In which we are introduced to Hercule Poirot, who solves the murder of a wealthy re-married widow by strychnine poisoning, wading through an inordinate number of clues and red herrings before finally coming to the truth. If you haven’t read the book yet, I promise I won’t tell you whodunit!
So we say Bonjour to M. Hercule Poirot, detective extraordinaire, with a number of silly francophone phrases like “Nom d’un nom d’un nom!” When he goes off on a rant, you almost expect him to break into a Morecambe and Wise-like “Sacré Beaujolais et Bon Appetit!” He is accompanied as ever by his faithful Hastings, who plods alongside his master like a keen but rather stupid bloodhound, sniffing out his beloved clues. And of course it is Hastings who narrates the story, as he (nearly) always does.
The book was written in 1916, but not published until 1920 (1921 in the UK). As such, it reveals a picture of privileged life in an Essex country manor during World War One, with a well-to-do family doing what they can for the war effort: saving scrap paper, working for the Voluntary Aid Detachment, milking cows, and so on. It also explains how Poirot and Hastings dovetail into their Christie-land relationship. Poirot was one of the refugees who had taken residence in the village of Styles St Mary “by the charity of that good Mrs Inglethorp” (soon to be the late Mrs Inglethorp). Captain Arthur Hastings was “invalided home from the Front; and after spending some months in a rather depressing Convalescent Home” chanced upon his boyhood friend John Cavendish, and thus came to stay with him at Styles, his mother’s home (that’s the aforementioned Mrs Inglethorp).
Hastings remembers Poirot at the height of his professional prowess: “a very famous detective…a marvellous little fellow…a funny little man, a great dandy, but wonderfully clever”. Inspector Japp is brought in to investigate the crime on behalf of the police and he instantly recognises Poirot as the detective with whom he worked in 1904, solving “the Abercrombie forgery case”. So depending on whether you take this book to date from 1916 or 1920, you’re looking at a period of 12-16 years earlier when Poirot was active in the Belgian police force; it’s hard to extrapolate Poirot’s age with any accuracy, and in her autobiography Christie regrets having made him so old at the beginning of her writing career! But Hastings does provide us with the classic description of Poirot’s appearance: “He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible. I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.” Maybe it is not a coincidence that the OED defines “eggheaded” as “(a) having an egg-shaped head; (b) colloq intellectual, highbrow” and that its usage dates from the early 20th century, around the time this book was published.
Poirot and Hastings are best buddies but they do sometimes have a prickly relationship. Hastings admits at one stage that he is “nursing a grudge against [my] friend’s high-handedness”. Here follows a typical conversation between them when the relationship is strained: “After lunch Poirot begged me to accompany him home. I consented rather stiffly. “You are annoyed, is it not so?” he asked anxiously, as we walked through the park. “Not at all,” I said coldly. “That is well. That lifts a great load from my mind.” This was not quite what I had intended. I had hoped that he would have observed the stiffness of my manner.” On another occasion, Hastings is trying to hurry Poirot along to interview a witness but the latter has slowed down to admire the symmetry of the flower beds: “”Yes, but this affair is more important.” “And how do you know that these fine begonias are not of equal importance?” I shrugged my shoulders. There was really no arguing with him if he chose to take that line.” Poirot always teases Hastings on affairs of the heart; in The ABC Murders he jokes with him about his fondness for pretty girls with auburn hair, and in The Mysterious Affair at Styles Hastings is instantly captivated a girl who has “great loose waves of…auburn hair”, to whom he proposes marriage on the spur of the moment, and who of course turns him down with “don’t be silly…you know you don’t want to!” Hastings reflects on the unsuccessful proposal with typical understatement: “Thinking over the interview, it struck me as being profoundly unsatisfactory.”
This being the fourth of Christie’s novels that I have re-read as part of the Agatha Christie Challenge, but the earliest to have been written, I am struck by the difference in writing style from the other three books. The Mysterious Affair at Styles stands out in two aspects. The first is that it contains an overwhelming number of clues and red herrings. Christie wrote the book in response to a bet from her friend Madge, “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” (from the dust jacket of the First Edition). It probably required the high level of facts and evidence within the book in order to satisfy the terms of the bet, but to the reader it’s almost overkill. To get the best out of this book you have to read it slowly and carefully, with frequent pauses for thought, consideration and reflection. If you read it like a throwaway paperback, everything in it just becomes a blur.
