The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Introducing Poirot and Hastings…

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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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Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie, plus Murder, She Said

Evil Under the Sun

Beware! Poirot on holiday!

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The Jolly Roger Hotel sits secluded on Smuggler’s Island, a promontory off the Devon coast that can be reached only by boat or over the paved causeway from the mainland. Here the well-to-do come for a peaceful holiday in luxurious surroundings. Imagine their horror, then, on discovering that Hercule Poirot has booked in as a fellow guest! The man is a walking pestilence – wherever he goes, murder is sure to follow. There ought to be a special clause about him in travel insurance policies!

As beautiful actress Arlena Stuart comes out of the hotel and walks to the beach, all eyes are drawn to her; the men in admiration, the women in disapproval. Arlena has a reputation – gossip about her relationships with various men is whispered whenever her name is mentioned. Her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, seems to be either unaware or uncaring of his wife’s indiscretions, but he’s the only one. Here on Smuggler’s Island, Arlena is carrying on a heady flirtation with a fellow guest – a young man by the name of Patrick Redfern – careless of the effect on Patrick’s young wife, Christine. Patrick seems trapped in Arlena’s web, unable to escape, as so many other men are rumoured to have been before. Fanatical minister Stephen Lane sees her as the embodiment of evil; Rosamond Darnley hates seeing how she treats Rosamond’s childhood friend, Kenneth; Kenneth’s daughter from an earlier marriage resents this woman who has come into their home and brought no happiness with her. There are rumours that Arlena is being blackmailed, and any of the other guests could be the blackmailer. So when Arlena’s body is found in a lonely cove, everyone on the island finds themselves suspect…

I know I sound like a broken record with these Christie novels but this is another one I love. The plotting is great – both the how and the why. The isolated island gives it the feel of a closed circle mystery – while it’s possible that someone came from the mainland to murder Arlena it’s soon shown to have been unlikely. So Poirot, with the full co-operation of the police, sets out to talk to the various guests, to try to uncover the truth from beneath all the alibis and motives and lies. It’s another one of the ones where, shortly before the end, Poirot kindly lists all the clues giving the reader one last chance to work it out before all is revealed. Good luck with that! It’s entirely fair-play but your little grey cells will have to be in excellent working order to spot the solution.

For once I think I prefer the Ustinov adaptation to the Suchet, because the wonderful and beautiful Diana Rigg is so well cast as Arlena…

I love the characterisation in this one even more than the plotting, though. Patrick’s infatuation and Christine’s jealousy are well done, and young Linda’s teenage resentment of her step-mother feels very realistic. Two American guests, the voluble Mrs Gardiner and her complaisant husband, provide a touch of warmth and comedy amid the atmosphere of overhanging evil. Mr Blatt lets us see how money doesn’t provide automatic entry to the rarefied heights of social snobbery, while Major Barry is one of Christie’s always excellent retired colonials, willing to bore anyone polite enough to listen to his interminable stories of days gone by. Arlena herself is seen only through the eyes of others, leaving her rather ambiguous, while Rosamond’s protectiveness of Kenneth suggests she may feel something deeper than friendship for him.

Excellent! If you haven’t read it before, do; and if you have, read it again! Another one that I highly recommend.

NB This book was provided for review in a new edition with great new covers by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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* * * * *

Murder, She Said

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HarperCollins also sent me another treat – a little book of Miss Marple quotes. It’s beautifully produced in hardback and the quotes are divided up into sections, such as The Art of Conversation, Human Nature, Men and Women, etc.

“If people do not choose to lower their voices, one must assume that they are prepared to be overheard.”

It has an introduction by Tony Medawar, partly about Christie’s inspirations for the character and partly a biography of what can be gleaned of Miss Marple’s life. The book also includes a brief article called “Does a Woman’s Instinct Make Her a Good Detective?”, written by Christie for a British newspaper in 1928 to publicise a set of short stories she was issuing at that time. And at the back it has a complete bibliography of all the Miss Marple novels and short stories. Apparently there’s a companion volume in the same style for Poirot fans, called Little Grey Cells.

