The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie

Most classic mystery novels seem extremely formulaic to me: I can usually guess the murderer almost entirely based upon the size of the role they play in the story. That said, what feels overly familiar to a reader in 2023 was probably a lot less shopworn in 1916, when Agatha Christie wrote her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

The Mysterious Affair
is the book that introduced the world to Hercule Poirot and his well-meaning but slightly dim sidekick, Hastings. (Frankly, this must have seemed pretty cliché even in 1916, but whatever.) At the start of the novel, Hastings has been invited to recover from a war wound at Styles Court, the country home of wealthy septuagenarian Emily Inglethorp. Styles is inhabited by Mrs. Inglethorp's many dependents: her much-younger new husband, two stepsons, a niece, a daughter-in-law, and her personal companion. When Mrs. Inglethorp is murdered via strychnine poisoning, suspicion promptly falls upon her wildly shady spouse, but there are several people in the house with secrets. Thankfully (for everyone except the murderer), Hastings has discovered that his old friend Hercule Poirot, the great Belgian detective, is coincidentally staying nearby, and has plenty of time on his hands for a little mystery-solving.

This is a book of its time, for better and for worse. On the downside, it includes a steady drip of the casual racism, sexism, ageism (particularly against women), anti-Semitism, and classist attitudes that permeated Christie's work. On the upside, it feels very realistically like a novel set at the end of the Edwardian era: things are clearly beginning to fall apart for the kinds of country-house characters that we typically see in cozy English mysteries. They still have money and privilege, but everyone is clearly growing a little more shabby and desperate—which means they nearly all have a motive to murder Mrs. Inglethorp, the only person in the story who still has access to “old money” security. But while the setting is a huge strength, most of the characters are unpleasant, the many twists and turns are pretty far-fetched, and the book clearly served as a template for about a million country-house mysteries that followed in its wake. But I have to give Ms. Christie props: I picked this novel up expecting a sort of historical artifact, but even 100+ years after its publication, her story is still juicy enough to slide right down as a soapy page-turner.
Posted by: Julianka


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