The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: US: John Lane, 1920; UK: Bodley Head, 1921

My review

Christie’s first, and an auspicious beginning.  It is more old fashioned than later Christies; written in 1917, five years before The Secret Adversary and six before the next Poirot, The Murder on the Links. The style is particularly dated, abounding in floridly Edwardian excesses and melodramatic exclamations, which also feature rather too prominently in the plot – the Mary Cavendish and Dr. Bauerstein sub-plots rather obscure the central business: the poisoning by strychnine of Mrs. Inglethorp by one of her dependents (who contribute to the War by holding fetes, bazaars and speeches – the two women work, while the young men, rather than doing their bit for King and Country, pursue their love affairs), and solved by Poirot. The little Belgian is more of a comic foreigner monstrosity than he would be by 1926 (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), but does some excellent detection, mainly reasoning from physical clues (e.g., the fire). Like Hanaud and Holmes, he has the egregious habit of keeping too much too himself; we should have been told about the taste of the coffee and the mud in the boudoir. Rather than having the opportunity of working things out for himself, the reader must perforce be content to marvel and admire. (It is also difficult to credit that a man who continually stoops to keyholes in later tales would not rifle through the papers in the despatch-case: his failure to do so is too obviously a convenient plot device.) The solution he discovers, however, triumphantly justifies his behaviour. The murderer is one we suspected all along but were misdirected into dismissing; the method is both ingenious and eminently practical; and there is a sound use of the law. All things considered, an excellent début.


Blurb

This novel was originally written as the result of a bet, that the author, who had previously never written a book could not compose a detective novel in which the reader would not be able to “spot” the murderer, though having access to the same clues as the detective.  The author has certainly won her bet, and in addition to a most ingenious plot of the best detective type she has introduced a new type of detective in the shape of a Belgian.  This novel has had the unique distinction for a first book of being accepted by the Times as a serial for the weekly edition.


Contemporary reviews

“Man of Kent”, in the British Weekly: It will rejoice the heart of all who truly relish detective stories…the feat was amazing.  The book is put together so deftly that I can remember no recent book of the kind which approaches it in merit. It is well written, well proportioned, and full of surprises.  Lovers of good stories will, without exception, rejoice in this book.

Evening News: A wonderful triumph.  It is with congratulations to Miss Christie and to the large contingent of admirers of the detective novel that I make the announcement that in this writer there is a distinguished addition to the list of writers in this genus.

Bookman: The most ingenious and absorbingly interesting tale of sensations and mystery we have read for a long time.

Bystander: It is really mysterious.  Obtain Miss Christie’s cunning book and spend an exciting two hours.

Sunday Times: Very well contrived.

Truth: A cleverly constructed detective story…a highly ingenious plot.

Daily News: Altogether a skilful tale and a talented first book.

English Review: The mystery is extremely well wrapped up…remarkably well done.

NY World (Beatrice Blackman, 16th January 1927, 420w): All in all, a pleasant book for an evening by the grate fire.  Mrs. Christie does not take her mystery with too deadly seriousness, delicately spoofs the amateur detective instinct through one who blunders, and manages to convey enough of character to make her puppets suggest people.

Lit R (H.E.D., 22nd January 1927, 120w): The reader is ingeniously confused, by means of a kegful of red herrings and a narrative of Watsonian stupidity, but two important pieces of knowledge are withheld to the very end, when the detective—her engaging Poirot—makes his explanation.

Sat R of Lit (19th February 1927, 140w): A well-knit tale, which advances steadily to a plausible conclusion without attempting the mystification of the reader by the introduction of unnecessary detail and false clues.