“I’ve never been an advocate of teetotalism. A little strong drink is always advisable on the premises in case there is a shock or an accident. Invaluable at such times. Or, of course, if a gentleman should arrive suddenly.”

It’s the kind of book that would be a fun little gift for a Miss Marple fan –  not substantial enough to be a main gift; it didn’t take long for me to flick through the pages – but a good idea for a stocking filler. There are days when we could all do with a bit of Miss Marple’s clear-eyed wisdom…

“Most people – and I don’t exclude policemen – are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them. I never do. I’m afraid I always like to prove a thing for myself.”

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

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Mrs McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

Where are they now?

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When old Mrs McGinty is brutally killed in her own parlour, suspicion quickly falls on her lodger, the rather unprepossessing James Bentley. All the evidence points in his direction, and he is duly charged, tried and convicted. But somehow it doesn’t feel right to Superintendent Spence. He’s met many murderers in his long career and Bentley doesn’t seem to him to fit the profile. With the police case closed, he takes his concerns to his old friend Hercule Poirot, asking him to investigate with a view to either turning up evidence that will clear Bentley or alternatively finding something that will reassure Spence the right man has been convicted. But Poirot must hurry, before Bentley goes to the gallows…

This is yet another great mystery from the supremely talented Ms Christie. First published in 1952, she was still at the height of her formidable plotting powers and had that ease and occasional playfulness in her style that always makes her books such a pleasure to read. I’ve always loved the books in which Ariadne Oliver appears – Christie uses this mystery-writing friend of Poirot to provide a humorous and delightfully self-deprecating insight into the life of the detective novelist, and Ariadne’s love/hate relationship with her Finnish recurring detective must surely be based on Christie’s own frustrations with her Belgian one…

“How do I know?” said Mrs. Oliver crossly. “How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man? I must have been mad! Why a Finn when I know nothing about Finland? Why a vegetarian? Why all the idiotic mannerisms he’s got? These things just happen. You try something – and people seem to like it – and then you go on – and before you know where you are, you’ve got someone like that maddening Sven Hjerson tied to you for life. And people even write and say how fond you must be of him. Fond of him? If I met that bony gangling vegetable eating Finn in real life, I’d do a better murder than any I’ve ever invented.”

One of Ariadne’s books is being adapted for the stage by a young playwright, Robin Upward, who lives in the village where Mrs McGinty’s murder took place. So Poirot seeks her help to get an inside look at the villagers – her erratic intuition usually leads her to the wrong conclusions, but Poirot often finds her insight into how people behave when they don’t realise they’re being observed of great help to him. It’s also an opportunity to see how Christie may have felt herself about the frustrations of seeing other people adapt her work…

“But you’ve no idea of the agony of having your characters taken and made to say things that they never would have said, and do things that they never would have done. And if you protest, all they say is that it’s ‘good theatre.’ That’s all Robin Upward thinks of. Everyone says he’s very clever. If he’s so clever I don’t see why he doesn’t write a play of his own and leave my poor unfortunate Finn alone. He’s not even a Finn any longer. He’s become a member of the Norwegian Resistance movement.”

Poirot’s accommodation provides a good deal of humour in this one too. He must stay in the village, so boards with the Summerhayes – a couple with little experience of providing for paying guests and less talent. Maureen Summerhayes is delightful but scatterbrained, and her untidiness and lack of organisation drive the obsessively neat Poirot to distraction, while her less than mediocre cooking skills leave him longing for a well-cooked meal and a decent cup of coffee.

