Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie’s first novel, published in 1920. And for a first novel it was pretty impressive.

This is a tale of poisoning, a form of murder that was always popular with writers of detective stories, and with good reason. Poisoning has always been difficult to detect - most poisoners never even go to trial, in fact never even attract the notice of the police. Unless someone already has their suspicions it’s most likely that no autopsy will be performed and poisoning will not be detected.

And it’s an even more difficult crime to prove in court. It’s easy to poison someone without being observed so any evidence is generally circumstantial and unless the poisoner confesses the prosecution faces an uphill battle.

In this case the victim is an elderly woman with a great deal of money. Mrs Inglethorp is surrounded by relatives and hangers-on who have no money of their own. They all live in hopes of a large inheritance. And this particular elderly woman has a habit of changing her will constantly.

She has recently contracted what appears to be a rather unwise marriage with a man twenty years her junior. Her family assumes that he is an unscrupulous fortune-hunter. That he may be, but that does not make him a murderer. And there are at least five other very plausible suspects.

Captain Hastings just happens to be a friend of the family staying at Styles while recuperating from his wounds. It is 1916 and the Great War is in full swing. By a happy coincidence Hastings has recently discovered that Mrs Inglethorp has offered the use of a house she owns to a number of Belgian refugees who have fled from the German invasion. One of these refugees is a brilliant detective who had been one of the leading lights of the Belgian police force. And thus was Hercule Poirot introduced to the world.

I read a great deal of Christie’s work when I was young, in fact so much that for many years I avoided her books because I’d overdosed on them. In the intervening years I still remembered her gift for plotting but I’d entirely forgotten just what an entertaining writer she was. Captain Hastings is the narrator of this story, and he gives Christie the opportunity to have some fun. Hastings is of course convinced that he is an even greater detective than Poirot, and of course his deductions always turn out to be totally wrong. Hastings remains cheerfully oblivious to his own failings as a detective, even as he is reluctantly forced to acknowledge Poirot’s brilliance.

This story also introduces Chief Inspector Japp, although at this time he’s merely a Detective-Inspector. Japp and Poirot are old friends having worked together on several cases before the war. Japp’s admiration for Poirot knows no bounds.

Poirot in this novel is already Poirot. The character is already more or less fully formed, which leads me to suspect that Christie must have spent a good deal of time creating this character in her head before putting pen to paper.

The ingenious plotting is already in evidence, and the red herrings are skillfully deployed to lead us astray. Christie’s style is straightforward but quite witty, and really rather amusing at times. This is the detective story as entertainment, and it delivers the goods.

This might not be in the same class as the very best of her work but as first novels go it’s a confident and accomplished offering.

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