Written in 1920 and set during the First World War, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie’s first book, has real resonance for today’s reading audience. The narrator, Lt. Arthur Hastings, injured in the war and on leave, has run into an old friend, John Cavendish, who invites him to spend the rest of his leave with his family. Hastings gets involved in the life of the family and the village, getting excited when he runs into an old friend, the Belgian retired detective Hercules Poirot, who greets Hastings effusively despite the British man’s reticence. Poirot is one of a whole group of Belgian refugees sponsored by Mrs. Cavendish, since so many were displaced by the war that was overrunning their country.
Then one night Hastings is awakened by John asking for help because his step-mother clearly is having some kind of fit behind her closed and locked bedroom door. Right after the men break down the door, the doctor, a noted specialist in toxicology, runs in just in time to observe the final spasm as Mrs. Inglethorp cries her last: “Alfred! ALFRED!” Only then do the members of the family realize that her new husband is not present. A consultation with the doctor soon reveals his suspicions of poison and the need for an autopsy.
Hastings gets involved in the case when he quickly fetches Poirot to take a look at the potential crime scene. Here we learn Poirot’s favorite catch words, “order and method,” along with his touting the use of his “little gray cells,” in other words the smartest brain in the world. Hercule Poirot is most certainly not a modest man when it comes to his two pieces of pride: his brilliant mind and the enormous mustache that everyone is willing to concede is the most elaborate in the country! The little, five-foot-four dandy with the egg-shaped head thinks nothing of stopping in the middle of an investigation to fix someone’s tie or straighten the items on the mantel over a fireplace. He considers even the smallest details to be important, reprimanding Hastings for neglecting to mention the visit of the doctor the night before what they soon learn was truly a murder with poison.
The characters of Hercules Poirot and his Boswell Captain Hastings (Lt. Hastings gets a promotion at the end of the war) get introduced in this book, and we come to love them. Poirot became so popular a character that after a decade, when Agatha Christie wanted to write a book about a senior woman, Miss Marple, her editors tried to discourage her from doing so because Christie had such a great success in her character of Hercules Poirot.
The plot of the mystery is highly creative, and Christie used her own personal knowledge of poisons gained from working as a dispenser during the war in creating a solution and sidetracks that she sends us on. Despite being written almost 100 years ago, The Mysterious Affair at Styles does not feel dated and contains enough complexities to please any mystery fan.
Audible lists ten versions of this renowned book, but I recommend Hugh Fraser’s narration. Known for playing the part of Captain Hastings in the BBC adaptations of all the Poirot books and stories Fraser is my favorite British male narrator, embodying the characters in all the books he reads. Since Hastings narrates the books, I have trouble understanding why publishers would select women to read the book.
Even though Murder on the Orient Express is generally the most famous Hercules Poirot novel, a distinction that the book has earned for its uniqueness, I personally like The Mysterious Affair at Styles the best of the 33 Hercules Poirot novels. The story is captivating, and the characters are very interesting. I highly recommend this book to all. I give it five stars!
The mysterious affair at styles is available in multiple forms. To order from Amazon, click the link in the title. You may also download it for free from Project Gutenberg or find it at your local library or bookstore.
What do you think? Ready to read Murder on the links with me for next Monday?