Book review: “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” by Agatha Christie

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Book review: “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” by Agatha Christie

When characters become the central figures in a long-running series of novels, they enter into some other dimension where they may age but essentially remain the same — where they don’t experience the passing of years in the way the reader does.

For instance, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie’s first published mystery, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is already old. What “old” means isn’t specified, but it would seem not a stretch to say he’s at least 50.

This book, written in 1916 and published in 1920, was Poirot’s first appearance. He was the center of 32 later books (out of Christie’s 66), and, by the final one, Curtain, he is definitely old — suffering from heart attacks and in a wheelchair because of his arthritis.

Curtain, although written in the early 1940s, was published in 1975, or 55 years after The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Was Poirot 105 when he was solving his last case?

Nah. He was residing in that dreamworld of long-running fictional characters.

 

A full-fledged Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, as a Christie murder mystery, is of course complicated although her plotting here seems a bit clunkier than it would be later as she got into the flow of her novel-writing.

Yet, whatever flaws might be found, it is a book that struck me as full-fledged Christie. She got a little smoother later as a writer, true. But, as a story-teller — as a teller of this sort of story — she was on the mark from the start.

Four decades and more ago, I read most of Christie’s novels, and what I found especially pleasing in reading (most probably re-reading) The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 2018 was the way elements of that first story would resonate down the half century of other Poirot novels.

 

“Progressed rather further”

Consider Arthur Hastings, that loveable doofus who, in his amiable cluelessness, is a stand-in for the reader.

Even before Poirot has appeared on Christie’s pages, Hastings is telling friends about him:

“I came across a man in Belgium once, a very famous detective, and he quite inflamed me. He was a marvelous little fellow. He used to say that all good detective work was a mere matter of method. My system is based on his — though, of course, I have progressed rather further.”

Pure Hastings. Great respect for Poirot. Yet, more than a bit puffed up with pride. Even though the reader hasn’t met the Belgian detective yet, the reader has a strong sense that Hastings is a harmless braggart.

 

“This quaint dandyfied little man”

Then, a few pages later, Poirot shows up, and Hastings as the story’s narrator describes him:

Poirot was an extraordinary looking little man. 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 to 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. Yet this quaint dandyfied little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police. As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he achieved triumphs unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day.

 

A ton of specks

Throughout the novel, Hastings makes much of Poirot brushing nonexistent specks off of his clothing — and on and on through the other novels, what must be hundreds of nonexistent specks, a ton of specks.

Throughout the novel, Poirot is always sure of himself, even when he admits missing something, always immodest about his abilities, always poking fun at the thickness of his friend Hastings.

But Christie makes it clear that theirs is a real friendship and that Hastings is not without his merits for Poirot. Yet, it comes down always to the Belgian detective’s brain. As he explains to Hastings:

“This affair must all be unraveled from within.” He tapped his forehead. “These little grey cells. It is ‘up to them’ — as you say over here.”

Those “little grey cells” carried Poirot and Christie’s readers through 33 novels and more than 50 short stories.

 

Constant and sure

Poirot has been portrayed on stage, in movies and on television by such actors as Charles Laughton, Tony Randall, Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, Kenneth Branagh, José Ferrer, Ian Holm and Alfred Molina, each of whom brought a distinctly different flamboyant style to the role.

Yet, for Christie and her readers, the Poirot on the page was constant and sure, and he always got to the bottom of the crime.

Seeing him here at the start in The Mysterious Affair at Styles would be fun for any fan.

But, even if you’ve never read a Poirot novel before, as a new acquaintance, he’s odd, delightful and fun.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

5.7.18

 

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