October 15, 2020


THE AGATHA CHRISTIE CENTENNIAL: 100 YEARS OF THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES: Christie's debut novel was famously rejected by a host of publishers. Many, many editions later, it's an iconic mystery. (J. KINGSTON PIERCE, 10/15/20, Crime Reads)

Styles was an early and influential contribution to what's now called the Golden Age of detective fiction, a period that stretched arguably from the 1920s through the 1940s. The book tosses us into the company of Captain Arthur Hastings, a soldier who's been invalided home from World War I's Western Front and has accepted an invitation to spend part of his sick leave at Styles Court, the Essex country estate of his boyhood acquaintance John Cavendish. However, his peace there is soon upset by the slaying of Cavendish's elderly, widowed, and wealthy stepmother, Emily Inglethorp--an incident that awakened the household near the close of a summer night. Afterward, Hastings seeks help with the investigation from Hercule Poirot, a retired but once illustrious Belgian police detective Hastings had met before the war, and who has recently been living as a refugee in a cottage near Styles.

In short order, Poirot confirms his suspicions that the deceased was done in by strychnine, "one of the most deadly poisons known to mankind," though precisely how she was dosed with that bitter neurotoxin is unknown. As is the identity of her killer. The suspects, however, are plentiful, among them John Cavendish and his younger brother, Lawrence, whose claim on their stepmother's fortune is in doubt; Emily's most recent and significantly more junior husband, Alfred Inglethorp, described as "a rotten little bounder"; Evelyn Howard, the late grandame's hired companion, who exhibits singular animus toward Alfred; Mary Cavendish, whose love for husband John has suffered severely amid his dalliances and her own drab flirtations; and Cynthia Murdoch, Emily's protégée, who happens to work in a dispensary. It's up to Poirot, with aid from Hastings and Scotland Yard Inspector James Japp, to weigh motives and opportunities and finally suss out who among the Styles Court habitués was responsible for Mrs. Inglethorp's premature dispatching.

Although Christie's prose here is quite economical, her efforts at misdirection are masterful and her plotting elaborate. The idea of using strychnine as a weapon came, of course, from the author's hospital experiences. It "could not have come to her otherwise," explains Laura Thompson in her 2018 biography, Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life, "as it depends upon a knowledge of poisons. In fact it is impossible to reach the solution to Styles without this knowledge: the reader may guess right as to the culprit, but the guess cannot be proved without knowledge of the properties of strychnine and bromide. So Agatha's first detective novel was, in a sense, her only 'cheat.'"

Over the last century, myriad editions of The Mysterious Affair at Styles--the first of Christie's 33 Poirot novels--have reached print, some of them quite handsome, while others make you wonder what their designers were thinking. To commemorate this month's anniversary, I've gathered examples from all points on that spectrum.

And David Suchet owns the filmed versions.

Posted by at October 15, 2020 8:28 AM