The second outstanding aspect is its style. Hastings’ narrative is very clinical, factual, almost journalistic (in a good sense) in its reporting, going into forensic detail about Poirot’s investigation and the clues he uncovers. In comparison with the later works, it feels formal and stilted. Where in other books, plot developments occur through conversation and observation, in this book you often get the feeling you are reading a witness statement: “I had arrived at Styles on the 5th of July. I come now to the events of the 16th and 17th of that month. For the convenience of the reader I will recapitulate the incidents of those days in as exact a manner as possible.” Simply waiting to meet Cynthia at the dispensary has a military police feel about it: “we were detained under suspicion by the hospital porter”. A major segment of the plot development takes place in a courtroom and several pages read more like court reports and transcripts than a novel. Whilst this provides good suspense – courtroom scenes are always exciting – the reader does miss out on the sense of a personal narrative. But then again, no doubt it helped Christie win her bet. The book also gives the reader direct access to some of the evidence – with floorplans of both Styles House and Mrs Inglethorp’s bedroom, and facsimile representations of jottings on the back of an envelope, a letter written by Mrs Inglethorp, and the writing on a torn scrap of paper. It encourages the reader to play a more active role in solving the crime, rather than just sitting back and letting Poirot do all the work for us. No lazy read, this.
It’s fascinating how language changes over a relatively short period of time. Given that this book was written 99 years ago, as I was reading it I noticed a few words and references that completely bewildered me. Do any of these five phrases mean anything to you?
1 – As suggested earlier, the character of Cynthia is first seen wearing a VAD uniform. The Voluntary Aid Detachment was a unit that provided field nursing services, mainly in hospitals in the UK, the majority of volunteers being women and girls. Christie herself was a VAD nurse, as was Tuppence Beresford, who we’ll be meeting in the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge. It’s probably to my great shame that I’d never heard of this fine bunch of people.
2 – We all know the saying that someone’s walked over my grave but I’ve never heard “as if a goose were walking over my grave,” as Mrs Inglethorp remarks. I’ve read that the derivation of that comes from a back-formation of goose bumps or goose pimples, but I also wonder if there might be a connection with the more common phrase “a ghost walking over one’s grave”.
3 – Poirot says if Inglethorp is guilty he will hang him “as high as Haman”. Never heard that before. It refers to a Bible story in the Book of Esther, where Haman builds a really high gallows so that when he hangs his enemy it becomes a major spectacle – however, he gets hanged instead. Book of Esther, Chapter seven if you want to look it up.
4 – Miss Howard refers to the detectives swarming about the house as “a lot of Paul Prys”. Paul Pry was a comical busybody and nosey parker in a play of the same name that first appeared in 1825, and continued to be popular until the 1870s.
5 – When Poirot exclaims to himself “triple pig!” I have no idea what he’s on about, unless it’s a variation on something like “cochon d’un cochon d’un cochon”. Really the man talks very strangely sometimes.
So here’s my at-a-glance summary for The Mysterious Affair at Styles:
Publication Details: 1920. My copy is an American print, Bantam paperback, published in 1970. I bought it from a second hand stall on a summer holiday in Sorrento, if I remember rightly, in 1978.
How many pages until the first death: 25. Just the one death.
Funny lines out of context: Not very many. In fact the most insightful line is a serious observation from Poirot: “one may live in a big house and yet have no comfort”.
“Mr. Wells was a pleasant man of middle-age, with keen eyes, and the typical lawyer’s mouth.”
“As I walked away, I met an aged rustic, who leered at me cunningly.” One of Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals perhaps?
“He tried several [keys], twisting and turning them with a practiced hand, and finally uttering an ejaculation of satisfaction.”
“”Silly ass!” I ejaculated.”
Mary Cavendish is quite a complex character, standing up for herself and being emotionally forthright. Evelyn Howard is described as having “a deep voice, almost manly in its stentorian tones, and had a large sensible square body” – possibly a forerunner of The Mousetrap’s Miss Casewell?
Christie the Poison expert:
Poison runs through this book like the River Thames. The murderer’s choice is strychnine, but not only is it administered to kill the victim, it’s also distilled, bought at a shop, found in other medicines and is kept in the dispensary.
Lawrence uses it to accuse Bauerstein: “poisons are his hobby, so of course he sees them everywhere”.
But Lawrence too is suspected of dabbling in the poison: “I suppose I must have taken up the bottle”…”Did you abstract any of the contents of the bottle?”… “I once studied to be a doctor. Such things naturally interest me”…”So poisons “naturally interest” you, do they?”
There’s technical talk: “Strychnine has an unusually bitter taste. It can be detected in a solution of 1 in 70,000, and can only be disguised by some strongly flavoured substance.”