Following a clue missed by the police, Poirot soon begins to suspect that the motive for the murder lies in the past. He discovers a newspaper cutting in Mrs McGinty’s effects relating to four old murders with photos of the murderers, under the heading “Where are they now?” Poirot thinks that one at least of them may be living in the village complete with a new name and persona. But which? The recent war has destroyed many records, allowing people with shady pasts to reinvent themselves with reasonable safety from discovery. But as word of Poirot’s investigation spreads, it seems as if someone is getting nervous, and nervous murderers take risks…

Agatha Christie

I enjoyed this one thoroughly. I’d read it before long ago and pretty soon remembered whodunit but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment. It allowed me instead to look out for the clues as they happened, so I can say that this is a fair-play one – all the clues are there and they’re often quite easy to spot, but much more difficult to interpret correctly. Great fun, and as always Hugh Fraser’s narration is excellent, bringing out all the humour and warmth in the stories. Highly recommended!

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The Clocks by Agatha Christie

Time for murder…

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When Sheila Webb is sent out by the secretarial agency for which she works to the home of a blind lady, Miss Pebmarsh, to take some dictation, she is not expecting to find the corpse of a dead man in a room filled with clocks of different styles, but all pointing to the same time – 4:13. In a state of shock, she runs screaming from the house, straight into the arms of Colin Lamb, who is in the street on secret business of his own. Colin is involved in the spy business, and will get together with Inspector Hardcastle to try to discover the identity of the dead man and of his murderer. And along the way, Colin will seek the help of an old friend of his father, a certain M. Hercule Poirot…

This is one of Agatha Christie’s later books, written in 1963. Although nearly all of her books are well worth reading, there’s no doubt that by this period she was no longer producing novels of the same standard as in her own Golden Age, roughly the late ’20s to the end of the ’50s. In this one, which I hadn’t re-read for many years, I found I enjoyed the journey considerably more than the destination.

The set-up is great – the idea of the clocks is a suitably baffling clue, and the scene of the discovery of the body, where blind Miss Pebmarsh nearly steps on it by accident sending poor Sheila into a state of hysterical shock, is done with all Christie’s skill. There’s all the usual fun of interviews of the neighbours, and Christie creates a bunch of credible and varied characters, who each add to the enjoyment of the story. We also get to see life in the secretarial agency, a career that I assume has more or less died out now, certainly in the sense of girls being sent out on brief assignments to take dictation and so on.

It’s also a pleasure when Poirot becomes involved, though that doesn’t happen till almost halfway through the book. Poirot is elderly by now, so doesn’t take an active part in the investigation, instead relying on Colin bringing him information. It works quite well, and Colin is a likeable character, but my preference is for the books where Poirot is more directly involved. There’s a nice little section when Poirot lectures Colin on detective fiction, referencing a mix of real and fictional authors. I suspect Poirot’s views give an insight into what Christie herself though of the various styles.

Perhaps it was because I was listening rather than reading, but I didn’t find this one as fair-play as her earlier books – it seemed to me rather as if Poirot summoned up the solution based on instinct rather than evidence, leaving me rather unconvinced in the end. It feels as if Christie ran out of steam somewhat, and having thought up an intriguing premise, couldn’t quite find an ending that lived up to it. The ending left me feeling a bit let down but, as I say, I enjoyed the process of getting there.

Agatha Christie

What worked less well was the secondary story – Colin’s search for some kind of spy. Again some of this is down to preference – I’ve never been so keen on Christie’s occasional forays into spy stories as her straight mysteries. But I also again felt that Colin reached his solution out of the blue, and the tying together of the two plots contained too much coincidence for it all to feel wholly credible.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Hugh Fraser, who does his usual excellent job of giving all the characters subtly different voices and suitable accents, without distracting from the story by overacting any of them – i.e., no falsetto women, etc.

Overall, then, not one of Christie’s best, but still well worth a read or re-read for fans. It wouldn’t be one I would suggest as a starter to her work, though – there are glimpses of the old magic, but it doesn’t show her off as the genius of plotting she undoubtedly was in her prime.

