‘Classic’ in this description takes into account that the novice writer was already acquainted with and fluent in the tools and architecture of detective fiction. Over the course of her mystery’s unfolding nearly everybody is under suspicion, but one by one the suspicions and accusations are adroitly proven false until the surprise culprit is at last unveiled by the clever detective.

The period is the First World War and Arthur Hastings is in London convalescing from a wound received in battle when he encounters his old friend John Cavendish. Cavendish invites Hastings to spend the remainder of his sick leave in Essex at Styles Court, his family’s country home. The beautiful estate is home to John’s stepmother, Mrs Inglethorpe, and her new husband Alfred, along with the usual gathering of sons, wives, husbands, companions and house staff, all with their secrets and hidden agendas. Despite the tranquil surroundings and crisp banter over afternoon tea, Hastings soon realizes that all is not right at Styles Court. When Mrs Inglethorpe is found poisoned a murder investigation ensues, and retired Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot—a war refugee—just happens to be staying in the local village of Styles St Mary, more than happy to wade through the confusing clues and long list of suspects.

The complications and red herrings, the polite and whispered suspicions of English gentry were all immediately familiar, but the delightful style of the untried twenty-six year-old writer was this time a complete surprise. I expect at the time of my first Agatha Christie readings I was unseeing of anything like narrative style and apart from a shrewd story failed to fully appreciate the author’s achievement. The Mysterious Affair at Styles is an accomplished and extremely stylish first novel as fresh today as when it first appeared ninety-one years ago.


  1. I've been on a similar kick recently, re-reading all kinds of stuff. Some of it, for the third or fourth time. I just caught a series of Christie movies yesterday and so your post was really timely. Sometimes I feel the oldies are the only goodies, but that's just rampant nostalgia disease setting in.

  2. And you know, and sad to say for my literary education, I am not sure I have ever read an Agatha Christie mystery. Did download a Free Friday selection (The Murder at the Vicarage) from Barnes & Noble on my Nook so I will rectify my oversight and begin to fill in one of those huge gaps in my reading life.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America