Friday, March 1, 2013

"Every Murderer Is Probably Somebody's Old Friend.” -Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles

This year, I decided to read all the works of Agatha Christie in publication order. I just completed The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Published in 1920, it was Christie's debut novel, and it introduced Hercule Poirot, Inspector Japp and Arthur Hastings.

Christie's books are often described as cozy drawing room whodunits, lacking literary merit. Yet, her simple narrative style masks an insightful understanding of the human condition. She really understands human emotion and what makes us tick.

Her works chronicle the greater part of the 20th century (1920-1976), and she is equally adept in writing about England during the Great War as she is about the student unrest of the 1960s. Her clever plot devices are set in ordinary places and usually feature a marginalized woman caught in the center of a murder.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was dedicated to Christie's mother who she described as the greatest influence in her life and writing. The book also introduces Hercule 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 [sic] was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police. As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumps [sic] by unraveling some of the most baffling cases of the day."
For the next 55 years, Christie would continue to write about Poirot. He would never age, and his personality would never deviate from the character first described in this book. Whether it was 1920 or 1970, Poirot remained the same. 

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is set during World War I, and involves typical Christie plot devices: murder, poison, espionage, a lovely country estate, tangled love affairs, and a parade of possible suspects. It's an escape into the world of upper class England, full of servants, teas, and frivolity. It's Downton Abbey, only more original and entertaining. 

Rating: B

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