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One, Two, Buckle My Shoe by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

Death at the dentist’s…

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The thing is – if Hercule Poirot ever threatens to visit you, make an excuse and then flee to the other side of the world because no one is safe around that man! In this book he visits his dentist, Mr Morley, for a routine check-up. By the end of the morning, Mr Morley is dead. Later, one of his patients is found dead and another has gone missing. Let’s hope Poirot didn’t have a doctor’s appointment that afternoon!

At first, Inspector Japp thinks Mr Morley, who was found shot dead with a gun beside him, has been murdered, but when one of his patients dies later that day of an overdose of the Procaine used to numb his mouth, it’s assumed Mr Morley made a mistake and then in a fit of remorse killed himself. So the police investigation stops, but Poirot isn’t convinced and continues with his own investigation.

There had been quite a collection of notable patients at Mr Morley’s surgery that day. Mr Amberiotis is a Greek gentleman with a dubious reputation. Mr Barnes is retired from the Secret Services. Miss Sainsbury Seale has a chequered past, having been an actress in her youth and then having shockingly married a Hindu in India (well, it was shocking in 1940 when the book was written), before deserting him and returning home to England. Mr Blunt is a banker and pillar of the Establishment – the kind of man who is seen as giving stability to the country at a time when other European countries are falling into the hands of various flavours of dictatorships. There are also a couple of young men there – one the boyfriend of Mr Morley’s secretary, and the other the would-be boyfriend of Mr Blunt’s niece. Poirot begins by talking to each of these people about what they remember of that morning.

This one has a nicely convoluted plot which touches on some of the anxieties of a country facing war. Christie never gets overly political but she often works current concerns into her stories and it gives an interesting insight into the time of writing. Here, there’s a clear divide between the deep conservatism of the old guard in Britain, fighting to keep the old systems of politics and finance in place, and the younger people, some of whom have been affected by the socialist and revolutionary fervour churning through large parts of the world. While Christie appears to be firmly on the side of the old guard, she intriguingly recognises through her characters that this may be age related and that things may change whatever the Establishment does. She also neatly addresses the question of how far ethics may be bent in pursuance of a noble aim.

But of course that’s all just a side dish – the main course is a beautifully plotted murder mystery in which all the clues are given to make it possible to solve, if only the reader’s little grey cells operated as efficiently as Poirot’s. This reader’s didn’t. It was so long ago since I last read this one I couldn’t remember the solution, and found I was baffled all over again. Not only are the clues sprinkled throughout, but towards the end Poirot lists all the important ones in his thoughts – and yet still I couldn’t work it out. But when Poirot explains it all in one of his typical denouements, it all fits together perfectly and undoubtedly falls into the fair play category.

Agatha Christie

It’s a very thoughtful denouement, this one, where Poirot considers the future and finds it worrying – I suspect it would have resonated strongly with the concerns of the readers of the time. And frankly, given the current political situation around the world, it resonates just as strongly again now. As always, I get annoyed at how dismissive people sometimes are about the Golden Age writers in general and Christie in particular – they knew how to entertain but the best of them also reflected their society back to itself, just as the best crime writers continue to do today.

I listened to the Audible audiobook read by Hugh Fraser, who gives another excellent narration. I’ve mentioned in the past how good he is at bringing out the humour in some of Christie’s books. In this one, he does just as good a job of bringing out the slightly darker, more pensive tone of certain parts of the book. These audiobooks are a great way to freshen the books up for old fans – I’m thoroughly enjoying listening to them and look forward to revisiting the Christie/Fraser partnership again soon.

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The Monogram Murders (Hercule Poirot) by Sophie Hannah

Poirot just knows

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the monogram murdersA terrified woman bursts into the coffee house where Hercule Poirot is partaking of the best coffee in London. When Poirot tells her he is a detective, she seems tempted to share her worries but in the end tells him only that she is about to be murdered and that, once she is dead, justice will have been done. Pausing only to beg him to prevent the police from investigating, she pleads cryptically ‘Oh, please let no one open their mouths’ and flees back into the night. Meantime Mr Catchpool of Scotland Yard, who lives in the same lodging house as Poirot, has been called to the Bloxham Hotel where three guests have been found murdered. Poirot (psychically) suspects there may be a link…

