Archive for the ‘Agatha Christie’ Category

the secret of chimneys agatha christie 1The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie ~ 1925. This edition: Pan, 1968. Paperback. 223 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Setting: Briefly in Africa, with most of the action taking place in the stately English country house, “Chimneys”.

Detection by: SUPERINTENDENT BATTLE of Scotland Yard and various international colleagues; ANTHONY CADE and several aristocratic acquaintances.

Final Body Count: 3 in this narrative; more in the background story.

Method(s) of Death: SINGLE PISTOL SHOT x 3

100 Word Plot Summary:

Anthony Cade, international adventurer, comes into a double commission to deliver a politically sensitive Herzoslovakian manuscript of memoirs and a bundle of blackmailing letters to England. Both appear to be in high demand and swap hands several times; two men are shot, and the diplomatic and aristocratic guests at stately country home “Chimneys” are embroiled in multiple mysteries. Hidden identities, a violent revolutionary society, an accomplished jewel thief, a fabulous diamond, coded letters, secret passages and misleading clues… Can anyone be trusted? Is anyone really who they appear to be? And who does beautiful young widow Virginia Revel really love?

*****

The dead bodies are a side plot to this thriller, written, one suspects, with tongue firmly in cheek. What with a butler named Tredwell, an Inspector Badgworthy, and a bumbling politician, one George Lomax – not to mention a stay at the posh Blitz Hotel in London – the author appears to have been having a lot of innocent fun with this one. Another thriller versus an out-and-out murder mystery, for though we have a number of violently killed bodies by the end of the saga, the other players view the deceased with cold speculation versus shocked emotion.

What a busy plot it is, too. Political intrigue and revolution in fictional Balkan state Herzoslovakia! A commoner queen brutally massacred by a mob along with her royal spouse; a missing prince (or two?); sensitive political memoirs; an aristocratic Englishwoman’s blackmailing letters; a master jewel thief and a missing diamond of fabulous worth; untold reserves of oil (in Herzoslovakia) just waiting for development; several bullet-riddled corpses of swarthy foreigners; and a stately English country home much used to hosting diplomatic gatherings. Drop in several lovely ladies of impeccable breeding and soothing manner, and a thrillingly handsome young man just off the boat from Africa acting as courier to the papers in question, and stir well.

Moments of truly humorous farcical writing made me smile with delight, but this was tempered by the many jaw-dropping racial slurs. These were aimed at everyone under the sun not a true-blue upper-class Conservative Brit, but were extra heavy regarding those of Jewish heritage, as well as the broadly categorized Balkan/Italian/swarthily foreign “dagos” of various nationalities who do all of the heavy lifting in the background story.

Did I enjoy this story? Well yes, I did, in a general sense. It had its moments. But very much a product of its time. Very vintage.

I’m more than ready to move on from this rather ridiculous romp. What about a cozy village murder mystery? Luckily the next one up is just that, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

The cover gallery for The Secret of Chimneys is respectably diverse, and perhaps just a little bit misleading on occasion. Let’s take a look…

Second-string male lead Bill Eversleigh and the lovely Virginia Revel investigate midnight noises in the libray at Chimneys. Take note of the traditional weapon for confronting country house burglars - a fireplace poker, and Mrs. Revel's frothy negligée.

This first edition cover features second-string male lead Bill Eversleigh and the lovely Virginia Revel investigating midnight noises in the library at Chimneys. Take note of the traditional weapon for confronting country house burglars – a fireplace poker – and Mrs. Revel’s frothy negligée.

Our possible hero Anthony Cade, one would assume, and his first glimpse of Chimneys. A shot in the night is heard!

Our possible hero Anthony Cade, one would assume, and his first glimpse of Chimneys. A shot is heard in the night!

Something appears to be bothering the beautiful woman - is this Virginia? Could it be the menacing blood-red hand, the calling card of a murderous secret society?? "No comment" on the diamond and the rose.

Something appears to be bothering the beautiful woman on this cover – is this Virginia? And what could it be?! Perhaps the menacing blood-red hand, calling card of a murderous secret society?? “No comment” on the diamond and the rose.

Ah - here we have a classic cover containing key story elements, and a clue or two.

Ah – here we have a classic cover containing key story elements, and a clue or two. Nice composition.

