In Agatha Christie’s first published mystery, and the first Hercule Poirot novel, a brisk older woman, Mrs Inglethorp, has been murdered in Essex. Hastings has been invalided out of the army and decides to visit his old friend, John Cavendish, her stepson, at their country estate.
A review on Goodreads said that she had found February tough, back in 2018. In 2021, with the pandemic still biting, I can utterly agree with her. I am finding it difficult to read anything particularly complex, deep or dark at the moment. I have mostly read old favourites, a quirky online sci fi publication called The Deathworlders (which I may or may not review at some point) and Cadfael mysteries. The Mysterious Affair At Styles fit right in to the light hearted escapism I sorely need right now.
The novel is told from the point of view of Captain Arthur J. M. Hastings, invalided out from the Western Front and guest at Styles Court. The hall is owned by Emily Inglethorp, a tough but fair woman known for her philanthropy. She has recently married a younger man, Alfred Inglethorp, to the displeasure of her two stepsons. Her stepsons and daughter in law live with her, along with the dependent Cynthia, and her companion Evelyn Howard.
After Mrs. Inglethorp’s death, Hastings insists on drafting in his old friend, Hercule Poirot, a brilliant Belgian detective and refugee whom Emily had helped prior to her death.
“You see,” he said sadly, “you have no instincts.” “It was intelligence you were requiring just now,” I pointed out. “The two often go together,” said Poirot enigmatically. The remark seemed so utterly irrelevant that I did not even take the trouble to answer it.
Hastings as narrator is so gloriously funny and tragic. Near the beginning of the novel he vainly and incorrectly supposes that his investigative skills have surpassed that of Hercule Poirot. He falls in unrequited love with two women, one married, the other much younger, resulting in a clumsy and comical marriage proposal.
He also continually tries to outpace Poirot intellectually during the investigation, without success.
I love watching the Poirot TV series featuring David Suchet; Hastings is so ubiquitous to the adaptation that it is strange to realise that he was only in 8 of the Poirot novels. Hastings in the novels is far younger than his TV counterpart, supposed to be around thirty at the time of the first book. This actually makes the character more plausible; his benefit to Poirot was that of a young, physically vigorous man. He’s also the perfect parody of the blundering, decent but not too bright British gentleman.
Suspects and Clues
“The dead woman had not the gift of commanding love. Her death was a shock and a distress, but she would not be passionately regretted.” – Page 26
There’s an overabundance of both. It’s hard to like any of the characters really, with the possible exception of Cynthia, who unlike everybody else actually works for a living. While Mrs. Inglethorp’s tireless charity work makes her admirable, it is clear that she isn’t particularly likeable; highlighted by her propensity to remind Cynthia she is a dependent, and not a ‘real’ part of the family. Her stepsons are lazy; they chose to give up worthy professions in order to live off the family wealth and John is flagrantly unfaithful to his wife, while hypocritically accusing her of affairs.
The poisons are handled beautifully, with even the Pharmaceutical Journal praising the author for her accuracy. It’s likely due to the fact that Christie worked in a dispensary during WW1. Otherwise the book is riddled with misdirection, red herrings, and double bluffs. The redoubtable Inspector Japp also makes his first appearance.
In the End
“Well,” I grumbled, a little mollified. “I still think you might have given me a hint.” – p135
It was said that the novel was the result of a bet that the author wouldn’t be able to compose a detective novel in which the reader would not be able to “spot” the murderer. It’s a raging success by that measure. It’s a fun, surprisingly funny mystery, introducing beloved characters including Poirot, Hastings and Japp. Would heartily recommend.