Last year I read Laura Thompson’s wonderful Agatha Christie: An English Mystery, and it made me want to read her books all over again.
Then I saw a challenge to read all of Agatha Christie’s books in chronological order, and I thought “maybe”!
And so I found myself reading Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, written in 1916 after her sister bet her that she could not write a good detective story.
The story is narrated by Captain Arthur Hasting, who has been invalided home from the war. He bumps into an old friend, John Cavendish, who invites him to convalesce at his family’s country home, Styles Court.
The family is unsettled. John’s widowed step-mother, Emily, has recently remarried. Her new husband is a younger man, who her family and friends consider to be a fortune hunter.
And in due course Emily is murdered, dying in her bed with all of the door into her room locked from the inside. Yes, it is a locked door mystery but not, to my way of thinking at least, in the purest sense, as the locks were no impediment to murder by poisoning, and serve only to make the explanation of certian details more complex.
Shortly after his arrival at Styles, Hastings had bumped into another old friend – the recently retired Belgian detective Hercule Poirot – and he is quickly called in to investigate.
There is a main suspect – Emily’s new husband Alfred – but there is also a myriad of other possibilities – Emily’s stepsons John and Lawrence who would inherit her fortune should she die and Alfred be “unable” to claim the estate; John’s troubled wife Mary who is maybe too close to a german doctor; orphaned Cynthia who, like Agatha Christie herself, worked in a dispensary and had a knowledge of poisons; or maybe Evelyn, Emily’s recently departed companion.
To reveal any more would be unfair, but I can say that Agatha Christie, even in her first novel, constructs a detailed and clever plot that is entirely logical and directs suspicion this way and that before reaching a conclusion that is wholly unexpected.
And the conclusion is presented in what will become classic Christie Style – all the characters are called together and Poirot presents his solution to the case.
“The Mysterious Affair at Styles” has flaws. Arthur Hastings is too much like John Watson – something that will be corrected in later books – and there are afew two many points that Poirot correctly deduces from no real evidence. Most significantly, the solution calls for a specialist knowledge of poisons – understandable given Agatha Christie’s background, but not a mistake that she ever makes again.
But there is much more to love. Wonderful storytelling, a first meeting with familiar characters, and a great mystery! It was fascinating to go back see where it all started.
I’m not committing to re-reading all of Agatha Christie’s books – there are too many great mysteries I haven’t read once and some of her work is over familiar – but I will certainly be picking up a few more before too long.