This French cover is possibly my favourite, in a purely eye-catching sense. But I'm rather confused as to who this ghostly woman is supposed to be. The deceased Queen Varaga, perhaps? And is she holding a bouquet of roses? Hmmm...

This French cover is possibly my favourite, in a purely eye-catching sense. But I’m rather confused as to who this ghostly woman is supposed to be. The deceased Queen Varaga, perhaps? And is she holding a rose? Hmmm…

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the man in the brown suit agatha christie 8

The paperback cover of my high school era copy. The mask and faceted diamond are an interesting depiction; neither appears in the story so we’ll have to assume that their presence is purely symbolic.

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie ~ 1924. This edition: Dell, 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 440-05230. 223 pages.

My Rating: 8.5/10

Setting: London; the steamship Kilmorden Castle en route to Africa; South Africa; Rhodesia.

Detection by: MISS ANNE BEDDINGFELD; the strong, silent and slightly mysterious COLONEL RACE makes a first appearance.

Final Body Count: 2

Method(s) of Death: FALLING UNDER A TRAIN; STRANGLING

100 Word Plot Summary:

Newly orphaned archaeologist’s daughter Anne Beddingfeld is off to see the world. After witnessing a gruesome and fatal “accident”, following a suspected murderer, and finding a mysterious clue on a scrap of paper, Anne sets sail for South Africa. Sinister happenings ensue, but her newly acquired paternalistic protector, Sir Eustace, will surely see that she comes to no permanent harm. But which of the two masterful men sharing the voyage, Colonel Race and the elusive Man in the Brown Suit, can she trust? Who strangled the dancer Nadina back in England? And what about that film canister of raw diamonds?

*****

This is another thriller versus a simple murder-mystery story. While there are two suspicious deaths, one of which is an undeniably hands-on murder (a celebrated dancer is strangled in an empty English country house), the focus of the action is not so much on the details of that death, but rather of a much larger picture involving a mysterious master criminal, two young Englishmen possibly unjustly charged with diamond theft from a Kimberley mine, a rather sketchily described African political conflict, and the impetuous adventures of one Anne Beddingfeld as she seeks to discover the true identity of the seemingly sinister “Man in the Brown Suit”.

The story opens with a short Parisian episode, with a celebrated Russian dancer, Nadina, being visited in her dressing room.

The dancer stretched out a languid hand, but at the sight of the name on the card, Count Sergius Paulovitch, a sudden flicker of interest came into her eyes.

“I will see him. The maize peignoir, Jeanne, and quickly. And when the Count comes, you may go.”

Bien, Madame.”

Jeanne brought the peignoir, an exquisite wisp of corn-coloured chiffon and ermine. Nadina slipped into it, and sat smiling to herself, while one long white hand beat a slow tattoo on the glass of the dressing table.

The Count was prompt to avail himself of the privilege accorded to him – a man of medium height, very slim, very elegant, very pale, extraordinarily weary. In feature, little to take hold of, a man difficult to recognize again if one left his mannerisms out of account. He bowed over the dancer’s hand with exaggerated courtliness.

“Madame, this is a pleasure indeed.”

So much Jeanne heard before she went out, closing the door behind her. Alone with her visitor, a subtle change came over Nadina’s smile.

“Compatriots though we are, we will not speak Russian, I think,” she observed.

“Since we neither of us know a word of the language, it might be as well,” agreed her guest…

The two go on to discuss the imminent retirement of their joint employer, a master criminal known only as “The Colonel”. About to be cut adrift without his direction, Nadina in particular is fomenting a scheme to ensure her future well-being and wealth; the Count warns her of the dangers of double-crossing such a clever man; and on that note we embark on the main narrative.

Young (twentyish) Anne Beddingfeld introduces herself in Chapter Two; she is writing in her diary, and it is in this diarist’s voice that half of the story is told. The other half is told by a certain Sir Eustace Pedlar, writing in turn in his diary; a parallel tale emerges as Anne and Sir Eustace find themselves sharing a voyage to South Africa, and then a train journey to Rhodesia.

Anne has been left rather suddenly orphaned by her archeologist father’s sudden death; her father’s solicitor offers her a temporary home, and so she finds herself in London, rather at loose ends. Witnessing the tragic death of a man in the Underground – he steps backward off the edge of the platform just as a train is coming in – Anne notes that the bystander who professes to be a doctor is rather quite professionally going through the dead man’s pockets. When a slip of paper flutters to the ground, Anne picks it up, and, following investigation of the clue it gives her, ends up a passenger on a steamship bound for South Africa.