In fact, I hadn’t ever before realised just how psychic Poirot was. How remiss of Ms Christie never to reveal this fact! All these years she led us to believe he came to his conclusions based on his reading of the clues, his ability to see through the red herrings to the facts, the superior power of his little grey cells. Ms Hannah kindly lets us in on the true secret though. Clues are unnecessary. Poirot just knows what has happened. At each stage, as other people flounder to make sense of the plot (well, I certainly did!), Poirot sees straight through to the truth without the need for any pesky evidence or suchlike nonsense. What a gift! Unfortunately not one that makes a detective novel work very well though…

If this book had been written about a detective called Smith, it might have rated maybe three stars. The plot is convoluted, psychologically unconvincing and over-padded. The list of suspects is far too small, meaning that there are no big surprises come the reveal. But the writing style is quite good, some of the characterisation is fine and the descriptions of the places involved in the plot are done reasonably well.

The real Agatha Christie
The real Agatha Christie

BUT…there is a great big ‘Agatha Christie’ on the front of the book, so this should really read like one of hers, shouldn’t it? It doesn’t. From the very beginning Poirot is not right. For a start, he has moved into a lodging house because he wants to escape from his fame for a while and be anonymous. Doesn’t sound like the Poirot I know! Secondly we hear almost nothing about his little foibles – his vanity, his moustaches, his rotundity, his endearingly egg-shaped head, his patent leather shoes. We do get to hear a little about his passion for order but just as a sop. Thirdly he goes about searching rooms and seeking out physical clues like Holmes on an eager day. The real Poirot, as we know, is actually much more interested in the psychology of the crime. Fourthly, when the real Poirot speaks French, he kindly only uses words we’re all going to get without resorting to a French-English dictionary – mais pas ce prétendant. Fifthly, at the end he actually participates in a formal police interview in a police station – but I was past the stage of caring long before then anyway. So I’ll be kind and spare you sixthly, seventhly…etc.

Sophie Hannah
Sophie Hannah

I saw Sophie Hannah being interviewed about the book on the BBC News channel, and she said that she had decided not to try to recreate Christie’s style. So she created a new character, Catchpool, to be the narrator so that he could bring a new voice to the story. I was willing to go along with this idea, though it seemed a shame not to have Hastings along for the ride. But firstly (sorry), Catchpool is extremely annoying. He can’t stand dead bodies, keeps walking away from the investigation, is as thick as a brick and basically hands the entire investigation over to Poirot (mind you, with Poirot’s amazing supernatural abilities, who wouldn’t?). Secondly, he’s struggling not to reveal that he’s gay – that’s never spelled out, but it’s quite clear from the unsubtle hints that are dropped all over the place. Now I know it’s obligatory that every police officer in detective fiction is either gay or drunk these days, or both, (I suppose I should be glad that at least he was sober), but this is supposed to be a Christie-style book. I’m certainly not arguing that all gay men should be portrayed like Mr Pye in The Moving Finger, but the idea of Ms Christie having a gay policeman is frankly ridiculous. And Poirot’s psychic powers let him down on that one, since he seems determined to pair Catchpool off with a nice woman. Thirdly, Catchpool tells the story in the first-person (past tense, thankfully), and yet knows every detail of what happens when he’s not there. So he can describe all of Poirot’s conversations verbatim, tells us when people stand up, sit down, blush, etc. – clearly Poirot’s psychic abilities are catching.

hercule-poirot

The last fifth of the book is taken up with the traditional get-together where Poirot reveals what happened, but it goes on for ever and is mainly just Poirot telling us the whole story, with no reference as to how he came by all these amazing insights. As I said before, he just knows! And considering how silly and unlikely the plot is, that seems beyond miraculous.

I can only say that I sincerely hope there won’t be another of these. If there is, even I will be able to resist the temptation next time. Because now (cue spooky music), FictionFan just knows too

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