"Let me introduce you to the murderer... "
And with that sentence, so began a legacy in the world of crime fiction. The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie's first novel. Published in 1922 by Bodley Head, it was the first in a run of nearly 90 novels that would give Christie the mantle of the Queen of Crime.
Christie had occasionally written short stories and poetry for a variety of magazines, and at one time her sister had made a bet with her that she couldn't write a whodunnit as it would be too complex to plot. This, in combination with her knowledge gained from the dispensary, encouraged Christie to take up the challenge and so it was that in 1917, Christie wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles. She sent the manuscript to four publishers, who declined the opportunity. A fifth attempt also apparently resulted in failure until much later, when the publisher wrote back accepting her novel (it had been pushed to the back of a drawer and forgotten). The aforementioned short stories weren't published until much later (e.g. The House of Dreams, in the short story collection While the Light Lasts).
The Mysterious Affair at Styles tells the story of Captain Arthur Hasting's first hand experience of murder and his first published encounter with Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the main character of the novel and many more of Christie's works.
The story goes thus:
It is World War One, and Captain Arthur Hastings, injured and on sick leave from the front, returns to England and meets his old friend John Cavendish. Invited down to the family's home in the country, Styles Court, Hastings meets Cavandish's family: Emily Cavendish (Joh n's stepmother) and her husband Alfred; John's wife, Mary; Lawrence, his brother; Mrs Cavendish's friend's daughter Cynthia Murdoch, an orphan, and Evelyn Howard, Mrs Cavendish's companion. Hastings also meets friend of the family Dr Bauerstein.
While in the village, Hastings encounters his old friend Hercule Poirot, whom he has not seen in many years.
One night, Emily Cavendish is found dying of poison, and her husband, who was known to have had an argument with her, is prime suspect. Hastings races into the village to consult Poirot and so the investigation begins.
Styles is a solid debut for Christie. The book is told in the first person by Hastings (in fact this is the same for all of his subsequent appearances). We get all of Christie's usual ideas, but here in their first format: the idea of the country house where a murder is committed and all the inhabitants becoming suspect. Each member of the household has his or her own motive, whether it be connected with money or infidelity or some other unknown reason. In addition to the people of the house, there is also the mysterious Bauerstein, who despite not having an obvious motive seems more suspicious than anyone else.
Styles is perhaps one of Christie's more complex books, and is all the better for it. There are so many twists and turns that it is highly unlikely you will be able to guess the identity of the murderer, the motive, or indeed the methods of the murder. Red herrings abound - which I'm obviously not going to give away here - and it is a pleasure trying to work out which facts are important and which can be discarded.
Christie also makes use of diagrams and drawings, this idea also becoming a common occurrence in later books. It is used to the full here, as she includes a map of Styles Court, a diagram of the room where the murder is committed and a fragment of a will amongst other things. This is a welcome change from crime fiction in general which rarely utilises pictures to the extent that Christie does; in this situation, you can visualise in your mind the route a murderer might have taken to reach the victim's room, or what objects in that room might have played an integral part in the unravelling of the murder.
More importantly however, this is our first introduction to Hercule Poirot. Christie's 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... (he) limped badly... had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police."
Poirot is an excellent character but has somehow not become a classic criminal detective as, say, Sherlock Holmes has. Whereas Holmes has inspired or appeared in newspapers, books, film and TV in some format, Poirot has not had the same kind of success. Agatha Christie's methods and stories of whodunnits certainly had an effect on crime fiction, but the character of Poirot was unfortunately left on the sidelines a little. Christie's most successful character was probably Miss Marple. Poirot appeared in 39 of her books in total, too many to mention here, although he did appear in two of Christie's most highly regarded masterpieces, also regarded as classic crime books in their own right, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and Murder on the Orient Express (1934).
Hastings is an excellent narrator as he represents every reader of the book. He asks Poirot the questions that we ask ourselves, and states the possible solutions that we think of (dismissed by Poirot of course, with an explanation of why they are incorrect).
Hastings subsequently appeared in ten more
Poirot novels, including Peril at End House (1932), Lord Edgware Dies (1933), Dumb Witness (1937) his last appearance for some time, Curtain: Poirot's Last Case (1976, actually written back in the 40s) and finally Black Coffee (1998) a Christie play novelised by Charles Osbourne, and the only story where Hastings is not the narrator.
While in the books he has always been a fairly intelligent, and, one would imagine, handsome character, I can't help but feel he has been portrayed on screen in TV and film as something of an unintelligent and bumbling oaf, particularly in the David Suchet series, and the Peter Ustinov film Thirteen at Dinner.
Advantages: Good complex plot, Plot twists and turns, Red herrings