Here Anne’s natural charm and appealing appearance bring her several benevolent protectors, in the form of wealthy Mrs. Blair, the strong, silent, and very manly Colonel Race, and a jocular British M.P., Sir Eustace Pedlar, who is travelling to South Africa to investigate some vague political situation; something about labour unrest, which has an improbable part to play in the latter stages of the story. And protectors it appears are needed, as Anne is thrown into repeated contact with a belligerent and dangerous young man, who seeks refuge in Anne’s cabin one night, hides from a searcher, and leaves without explanation and minus some blood from an apparent fresh wound. He reappears in the guise of one of Sir Eustace’s secretaries, but not much secretarying appears to be happening, and Anne begins to suspect that he is instead an escaping murderer, fleeing England after strangling a woman (later identified as the dancer Nadina) in Sir Eustace’s unoccupied country mansion, Mill House.

Much activity ensues, before all becomes clear and the identity of “The Colonel” is determined and the details of the Mill House murder revealed. Oh, yes, there are also quantities of uncut diamonds floating about, first appearing in a film canister dropped through Anne’s transom one night early in her journey. These are the object of a number of increasingly desperate searches, but Anne cleverly manages to keep their location suppressed until the crucial moment.

This is a rather fun story to read; Anne’s travels are described in vivid detail, and understandably so, as they are taken from the real-life, ten-month, round-the-world journey which Agatha Christie and her husband took in 1922 , travelling in the entourage of British businessman Major Belcher to South Africa, and onwards to Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Canada and back to Britain.

There is abundant romance, predictable as the sun rising, and a lavish amount of melodrama. Anne is buffeted about but always manages to rise up in one piece; she is threatened, assaulted, kidnapped, tied up, lured into falling off a cliff (over the brink of Victoria Falls, no less!), and shot at, before finding true love and lasting happiness in a suitably exotic locale.

Though the reader is expected to take a lot of the shaky plot on faith, the writer obviously had a grand time developing her rambunctiously improbable tale; this was one of Agatha Christie’s favourites among her early stories, “more fun” to write (according to her autobiography) than her detective novels. It shows. The Man in the Brown Suit was one of the first Christies I read, and it remains one of my sentimental favourites, though I notice my sympathy for Anne’s romantic yearnings has lessened a bit, perhaps because I am now well out of my teens!

On to our cover gallery.

An early edition dustjacket, showing the incident which starts Anne on her merry way. Glaring error: Anne has black hair in the narrative; she looks pretty fair in this picture!

An early edition dust jacket, showing the incident which starts Anne on her merry way. Illustrator’s error: Anne has a mane of long black hair in the narrative; she looks pretty fair in this picture, don’t you think? (Or, on second glance, perhaps that is a fur collar?)

Another early dust jacket, this one circa 1926. Suitably mysterious!

Another early dust jacket, this one circa 1926. Suitably mysterious!

Not quite sure what this illustration is depicting; obviously the Victoria Falls episode, but the details don't match the incident as described by the author. (Plus her hair is all wrong.) But in that dress, who's to notice a mere detail like hair colour, nudge nudge wink wink?!

Not quite sure what this illustration is depicting; obviously the Victoria Falls episode, but the details don’t match the incident as described by the author. (Plus her hair is all wrong.) But in that dress, who’s to notice a mere detail like hair colour, nudge nudge wink wink?!

This one appears to be illustrated by someone who actually read the book. Anne is depicted in her London phase, hair (of the correct shade) dragged back unflatteringly in order to minimize her attractiveness as a courtesy to her reluctant hostess.

This one appears to be illustrated by someone who actually read the book. Anne is depicted in her London phase, hair (of the correct shade) dragged back unflatteringly in order to minimize her attractiveness as a courtesy to her reluctant hostess.

The illustrator did a good job with the mysterious brown-suited man, but bobbled (yet again!) on the heroine's hair colour.

The illustrator did a good job with the mysterious brown-suited man – who incidentally looks a lot like one of my in-laws during a gently regrettable bearded phase some years ago – with Anne showing a suitably shocked countenance. Not quite sure on the hair; it might be right; can’t really tell, so the artist gets a pass.

