After my not-so-good experience with Strong Poison* last week, I needed to go back to the master, to see how a classic detective novel should be. Even though The Mysterious Affair at Styles is Christie’s first Hercule Poirot novel it was just what the doctor (librarian) ordered. I grabbed a copy from Project Gutenberg and settled in yesterday, with a large pot of tea, to let Christie work her magic. Bliss.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles is narrated by Arthur Hastings, who is on leave and taking a holiday near Styles, a country house, sometime before the end of World War I. Shortly after Hastings settles in with the fractious Inglethorp-Cavendish family, the matriarch of the clan is horrifically murdered by strychnine. Thankfully, Hercule Poirot is in the village nearby, with some other refugee Belgians. The little grey cells are soon on the case.
This novel ended up being a lot funnier than I expected—strychnine poisoning notwithstanding. Poirot spends most of the time exasperating Hastings as he rushes around on what appear to be wild hairs and tangents about extra tea cups and cocoa that wasn’t poisoned. There is a discussion early in the novel, in which Hastings admits that he has no knack for discerning which clues are important and which aren’t. Because of narrative irony, Hastings constantly focuses on the wrong things and believes that Poirot is losing his edge.
I also spent a lot of time focusing on the wrong things, too. Christie packed this book with twists and turns that had me believing first one thing and then another, then a third thing after that because she’s just so good about steering reader expectations. Hastings, who believes himself to be a reasonably intelligent man, is the perfect narrator; he and potential readers will have the same faith in themselves that we can solve the case. After all, Poirot assures us that we have all the information we need to arrive at the solution.
Although The Mysterious Affair at Styles is so out of fashion compared to modern mysteries, I was deeply satisfied by Poirot’s debut. I was thoroughly entertained and would definitely recommend this to others who are looking for a classic mystery novel.
* I promise to stop harping on this soon.