Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Mysterious Affair at Styles: Agatha Christie

I first read Agatha Christie mysteries when I was very young, probably in my teens and twenties. Then I went many years without reading her books. The first book I tried later was The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 2007, and I did not care for it at the time. The circumstances were not good; I was visiting my family in Alabama and my father was very ill. It was not until five years later, after I started blogging, that I tried reading Christie's mysteries again, and I had much better success.

Thus, for the #1920 Club I decided to read Agatha Christie's first mystery novel again. I have learned to love the Hercule Poirot series in the last few years, so why didn't I like this one when I read it before?

This summary is from the back cover of my paperback edition:
Styles Court was a magnificent English country estate which should have been left to John Cavendish. But instead it was left to his stepmother, Emily Cavendish, who promptly married a fortune hunter... and promptly met her death! Dapper, brilliant Monsieur Poirot knew he was the only man who could catch her killer.

Arthur Hastings narrates this book and is staying at Styles Court. Hastings explains how he ended up visiting Styles Court at this time...
I had been invalided home from the Front; and, after spending some months in a rather depressing Convalescent Home, was given a month's sick leave. Having no near relations or friends, I was trying to make up my mind what to do, when I ran across John Cavendish. I had seen very little of him for some years. Indeed, I had never known him particularly well. He was a good fifteen years my senior, for one thing, though he hardly looked his forty-five years. As a boy, though, I had often stayed at Styles, his mother's place in Essex.

Hastings is invited to stay with the Cavendish family in early July. By the middle of the month, John's stepmother Emily is dead, killed by strychnine poisoning, and Hastings has brought in Hercule Poirot to investigate. Hastings had met Poirot earlier, and coincidentally Poirot has been living along with other Belgian refugees in a house on the Cavendish estate.

This is the first description of Poirot:
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 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. 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.
There are many characters. Emily Inglethorp and her two stepsons, John and Lawrence Cavendish. Emily's second husband, Alfred Inglethorp. John's wife, Mary, and a young woman living with the family, Cynthia. Evelyn Howard, Emily's companion and a distant relative to Alfred Inglethorp. Dr Bauerstein, a toxicologist, who lives near to Styles. Most of these were at Style Court when the murder took place and are suspects.

My Thoughts:

This mystery is nowhere near the top of my list of Agatha Christie novels or Hercules Poirot novels, but it is still a good read. It does have a different flavor than many of the later novels, but as it was Agatha Christie's debut novel, that is to be expected.

What did I like?

  • Hastings is the narrator. I wish he had narrated more of the novels. He always adds humor to the mysteries when he is present.
  • Christie provides a drawing of the floor plan for Styles showing the placement of the bedrooms, and also one of Emily Inglethorp's bedroom, where she dies.
  • The country house setting.
  • The World War I setting. I have read a lot of mysteries which take place during World War II, but far fewer that involve World War I.

What did I dislike?

  • There were casual racist and ethnic slurs. There was not a lot of this, but it was offensive. Although I usually successfully ignore this in books of this age, and there were not many instances, they were extremely offensive and bothered me in this case.
  • Too many red herrings for my taste, and the resolution was too drawn out.

I read this book on the Kindle because I could not find my copies of the book. My copies were found later and I have included scans. The Bantam edition has a cover illustration by Tom Adams. The other edition is a very early Avon paperback that is falling apart.


Publisher:   Bantam Books, 1983. Orig. pub. 1920.
Length:      182 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Hercule Poirot, #1
Setting:      Essex, UK
Genre:       Country House Mystery
Source:      Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2017.


Neeru said...

Not a top-notch Christie for me too Tracy. I find the second one, Murder on the Links, much better.

Bill Selnes said...

I admire you for re-reading the book. I do not recall going back to read a book with which I was dissatisfied or felt no better than average. I have been reluctant to re-read some books I loved in case I no longer found them special.

pattinase (abbott) said...

As much as I loved her then, I don't much now. I admire her ability to make a puzzle, but I dislike her many prejudices, including that of lower middle class people, immigrants and to some extent women. I also find the long, long denouements at the end wearying. Still, she managed to tell a different story in almost every novel. What an achievement. And she broke ground for those who came later. And she certainly turned me on to reading mysteries for a lifetime.

Margot Kinberg said...

Your story is a great example, Tracy, of how our own circumstances can impact what we think of how we read. I'm glad you liked this one better the second time, but I agree with you that it's not Christie's best. Still, for her first Poirot novel, I think it's a good 'un. And, in my opinion, Christie's weaker novels are still much better than a lot of people are at their best...