I like this one - a bit different, isn't it? Nice bit of graphic design.

I quite like this one – a bit different, isn’t it? Nice bit of vintage cover graphic design.

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Tthe murder on the links agatha christie 1he Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie ~ 1923. This edition: Dell, 1967. Paperback. 224 pages.

My Rating: 7.5/10

Setting: Mostly in the vicinity of Merlinville, France, at the estate of expatriate English millionaire Mr. Renauld.

Detection by: HERCULE POIROT with continual accompaniment and occasional assistance by CAPTAIN HASTINGS. A fellow detective, MONSIEUR GIRAUD of the Paris Sûreté, is in official charge of the case; he and Poirot despise each other instantly.

Final Body Count: 2

Method(s) of Death: STABBING – both times with a paper knife made from airplane wire. (But all may be not as it as first seems.)

100 Word Plot Summary:

Hercule Poirot receives a panicked letter from an English millionaire living in France: “For God’s sake, come!” Poirot and Hasting hasten to France, but arrive mere hours after Mr. Renauld’s stabbed corpse is found, in a half-dug grave on the unfinished golf course next to his estate. Mrs. Renauld is found bound and gagged in her bedroom; two bearded thugs are the suspects. But why can’t they be tracked? Why was the dead man’s son secretly in the neighbourhood that night? And what is the connection with a number of beautiful women who continually pop up, including Hastings’ latest crush?

*****

The author hits her stride with this excellent murder mystery, packed as full of red herrings as a 1920s’ millionaire’s wall safe is of banknotes. (Or secret documents.) And yes, this time we are dallying with a millionaire, albeit a very dead one, with a suitably convoluted past.

Captain Hastings and Hercule Poirot, after forging a friendship while jointly dealing with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, are now sharing a London flat. Hastings is acting as a private secretary to a M.P., while Poirot employs himself as a private detective, chasing down lost lap dogs and stolen pearls for the wealthy dowager classes. Neither is particularly content with the status quo, so when a letter comes from a certain wealthy financier, Mr Renauld, formerly of England, Canada and Chile, now residing in France, referring to his life being in danger and a secret that he possesses, and begging for Poirot’s immediate aid, the bait is taken.

Across the Channel they go, only to find that they are mere hours too late. Mr. Renault is already dead, stabbed and left to die in a partially dug grave on the golf course under construction next to his country estate. (And, or the record, the site of the murder is the only connection this story has to golf in any way, shape or form. Please ignore all of the lurid paperback covers one will find with the body dressed in plus fours, or with a golf club or golf balls or any such nonsense. No one has played on the course yet! It is under construction! The title picks up on the most minor element of the story; careless illustrators assume something which isn’t in the story.)

Where was I? Oh, yes. The plot.

So: Mr Renauld is dead; his wife has been found tied and gagged in their bedroom. She claims that two bearded men tied her up and abducted her husband, and at first the story seems plausible, especially after Mrs. Renault faints in an excess of emotion after viewing her husband’s body. But there are just a few loose ends. Where did the bearded men come from, and where have they vanished to? What is the “secret” referred to in the letter to Poirot, and by the abductors? What part did the Renauld’s son Jack play in the events of the day leading up to the murder? Why is the elegantly mysterious neighbour’s beautiful daughter so anxious? Who was really dallying with the lovely young acrobat whom Hastings has already met back in England, and who shows up most unexpectedly at the site of the murder? And what’s all this about a SECOND body???!

The characters in general are not particularly sympathetic or memorable; the victim(s) and the criminal(s) appear as stereotyped set pieces, included merely to move the puzzle along. The egotistical French detective, Monsieur Giraud, pops in and out to sneer at Poirot and muddle the clues, but I could not even bring myself to dislike or scorn him; he just “was”, as manufactured a plot element as the murdered man, himself merely a lay figure labelled “the body”. The person I liked the most here was Poirot himself; I came away from this story with an increased appreciation both for his intelligence and his sense of humour. Hastings appears even more of a buffoon in this novel than he did in the Styles case; his actions in several cases act in direct opposition to the true murderer being discovered, at least in the short term. His romantic impulses were in full bloom throughout; only Poirot’s continual gentle mockery kept them in perspective to the reader, if not to Hastings himself.

