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A wealthy woman is poisoned at an English country manor and the world of detective fiction is changed forever. With The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie launched herself, and her beloved Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, into popular culture history.
When the wounded Captain Arthur Hastings runs into an old friend, John Cavendish, and is invited to the family estate at Styles to convalesce, he has a “premonition of approaching evil.”1 Outside, the Great War is still raging, and England is in upheaval. Cavendish’s widowed stepmother has brought the turmoil home by marrying a sinister-looking younger man, and when she is killed, presumably poisoned with strychnine, he becomes the first and most obvious suspect. But the wealthy Mrs. Inglethorpe appears to have been alone in her locked bedroom when the poison was administered. And other family members, including Cavendish’s estranged wife, may also have had motives for murder. Luckily, the estate has also taken in some Belgians, refugees from the German occupation. Among them, Hastings recognizes an old acquaintance, a diminutive but dapper retired police detective, Hercule Poirot. Using only the power of his formidable mind, the tiny Belgian takes on his first English case in the breakthrough book that introduced both Poirot and Agatha Christie to the world.
Agatha Christie is remembered today as the queen of crime fiction, the author of one hundred eighty-four works of detective fiction and thirteen plays. But in 1920, when she sought publication for The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel, she faced repeated rejections before finally placing the book with publisher John Hand and receiving the grand sum of twenty-five pounds. Born on September 15, 1890 to an aristocratic American father, Frederick Alvah Miller, and his English wife, Clarissa “Clara” Boechmer, the young Agatha Miller was educated at home at the family residence Ashfield, in the English resort town of Torquay, the youngest of three Miller children. The early death of their beloved father in 1901 left the family in straitened circumstances, but young Agatha completed her education and developed a lifelong love of travel, attending finishing and music schools in Paris and, in 1910, traveling with her mother, who had been in ill health, to Cairo, where she had her “coming out” as a debutante, the season there being substantially cheaper than its London equivalent.
A noted beauty, the young Agatha was extremely social and entertained more than one proposal of marriage. But the Great War—World War I—changed the lives of young England. The pretty socialite became a Volunteer Aid Detachment nurse and in a small private ceremony married the dashing Lieutenant Archibald Christie. Both these decisions would greatly influence her later career. The former experience gave the budding writer training in poisons, which would remain her favorite means of dispatching victims, as well as the free time that started her on one of the most illustrious careers in popular fiction. The latter would bring great heartache as “Archie” Christie’s affections strayed, leading to Agatha’s mysterious disappearance for eleven days in 1926, which occasioned a countrywide manhunt. By the time of their eventual divorce, in 1927, Christie’s writing was on its way to making her an independent woman. In 1930, she remarried a younger archaeologist, Max Mallowen, and the two traveled and worked together throughout the Middle East, with the author reliably delivering a “Christie for Christmas” for decades. In 1956, the author became a Commander of the British Empire and, in 1967 Mallowen was knighted, making Christie “Lady Agatha.” In 1971, Christie was named a Dame of the British Empire. When “Dame Agatha” died on Jan. 12, 1976, her books had sold more than four hundred million copies worldwide and her play The Mousetrap was having its 9,612th performance in London’s West End. (More than fifty years after its 1952 opening, The Mousetrap is still playing in the West End.)
The Mysterious Affair at Styles shows us the author’s gifts at the very start of that career. Inspired in part by a dare from her sister Madge, Christie herself remembers the challenge. As recounted in her autobiography, she recalls that they had both just enjoyed Gaston Le Roux’s “Mystery of the Yellow Room,” when Christie opined that she might like to write just such a detective story. “I don’t think you could do it,” the author recalls Madge, twelve years older, saying. “They are very difficult to do.”2 It took several years and the start of the war before she acted on that challenge, making the most of the abundant downtime in the dispensary. But by 1917, she had completed the manuscript. After several rejections, it languished and by her own account, Christie had almost forgotten the project when the letter arrived from Lane offering to publish the work both in a US edition (under the imprint John Lane) and in the UK (by Lane’s British imprint, The Bodley Head). There was no advance on royalties, the twenty-five pounds was merely her share of the serialization fees. The book was well received with enthusiastic reviews in The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Times Book Review. Christie herself recalls the praise the book got from The Pharmaceutical Journal for “dealing with poisons in a knowledgeable way.”3 Her publisher was willing to try another of the young writers’ efforts. And the Golden Age of detective stories had begun.
The role of Christie—and of The Mysterious Affair at Styles—in the Golden Age can’t be overstated. This period between the wars witnessed a blossoming of crime fiction for a variety of reasons, not all of them artistic. Since the 1890s, publishers had been taking advantage of more efficient printing technologies and cheap paper. Lending libraries—such as those endowed by Andrew Carnegie—had been promoting public literacy on both sides of the Atlantic, and the popularity of the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle stoked an appetite for crime fiction among a burgeoning readership, newly freed from the privations of war and looking to be entertained. Magazines flourished, and writers like Christie and her colleagues, including Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers, as well as Americans like Dashiell Hammett and John Dickson Carr, were happy to provide new novels for this hungry readership.
Some of these authors, particularly the Americans, were already exploring a harder-edged “noir” style, which would gain popularity in the 1940s. But Christie, perhaps because her husband was in active service as she wrote her debut, avoided blood and guts. Instead, like many of her British contemporaries, she honed in on the intellectual challenges of crime. Now often known as “cozy” (or, for British readers, “cosy”) mysteries, this classic mystery style was designed to intrigue rather than shock, and Christie’s smart, cerebral contribution to the genre was apparent right from the start.