TracyK said...

Neeru, I also liked Murder on the Links better, although it also had a complicated drawn-out plot. I especially enjoyed Hastings in that one.

TracyK said...

Bill, I do usually re-read books only if I really enjoyed them. And sometimes I am disappointed. I have enjoyed rereading the Margery Allingham books, but I read those for the first time so long ago that they are almost like new.

TracyK said...

Patti, I find the drawing out of the resolution and explanation of the crimes irritating, and it happens a lot in early mysteries. I am not even that fond of puzzle mysteries unless they have other redeeming characteristics. But for some reason Agatha Christie's mysteries almost always entertain me in some way.

TracyK said...

Margot, I am now watching the first seasons of the Poirot series and enjoying the episodes very much. Especially the character of Hastings.

Kay said...

I think I've probably read all of Christie's books or almost all. I definitely have my favorites and my favorite characters (Miss Marple especially). This is one is not one of my favorite Poirot books. Can't remember why exactly, but I've never been inclined to reread it. I remember the first Christie book I read - Postern of Fate - I didn't care for it much either and almost never read another Christie book. Glad I changed my mind. LOL

TracyK said...

Kay, when I read this one in 2007, it was sort of test of whether I wanted to return to Agatha Christie's mysteries. Since I did not enjoy it, I was put off trying another for 5 years. But I am glad I returned. I have been reading them roughly in order and thus haven't gotten to Postern of Fate, but I had heard it was not as good as others. I think I have a lot of her books left to read, I should figure that out.

Rick Robinson said...

I like Christie. Now for a small rant.

If people are going to be offended by the standards and mores of past times, they shouldn’t read things published before 1990. Accept what’s in the books for what it is and don’t be so damned squeamish. Things weren’t always as “nice” as you'd like, or wish, and that’s the way it was. Not perfect, but real for the time of the book. Accept it!

I have favorites among the books, sure, and this isn’t one of them, but I think they are all readable and the Poirot and Marple ones especially so. Those favorites? ABC MURDERS, DEATH IN THE AIR, EVIL UNDER THE SUN, BLUE TRAIN, THE MIRROR CRACKED, THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY, I could go on...

I have a shelf of them and should do some rereading.

TracyK said...

Rick, My favorites among the ones you listed are The Body in the Library, Death in the Air, and Blue Train. Other favorites are Murder on the Orient Express, Crooked House, The Moving Finger, and Murder at the Vicarage. I think I like the Miss Marple series more but there are more Hercule Poirot books.

Cath said...

I too read Agatha Christie in my teens and then somehow came to look down on her books a bit. It's quite common I notice. I came out of that about 10 years ago and haven't looked back and really enjoy her books now. Some are better than others but all are very readable. I recommend her autobiography too, probably best I've read.

TracyK said...

Cath, I would like to read Christie's autobiography and have several mystery reference books about her and her mysteries that I have only skimmed because I have so many of her books left to read.

I used to work with a man who was a huge fan of the Agatha Christie books and he kept encouraging me to try them again, but I was reluctant. Same thing happened with the Ed McBain 87th precinct series (but a different coworker), and now I like those a lot.

Simon T [StuckinaBook] said...

I agree with you - a solid book, but not her best, and Hastings is the best thing about it! She got much better at neat conclusions.

TracyK said...

Simon, I am glad I read this again for the 1920 club. Christie did improve over the years and I have loved many of her plots (and I usually like the characters too). In the first few Poirot books I read i found Poirot to be smug and irritating, but I warmed up to him after I read more of the books.

col2910 said...

Tracy, I will read her one day, but definitely not this one.

TracyK said...

Col, this one is probably not the best one for you. But there must be a few of hers that would work for you.

Clothes in Books said...

I am going to go off at a complete tangent here - the Tom Adams cover - I think I have that cover on a different Christie! Three Act Tragedy (different title in US?) I don't know which one it was first meant for, but I do think they got moved around to different books. I have another example of two Christie books with the same cover by him. Somewhere I have a book about his art, so I must look this up.

TracyK said...

By all means, Moira, let's talk about Tom Adam's covers. I actually wondered how that cover fit the story for this book, but then I often miss things like that. I read too fast and miss little details.

I have seen the same thing with the cover on The Seven Dials Mystery (a gun in a gloved hand, with clock faces in the background). I can't remember now which other title it was. I have two books on Tom Adams art and I need to look through them again.