There’s comparison talk: “I dare say he soaked fly paper, as I told you at the beginning.” “That is arsenic – not strychnine”, said Poirot mildly. “What does that matter? Arsenic would put poor Emily out of the way just as well as strychnine”.
Even Poirot gets fed up with it: “one thing does strike me. No doubt it has struck you too…that there is altogether too much strychnine about this case.”
Class/social issues of the time:
The Styles household is a very upper class affair; a household where a grown man refers to his mother as “the mater”; a household where married couples still have separate bedrooms.
This is how Hastings describes the manner in which the household goes about the business of mourning: “Under the circumstances, we were naturally not a cheerful party. The reaction after a shock is always trying, and I think we were all suffering from it. Decorum and good breeding naturally enjoined that our demeanour should be much as usual, yet I could not help wondering if this self-control were really a matter of great difficulty. There were no red eyes, no signs of secretly indulged grief. I felt that I was right in my opinion that Dorcas was the person most affected by the personal side of the tragedy. I pass over Alfred Inglethorp, who acted the bereaved widower in a manner that I felt to be disgusting in its hypocrisy.”
When Poirot and Hastings are considering the behaviour of Mary Cavendish, arguing with her mother-in-law, Poirot notes “it was an astonishing thing for a woman of her breeding to do.”
There’s also an argument with her husband, where Mary reveals her independence, but which also reveals the way a woman was meant to behave in those days: “”Am I to understand that you will continue to see Bauerstein against my express wishes?” “If I choose.” “You defy me?” “No, but I deny your right to criticize my actions. Have you no friends of whom I should disapprove?” John fell back a pace. The colour ebbed slowly from his face. “What do you mean?” he said, in an unsteady voice. “You see!” said Mary quietly. “You do see, don’t you, that you have no right to dictate to me as to the choice of my friends?” John glanced at her pleadingly, a stricken look on his face. “No right? Have I no right, Mary?” he said unsteadily. He stretched out his hands. “Mary——” For a moment, I thought she wavered. A softer expression came over her face, then suddenly she turned almost fiercely away. “None!”
There is the usual mistrust of foreigners found in Christie books. Dorcas the maid, who is seen as a stalwart of traditional values says as an aside: “I don’t hold with foreigners as a rule”. Hastings takes an instant dislike to the foreign-surnamed Dr Bauerstein: “The sinister face of Dr. Bauerstein recurred to me unpleasantly. A vague suspicion of everyone and everything filled my mind. Just for a moment I had a premonition of approaching evil.” He hates spending time with him: “My evening was utterly and entirely spoilt by the presence of Dr. Bauerstein.” John Cavendish also uses racial language to criticise Bauerstein: “I’ve had enough of the fellow hanging about. He’s a Polish Jew, anyway.” An exchange between Poirot and Hastings on Bauerstein includes the lines: “A very clever man—a Jew, of course.” “The blackguard!” I cried indignantly.”
And whilst on the subject of language that’s considered offensive today but was run-of-the-mill then, Dorcas says that in one of their dressing-up games evenings (they sound simply hilarious – not) there was some difficulty removing stage make-up: “Burnt corks they use mostly—though ’tis messy getting it off again. Miss Cynthia was a n***** once, and, oh, the trouble she had.””
It’s also an interesting to note that in 1916 a perfectly respectable reason for buying over-the-counter strychnine was to poison a dog. Can you imagine someone saying that in a shop today?!
Classic denouement: About as classic as it gets, basically covering the final two chapters (twenty pages) with Poirot holding a little réunion in the salon, and revealing the name of the murderer in a flurry of panache with the final two words of the penultimate chapter. Every red herring is sorted out, every clue is dismissed or validated.
Happy ending? Certainly! Two happy couples in fact.
Did the story ring true? I find it slightly hard to believe the instance of one character impersonating another, but apart from that all the jigsaw puzzle pieces fit nicely together.
Overall satisfaction rating: Perhaps a surprisingly low 5/10. It’s a clever book, and a challenging book, but I think it’s one of the least satisfying to read as a piece of detective escapism. And that’s primarily what you want from a Christie.
So that’s my little summary of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment – but don’t give the whodunit game away! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge, and continuing in chronological order, it’s the first appearance of Tommy and Tuppence in The Secret Adversary. There have been recent TV and stage adaptations so you might be sick of it, but give the book a try, my memory is that it’s an entertaining and quite exciting read. I’m looking forward to finding out if I’m right, and I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. Thanks for reading, and happy sleuthing!