My aunt is the one who started me on Agatha Christie. She gave me an anthology with five Hercule Poirot novels in one (Death on the Nile, Murder On the Orient Express, The ABC Murders, Cards on the Table, and Thirteen at Dinner) when I was about 12 or 13. I read The ABC Murders first and I was hooked. I fell in love with the way Christie constructed her puzzles and the way Poirot assembled all the clues to solve the murders. I loved Poirot’s rather healthy self-esteem and his friend Hasting’s amusement at him. Even back then I wasn’t one to binge-read an author, though, so I didn’t make it a point to read every Christie. I’d read one here and there throughout the years, which is why it’s taken me until now, some 28 years later, to read the very first Poirot mystery published, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. After enjoying this one so much, I think it’s high time I filled in the gaps in my Christie reading!
Set in the midst of World War One, the book is narrated by Captain Hastings, on leave from the war and at loose ends. He meets an old acquaintance, John Cavendish, who invites him to stay for a while with his family at Styles, their estate in Essex. The reader knows from the beginning that something shocking has happened by Hasting’s opening narration:
The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known as “The Styles Case” has now somewhat subsided. Nevertheless, in view of the worldwide notoriety which attended it, I have been asked, both by my friend Poirot and the family themselves, to write an account of the whole story.
Cavendish explains to Hastings that his stepmother, Mrs. Cavendish, who raised him and his brother Lawrence from the time they were young, has recently remarried. Hastings is taken aback – a quick mental calculation tallies her age at about seventy (gasp!) John explains that everyone in the family, and even Mrs. Cavendish’s stalwart “factotum, companion, Jack of all trades” Evie Howard, disdains the marriage and the new husband, and thinks it’s nothing but a money grab. We are also told that both Cavendish brothers are hard up for money, even though their stepmother has always been generous to them through the years. So immediately the reader is alerted that there is much tension in the house at Styles, and we are invited to dislike Mr. Inglethorp, “the rotten little bounder,” even before we meet him. Christie ends the first chapter with a delicious bit of foreboding spookiness:
A vague suspicion of every one and everything filled my mind. Just for a moment I had a premonition of approaching evil.
Soon we are introduced the the inimitable Monsieur Poirot, who is staying in the village with some of his fellow countrymen – Belgians – who are refugees from the war. Mrs. Cavendish’s generosity has allowed them a place of refuge. We get a marvelous physical description of Poirot’s appearance and fastidiousness (“I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound”) but all too soon he is gone and we are back at Styles with Hastings. The very next night Mrs. Cavendish awakens everyone in the household with her strangled cries of distress, but the doors are all locked from the inside. When the men break down the door they find her convulsing, apparently dying from some sort of poisoning. With so many suspects and so much tension in the air, it is up to the famous Belgian detective Poirot to start assembling the facts. When Hastings tells him of the events of the previous night, Poirot humorously tells him, “You have a good memory, and you have given me the facts faithfully. Of the order in which you present them, I say nothing – truly, it is deplorable! But I make allowances – you are upset.” I enjoyed a good chuckle at that one.
This was a smart, delightful beginning to Hercule Poirot’s mysteries, and I can’t believe it took me all this time to read it. I have to say that I was once again bested by Christie’s brilliance and had no clue who was behind the murder. Hastings and Poirot have a playful, light and easy rapport, with Hastings standing in for the clueless reader as Poirot sheds light on the case. Poirot gently needles him throughout and Hastings exhibits a generous spirit while an easy target. There was one glaring instance of casual racism that took this twenty-first century reader out of the narrative for a moment. It involves the discovery of a chest of dress-up clothes and disguises that the Cavendish family use from time to time during a “dress-up night.” Apparently it was great fun to put on wigs and costumes to impersonate people of other ethnicities. I know that this was published in 1920, so I make allowances for that sort of thing, but it still jarred me for a moment.
Yet it was a minor detraction from an otherwise superb mystery, and a grand introduction to a classic detective and his straight man. A glance at the Goodreads list of Poirot mysteries tells me that I’ve many more books yet to enjoy, and I’m thrilled at the prospect. Just don’t expect me to read them all anytime soon!
So this was my fifth book for #20BooksofSummer. I am starting to doubt that I’ll be able to complete all 20 by the beginning of September, and I’m certain that if I do, I won’t have reviewed them all by then. My blogging pace this summer has been glacial. (I’ve made my peace with that – I think.) If you’re participating in Cathy’s annual tradition, how is it going for you? Are you on pace to complete all 20 in time?