Agatha Christie in this, only her third mystery novel, creates a most convoluted plot. She provides all of the needed clues, holding nothing back, but it will be a clever reader who guesses the true solution before the big reveal at the end. I had read this novel several times in the past, but even then could not quite get it sorted out until the final events, when my memory revived and I said to myself, “Of course!” Click, click, click, and it all makes a completed picture.

Final analysis: a strong puzzle mystery, well thought out, and an enjoyable light read ninety years after its first appearance.

Elegantly simple is this first edition cover from 1923.

Elegantly simple is this first edition cover from 1923. (And not a golf ball in sight!)

This is another 1920s' cover, nicely indicative of the plot within.

This is another 1920s’ cover, nicely indicative of the plot within, though I have my qualms about that flag on the golf course; it really shouldn’t be there, considering that the links are still under construction, and no one is golfing there yet.

Jumping ahead several decades, this paperback cover at least does not include a golf ball. Our brilliant detective features prominently, little grey cells working furiously, one would assume from his serious expression.

Jumping ahead several decades, this paperback cover at least does not include a golf ball. Our brilliant detective features prominently, little grey cells working furiously, or so one would assume from his serious expression. My only major issue with this one is the dagger itself; in the story it is a letter opener made of airplane wire, a war souvenir. Check out the first cover for what it might really look like.

Ooh, la, la! Poirot confronts one of the beautiful women who so abundantly decorate the story. This particular one is Hastings' acrobatic charmer. I am rather uneasy about the era-correct authenticity of that stage costume, but I doubt it was a strong consideration with the artist; he was more interested in the physical attributes of the girl in question, don't you think?

Ooh, la, la! Poirot confronts one of the beautiful women who so abundantly decorate the story. This particular one is Hastings’ acrobatic charmer. I am rather uneasy about the era-correct authenticity of that stage costume, but I doubt it was a strong consideration with the artist; he was more interested in the physical attributes of the girl in question, don’t you think?

A nice collection of clues presented here, in this still more recent (1970s, perhaps) paperback cover.

A nice collection of clues presented here, in this still more recent (1960s, perhaps) paperback cover.

A modern cover illustration, very classy in its detailed simplicity, and focussing on a key plot element which other cover illustrators have seemingly ignored until now.

A modern cover illustration, very classy in its simplicity, and focussing on a key plot element which other cover illustrators have seemingly ignored until now. (There’s no gag, though – my only complaint. Details, details!)

And here, as a sort of cover illustration bonus, is a Dutch cover illustration. This is a very clever one indeed, and the cover designer picked up on a major clue, which you will appreciate once you've finished the story. Very nice, and possibly y favourite cover of all, right up there with the simple dagger of the first edition pictured at the start of this cover art gallery.

And here, as a bonus, is a Dutch cover illustration. This is quite clever, and the illustrator picked up on a major clue, which you will appreciate once you’ve finished the story. Very nice, and possibly one of my favourites, right up there with the simple dagger of the first edition pictured at the start of this cover art gallery.

And here, at the bottom of the collection, is an entry for the Hall of Cover Illustration Shame. A completely wrong depiction of the scenario and the corpse. Maddening!

Now for an entry for the Hall of Cover Illustration Shame. A completely wrong depiction of the scenario and the corpse. Maddening!

And this contemporary illustration, which gets it completely wrong as well. The only thing the least bit appropriate is the period attire, but otherwise the picture is completely foreign to the novel. Boo, hiss.

Also shameful is this contemporary illustration, which gets it completely wrong as well. The only thing the least bit appropriate is the period attire, but otherwise the picture is completely foreign to the novel. Boo, hiss.

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the secret adversary agatha christie 2The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie ~ 1922. This edition: Bantam, 1986. Paperback. ISBN: 0-553-26477-X.  215 pages.

My Rating: 7/10

Setting: Mostly London, with a few excursions into the countryside; immediately post Great War, 1919.

