Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Book Review - Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
Published by: UK General Books
Publication Date: 1920
Format: Hardcover, 296 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Arthur Hastings has been invalided out from the war. Running into his old friend John Cavendish, he's invited to stay at the family estate Styles, in Essex, where Hastings lands in the middle of a family crisis. Styles is packed with people. John and his wife are in residence, as is John's younger brother, Lawrence. Yet the real trouble lies with John and Lawrence's step-mother. She was a wonderful mother to them but has recently re-married an odd younger man who was her secretary, a Mr. Alfred Inglethorp. Evelyn Howard, Mrs. Emily Inglethorp's friend, who has long lived at Styles, as well as Emily's ward, Cynthia Murdoch, is so upset, that Evelyn leaves quite volubly on Hastings arrival. Though the situation is about to get much worse. Emily is found dead one night. All the doors to her room were locked and, despite the local doctors insisting that her heart just gave out, it turns out to be murder.

With everyone acting suspicious, and a new husband to point the finger at, things get more complicated as multiple wills arise. Hastings wants to help but is at a bit of a lose. Then felicitously, Hasting runs into Hercule Poirot. Hastings knew Poirot back in Belgium when Poirot was a detective of great renown. Poirot has been displaced by the war and placed in Essex. Hastings doesn't take long to ask his old friend for help. With Poirot on the case, soon all the suspects will be rounded up and he will point the finger at the murderer. Because that is what Poirot is best at.

Now this may come as a surprise, but until now I've never read an Agatha Christie novel with Poirot. When I was younger I'd watched the BBC adaptations on Mystery and my friend Sarah used to devour the books at a prodigious rate, I remember her actually picking up an omnibus edition when we were on vacation in LA and I think she had finished it before we arrived home. But for some reason I never felt compelled to pick one up myself. In fact, I haven't actually read that many books by Agatha Christie, I know, for shame. I finally picked up The Body in the Library years ago when there was an outcry that the new Marple adaptation had changed the ending, and I was therefore intrigued to see how they had changed it. I was immediately struck by the ease and apparent simplicity of her writing. Her straight forward prose was able to hide wonderful twists and turns. I have since read a few more of her non-series books, Sparkling Cyanide and Endless Night, but still I hesitated on picking up Poirot.

Thanks to the re-release of the early seasons of Poirot on Blu-Ray, finally in the correct order I might add, I have been re-watching all the old episodes and loving every minute of David Suchet. The episode that I loved far and away more then any other was "The Mysterious Affair at Styles." The "origin story" of Poirot, if you will. What I loved more then anything else was a fussy Poirot trying to get his fellow Belgian exiles in line with his ideas of dress and deportment. Watching Poirot herd mini Poirot wannabes was beyond entertaining to me. Therefore, my desire to finally read Poirot and more Agatha Christie helped inspire this whole "Golden Summer."

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is Agatha Christie's first book, and sadly it shows. The books by Christie I had previously read were written 22 years after this book and her ease of writing and narrative flow are sadly a little choppy here. The fact that I have never been a huge Hastings fan and that he narrates this story doesn't help that much. Of course, my "meh" attitude is nothing to my mother's loathing of Hastings, which resulted in me not seeing a lot of the early episodes on TV because of her refusal to watch any episode with him in. I kid you not when I say I have a list of "approved" Poirot watching just for my mom, with the Hastings episodes excised. Though reading this book, I have to say, the show was a little generous to Hastings... he's a little more annoying and a lot more stupid then I have been led to believe. Which makes me wonder... all the books can't be from Hastings POV, can they? I mean he eventually goes off to the Argentine and enter people I really like, like Mrs. Oliver.

Yet, Hastings being even more of an idiot was nothing to the marvel of Poirot. Poirot was perfect from his first line. I remember watching the Agatha Christie Biopic Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures staring Olivia Williams and Anna Massey and how Poirot just "came to her" while working in the World War I dispensary. I wonder if this isn't more truth then fiction, because, there he is, on the page, fully formed first time out. It's rare for an author to have the full and perfect embodiment of their most famous character right away, yet she did it. Poirot was a perfect, fussy, enigmatic detective from day one. It's no wonder he became one of her most popular creations going on to be in 33 novels, 50 short stories and one play. Oh Poirot, I love you, I promise to read all your books and I look forward to the final season of your show with joy and sorrow, I never want it to end.


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