My Rating: 7/10
Setting: An English country House, Styles Court in Essex, sometime during the Great War.
Detection by: HERCULE POIROT, with “assistance” from CAPTAIN HASTINGS (narrator); INSPECTOR JAPP of Scotland Yard is introduced.
Final Body Count: 1
Method(s) of Murder: POISON – strychnine
100 Word Plot Summary:
When wealthy Mrs. Inglethorpe succumbs to a dose of strychnine, suspicion immediately falls upon her much younger (and forbiddingly black-bearded) second husband, Albert. But the philandering Albert has an ironclad alibi, as do all of the other members of the Styles Court ménage. Could it be the sweet young pharmacy assistant, with her easy access to poisons? Or either of Mrs. Inglethorpe’s adult sons, hard up for cash and living on their mother? Her daughter-in-law, cool and unemotional? Her lady housekeeper, outspoken and jealously loyal? Or perhaps the sinister German-Jewish doctor, who just happens to be an expert on poisons?
Agatha Christie’s first published novel. Her very first, a romantic drama set in Cairo and sent out under the working title Snow Upon the Desert, was read and favourably remarked upon but ultimately refused by the publishers she sent it to. The Mysterious Affair at Styles was inspired by her sister Madge’s comments that Agatha couldn’t possibly write a decent murder mystery. Written while working as a pharmaceutical dispenser during and just after the close of World War I, The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a classic puzzle mystery, with all clues revealed to the reader, and a generosity of suspects. The most unlikely person, of course, might ultimately be revealed as the murderer.
Narrated by a young Captain Hastings, who has been invalided out of active service, and is recuperating at his friend’s mother’s country home, Styles Court, the novel introduces Hercule Poirot, a finicky and eccentric Belgian ex-policeman. Poirot is living with several other Belgian refugees, and is eager to provide his investigative services when his generous sponsor, Mrs. Inglethorpe, dies mysteriously. Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard is also introduced; he and Poirot already know and like each other, and their collaboration, along with Captain Hastings’ inadvertent contributions, results in the solving of the murder plot.
Though decidedly dated and just a bit awkwardly plotted in spots, this is a very creditable mystery novel. The puzzle is truly hard to sort out; suspicion falls on each of the suspects in turn, and the ending is cleverly worked out. Poirot is not quite solidified into his final form, whom we come to know so well in future years – he was eventually to figure in thirty-three of Christie’s mysteries, and something like fifty short stories. The characters in general are puppet-like; aside from the narrator Hastings, we never get to know any of them – including Poirot – beyond their superficial appearances and stereotypical roles.
The murder itself occurs early on in the narrative, and Mrs. Inglethorpe’s horrible death is quite fully described, as Hastings is one of the witnesses. The brief mourning period for the victim is very soon over as the characters scramble to defend themselves against allegations of wishing for and ultimately causing her demise.
This is not at all a “literary” detective novel, such as those penned only a few years later by the other great “Golden Age” female mystery novelists Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey, but it is a well-constructed first attempt at the genre, and a grand little period piece, especially when considered in the context of Christie’s astoundingly prolific and successful later body of work.