The standards for the “cozy” have since been codified. (Even as early as 1928, publishers like Dodd Mead were publishing “rules” for whodunits.) Roughly, they comprise a list of dos and don’ts. These books have very little gore; as some unknown wag has put it, “the blood is dry before it hits the page.” Violence and sex are also off stage, or off the page. The positive traits are the ones designed to allow the reader to take part. Cozies take place in a small community, so that the number of suspects are both known and limited, and the mystery is one that can be solved by the reader’s surrogate—the intelligent amateur detective—and, thus, by the reader.
Christie may not have invented the style; she herself acknowledges earlier masters like Doyle and Poe. But right from the beginning, she showed her mastery of its intricacies and teases. To start with, despite Christie’s professional appreciation of the effects of poison, The Mysterious Affair at Styles offers a genteel depiction of murder: Mrs. Inglethorp suffers from convulsions “terrible to behold”4 as she dies, but Christie does not give more graphic description. In place of gore, this marvelous debut focuses on challenging what Poirot famously calls “the little grey cells.”5 In quick order, possible sources of poison are identified. One woman works, as Christie did, in a dispensary, but another suspect, a man, was seen purchasing poison in the village. Because the victim was wealthy, several people stood to benefit from her death, and a string of odd and deliberate clues—a scrap of cloth, a beard, a broken cup—point first one way and then another. Even after an initial arrest is made, clues seem to lead elsewhere, and the careful reader will look closely at alibis and sources of information.
In keeping with this sense of fair play, the protagonist is if not exactly an amateur (Poirot is a retired detective, after all) then a civilian, without access to the tools or specialized knowledge of the police. In addition, the crime is assumed to have been committed by someone within the Styles estate or environs. And, to make the crime comprehensible, the motives are comprehensible. No psychotic serial killers or demonic possessions are to be found at Styles or in the surrounding farms; people do inhumane acts, but they do them for human reasons—for money or lust, love or revenge. All these elements come together so neatly that it is easy to see how this set-up, murder at an English country estate, became a prototype for the classic British mystery.
Within ten years of its publication, The Mysterious Affair at Styles would be held up as a template by critics and authors alike. It would be a form that Christie would follow throughout her life, perfecting over fifty years of writing her ability to twist and turn what is often essentially the same plot into more than a hundred variations and spawning a hundred thousand imitators.
Not that either Christie, or her plump Belgian detective, came out of nowhere. In her autobiography, she discusses the wide range of authors she and Madge read together, and Sherlock Holmes is evoked by Hastings in the opening pages of The Mysterious Affair At Styles. Indeed, in this first work, Poirot is clearly cast in the Holmes mode, although of a very different physical and personal type, with Hastings as his clueless Watson. Poirot himself, in his ethnicity and physical type, may owe something to earlier detectives, such as Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Hercule Popeau and Frank Howel Evans’ Monsieur Poiret, a retired French detective working in London. (Even Holmes had a French forebear, as Doyle has acknowledged his debt to Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin.)
But if some of his traits are derivative, the Poirot that Christie gives us here leaps off the page. As fully realized as any living person, dressed impeccably with a “stiff and military” mustache,6 he’s a man of distinct likes and dislikes. “I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound,” notes Hastings. Over the course of his many appearances (thirty-three novels and fifty-four short stories), we learn a little more about the short Belgian. But the man we meet in The Mysterious Affair at Styles is fairly complete.
Over time, elements of Poirot’s life would become more vague than that first sharp portrait. In The Big Four (1927), for example, he claimed to have a twin brother, Achille, and later admits this to have been a fabrication. And while he seems to be in his sixties when we meet him, already retired from the Belgian police before the German invasion, he ages slowly, solving crimes for decades after. Only his fate is certain. After becoming one of mystery fiction’s most beloved characters (and, by her own account, an annoyance to Christie), he dies in Curtain (1975), which brings both the aged detective and his old friend Hastings back, once again, to Styles. That story, which Christie wrote during World War II and held back from publication until the year before her own death, garnered the fictional detective a singular honor: an obituary in The New York Times.
Christie always maintained that she modeled Poirot on real Belgian refugees she had seen, but some critics have noted that with his prissy, effeminate manners he embodies many of the caricatures of the day of the French, if not the Belgian, making him additionally welcome to British readers. That he is sometimes ridiculed only makes Poirot’s intellectual prowess stand out, however, and Christie must certainly have been aware of this contrast. In our more enlightened times, his lack of traditionally masculine qualities have made him a darling of some feminist critics. Pointing out the contrast between his names—Hercule, for the superstrong masculine hero Hercules and Poirot, a clown—critics such as Sally R. Munt see him as a forerunner for Christie’s notable female detectives, such as Miss Marple, noting, “he is a feminine hero.”7 Clearly, many readers and critics alike want to claim his as their own.
Forerunner or heir apparent, Poirot is the first and possibly the best loved of Christie’s detectives. Through him, she finally brings The Mysterious Affair at Styles to a just and satisfying conclusion. As the true criminal is punished, and a true love is rekindled, the Belgian detective invites Hastings, and by extension the reader, off to the next adventure. “We may hunt together again, who knows?” he asks. “And then—.”8 It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Clea Simon is the author of three nonfiction books and the Theda Krakow mysteries. She lives in Cambridge, Mass., and may be reached through her website at http://www.CleaSimon.com.
1. Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, p. 16.
2. Agatha Christie, Agatha Christie: An Autobiography (New York, NY: Berkley, 1991), p. 198.
3. Ibid, p. 269.
4. Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, p. 29
5. Ibid, p. 155
6. Ibid, p. 21.
7. Sally R. Munt, Murder by the Book? Feminism and the Crime Novel (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 8.
8. Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, p. 203.