The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Introducing Poirot and Hastings…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Captain Hastings is home from the war on leave and his old friend John Cavendish invites him to stay at his family’s manor house, Styles, where Hastings was a frequent visitor in earlier years. There have been some changes since then. John is now married to Mary, not that that stops Hastings immediately being struck like a lovelorn schoolboy by her beauty and grace. Then there’s Cynthia, a young woman staying at the manor while she works in the pharmacy of the local hospital. Hastings is immediately struck like a lovelorn schoolboy by her auburn-gold hair and vivacity. Old Mrs Inglethorp, John’s stepmother, has re-married the awful Alfred whom everyone dislikes on the grounds that he’s clearly a fortune hunter and worse, he sports a bushy black beard which makes him look like a bounder. And there’s Evie – a lady who acts as a companion and general helper to Mrs Inglethorp. Evie is middle-aged and has a rather gruff, almost manly demeanour, so that happily Hastings manages to remain immune to her charms. And in a house in the village are a group of Belgian refugees, including a retired police officer, M. Hercule Poirot…

This is the first book ever published by Agatha Christie and therefore our first introduction to the two characters who would become her most famous, Poirot and Hastings. It’s decades since I last read it so I didn’t remember much about it at all and was delighted to discover that it’s a whole lot of fun. It’s not as polished as the books from her peak period – the pacing isn’t as smooth and some of the clues are pretty obvious requiring Hastings to be… well, it grieves me to say it, but a bit thick to miss them! I pretty quickly worked out whodunit, although it’s possible that maybe the solution was deeply embedded in my subconscious from long ago (though that’s unlikely given my terrible memory). But the intricacies of the plotting show the promise of her later skill and the book has the touches of humour that always make her such a pleasure to read.

Challenge details:
Book: 18
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1920

Poirot himself has some of the quirks we all know so well – his obsessive straightening of ornaments, his occasional French exclamations, his egg-shaped head and neatness of dress. But he’s much more of an action man than in the later books, frequently running, jumping, leaping into cars and driving off, and on one occasion even physically tackling a suspect! When I thought about it, this does actually make more sense for a retired police officer than the delightful fussiness of his later career, but it’s not quite as appealing and unique. He does however have the same soft heart and romantic nature of the later Poirot, as determined to mend broken hearts as to mete out justice. Inspector Japp also puts in an appearance, also rather different from the later Japp but still entertaining.

Agatha Christie

I did have a quiet laugh to myself at the obvious fact that Christie was clearly a major Holmes fan, since quite often Hastings sounds almost indistinguishable from Dr Watson, and this version of Poirot is much more into physical clues like Holmes than the psychology of the individual as he would later be. I’m pretty confident she’d read Poe’s detective stories too! But when you’re learning your craft who better to imitate than the masters, and her debt is repaid a zillion times over by all the many authors who have since unashamedly borrowed from her in their turn. And frankly, spotting these connections adds an extra element of enjoyment to nerds like me…

All-in-all, while I wouldn’t rank this as her best, it’s as good as most of the vintage crime I’ve been reading recently, which means it’s very good. My buddy, author and Christie aficionado Margot Kinberg, tells me that the book was turned down several times before finding a publisher. All I can say is I hope the ones who turned her down were eaten up by jealousy and regret when they realised what they’d missed out on! Four stars for the quality and an extra half for the interest of seeing how the indisputable Queen of Crime started out.

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46 thoughts on “The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

    • Yes, you’re right about Conan Doyle – he even mentions Poe’s detective in a Holmes story once, I think. I love all the intros in the vintage crime books that are being re-published now, where they point out the connections and how all the authors referenced each other. Such fun!

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  1. So glad you enjoyed your re-visit to this one, FictionFan. As you say, it’s not Christie’s absolute best. But it’s great to see how her characters began. And I always take heart from this one. From what I understand, she had trouble getting this published. It took time and a lot of rejections and editing. I give her perseverance points, and it reminds me to keep going…

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  2. As I read your review (enjoying it thoroughly), I thought of Holmes and Watson, so I’m glad you mentioned that Christie was a fan of ACD’s work.

    I read this book ages ago. Even a less than stellar Christie book is a cut above many other books.

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    • Ha – it was fun to see Hastings copy Watson’s style, and Poirot being all energetic and bloodhound-like! Yes, absolutely – it’s only when you compare this to her later books that it seems a bit weaker, but it’s as good as the vast majority of vintage crime.

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  3. I read this one very recently – whilst staying at the hotel where she finished writing it. It’s such fun! I did enjoy poor Captain Hastings’ lovestruck antics and all the clues that he missed whilst fancying himself as a bit of sleuth ( and also of course fancying almost every woman under 30). I’d forgotten how much fun it was!

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    • Oh, what fun to have actually been on the spot! Yes, I love Hastings – he’s even more susceptible to a pretty face than Watson, I think! Can you imagine the two of them on a night out together? They’d be duelling by dawn… 😉 And it was so fun that he was planning to be a detective himself in this one… haha! The criminals would have loved that…

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  4. While I know it won’t be this one (I have several others waiting in my Kindle and my library app), I hereby promise you I WILL read my first Christie sometime this year. Promise!!

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  5. I love the idea of reading Christie in order-her first book to her last. Then, as you say, you can enjoy the evolution of her writing. I wonder how many first-time authors give up after receiving bad press, negative criticism etc? Christie is a wonderful example of the fact that everyone has to start somewhere, and even the greats need to hone their craft 🙂

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    • Yes, I think you have to have a lot of confidence to get that first book out there and then survive the criticism. At least she didn’t get instant feedback on Twitter and blogs, though! It was fun reading this and seeing the beginnings of her talent, but knowing she’d get so much better within a few years. I think The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was only a few years after this, and what a difference!

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  6. I think I read this one, but it was a LONG time ago (and my recall certainly pales in comparison to yours, ha!) The writer in me really appreciates knowing that even a master like Christie had to start somewhere — but how she improved, huh?!!

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    • I read them all when I was young and have re-read my favourites a million times, but I’m having fun revisiting some of the ones I haven’t read in decades! I know – good though this was, it was incredible to think how much better she got in just a few years time. A lesson for all aspiring writers! 😀

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  7. I didn’t realise Christie had such a hard time getting this novel published. Imagine a world without Poirot. As I seem to do with most famous writers, I read Christie’s novels in a strange order, and so this one was near the end of my journey with her. As a result, I guessed the sollution, as it was kind of similar to one of her early Miss Marpels. It was plenty of fun though, and I would probably recommend it to people as quite a good place to start, as it isn’t too complicated, but is a strong prototype for her later masterpieces.

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    • Neither did I till Margot told me just a couple of weeks ago when I put it on a TBR post. Thank goodness she persevered – it would be awful not to have these books in the world! Yes, I bounced around with Christie too and have never tried to read them in any kind of order. The collection I’ve been listening to this last week, The Thirteen Problems, has several stories in it that have plot points that show up in later novels – I think she must have enjoyed re-using things. I suppose when you write 74 novels it must be quite hard never to repeat yourself!

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  8. I found this one interesting as a first Christie, but it never quite felt “right” to me in terms of the characters and plotting. But everyone has to start somewhere, and we know she only got better!

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    • Yes, exactly! Neither Poirot nor Hastings felt like the characters they later became and the others were really merely there for the purpose of the plot. But a great first attempt, and I’m glad she kept going! 😀

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