Detection by: Thomas Beresford (TOMMY) and Prudence Cowley (a.k.a. TUPPENCE)

Final Body Count: 2

Method(s) of Murder: POISON – death #1 from an overdose of chloral , and death #2 by cyanide

100 Word Plot Summary:

Who is Jane Finn, and why has she vanished after escaping from the sinking Lusitania with a secret document entrusted to her by its doomed courier? That paper could have changed the course of the war, but why is the British Secret Service still keen to recover it now, 5 years later? Why the competing hunt by a group of Bolshevik anarchists, led by the mysterious “Mr Brown”? Tommy Beresford and “Tuppence” Cowley, newly demobbed and desperate for jobs, join forces and market their services to Jane Finn’s rich American cousin, whose interest in her seems just a little overenthusiastic…

*****

Agatha Christie’s second published work is a slightly more ambitious story than The Mysterious Affair at Styles; and it’s changed in style as well: dramatic thriller rather than sedate country house murder mystery. The tone is breathless, the plot improbable, the villains all degrees of wicked (urbane to thuggish), and the “women in question” suitably mysterious – as well as stunningly beautiful. What a grand little period piece of colourful writing, silly though the whole scenario is.

Here’s the devious (and exotically lovely)  Mrs Vandemeyer, who, incidentally, knows more about “Mr Brown” than is healthy for her long-term survival:

A woman was standing by the fireplace. She was no longer in her first youth, and the beauty she undeniably possessed was hardened and coarsened. In her youth she must have been dazzling. Her pale gold hair, owing a slight assistance to art, was coiled low on her neck, her eyes, of a piercing electric blue, seemed to possess a faculty of boring into the very soul of the person she was looking at. Her exquisite figure was enhanced by a wonderful gown of indigo charmeuse. And yet, despite her swaying grace, and the almost ethereal beauty of her face, you felt instinctively the presence of something hard and menacing, a kind of metallic strength that found expression in the tones of her voice and in that gimlet-like quality of her eyes.

Gimlet eyes and indigo charmeuse; obviously up to no good. Beware!

Young adventurers Tommy and Tuppence are a rollicking change from the pompous Poirot and sober Hastings of her first novel; Agatha Christie was to follow The Secret Adversary with four other books featuring the pair, spaced throughout the years, with the characters aging appropriately.

Though I found this an amusing enough read, with plenty of nostalgia value, I couldn’t quite buy into the whole Bolshevist plot side of things; too many vagaries and improbabilities. (Even at my first reading as a young teenager, I recall a feeling of cynical disbelief; this was never one of my favourite Christies.) But so much scope of course for all sorts of shenanigans – secret identities, people vanishing, other people being tied up in windowless rooms, threats of torture, beautiful girls, invisible ink, car chases, shots fired that just miss our heroes – it’s all in here.

An early dustjacket - possibly from the first edition. Note the red flag and the Russian bear behind the mask of "Mr Brown"!

An early dustjacket – possibly from the first edition*. Note the red flag and the Russian bear behind the mask of “Mr Brown”! (February 2017 – A reader has just commented that this is not the first edition cover; that one apparently has a picture of a woman – presumably Jane Finn? – on it. I’ll keep an eye out for that one in my internet travels.)

Another early dustjacket, with "Mr Brown" as the chess master moving his human pieces about the board.

Another early dustjacket, with “Mr Brown” as the chess master moving his human pieces about the board.

Tuppence with a tidy hairdo and a string of pearls; her companion much more appropriately tousled, considering the revolver covering them both... I'm guessing 1950s for this dramatic paperback jacket.

Tuppence with a tidy hairdo and a sedate string of pearls; her companion just a wee bit more appropriately tousled – though not much, considering the threatening figure in the foreground!  I’m guessing 1950s for this dramatic paperback cover.

Another view from behind the handgun.

Another Pan paperback, this one for the North American market, and possibly released a few years later than the one just above. Great villains-eye view from behind the handgun.

I couldn't resist including this gorgeous paperback cover, from a French edition.

I couldn’t resist including this rather elegant paperback cover, from a more recent (I’m guessing 1970s or 1980s) French edition.

And from 2008, the cover of a graphic novel version, playing up the Lusitania connection.

And from 2008, this attractive poster-like cover of a graphic novel version, playing up the Lusitania connection.

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the mysterious affair at styles agatha christie 001The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie ~ 1920. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, 1927. Fourth printing. Hardcover. 296 pages.

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.

Front fold blurb from 1927 Grosset & Dunlap edition.

Front fold blurb from 1927 Grosset & Dunlap edition.

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.

Dust jacket of the 1927 Grosset and Dunlap edition. Can you see all seven of the suspects?

Dust jacket of the 1927 Grosset and Dunlap edition. Can you see six of the seven suspects? (Captain Hastings is also present, but he is apparently never considered as a possibility, due to lack of motive, I presume.)

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