I’m working on two reading “projects” this summer. One is to reread Nancy Drew in order (which you can follow on my podcast, Reading Nancy Drew). The other is to read all (or as much as I can) of Agatha Christie in order. This will be the first of many posts about my experiences with Ms. Christie.
Agatha Christie’s first published novel is “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” which was published in 1920 in the United States and in 1921 in the United Kingdom. It takes place in the Styles Country home in the Sussex Countryside where Emily Cavendish is poisoned by strychnine. The novel also introduces us to the world of Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings.
In paying attention to how Christie writes, I learned that she does a great deal to pull us into her world. She introduces Poirot as the old friend of Hastings who was pals with Poirot earlier. For me, Hastings is also a narrator who draws me in. There is something about him that makes me want to continue to read. I appreciate that Christie threw us into a relationship that already existed. Hastings and Poirot had met before and Hastings knew of his great work as a detective.
I also love, in rereading, knowing that Christie returns Poirot and Hastings to this same location when they reach their final novel and chapter in their lives together. I wonder if Christie decided that she was going to return them there in her final Poirot novel or if as she wound her way through the world she found that she was excited to return them eventually to where they started.
I was intrigued that Hastings was such a ditz. I don’t remember him being so clueless in the way that he was in this novel. He seemed to be at least two or twenty steps behind Poirot. Still, as poised and professional as he was, Poirot was also patient with Hastings and made sure that Hastings had all the information he actually needed to get Hastings to where Poirot was with regards to solving the crime.
I also realized that because I have spent the majority of my recent time with Christie watching Poirot on PBS, I found him, at least in this novel, to be much less stiff and much more likable for me. I love that he has a bit of an obsessive compulsiveness to him and that it helps him in his quest to solve a crime.
Christie gives so many small elements throughout the novel to alert readers to clues of the killer. I’ll look forward to seeing how this plays out in future novels and if it becomes easier to read her clues. It’s interesting to me that this comes easily for me in cozy mysteries. There really is a pattern, but I’m not sure how this happens with Christie. This time around, and since I’m reading in order, I’ll be looking for patterns and changes in her work.
Poirot as a character, at least in this first novel, was actually more personable. I always found him to be aloof and seemingly non-emotional. He was much more level headed and not swayed by emotion, making it easier to solve the crimes. But, he did some cute little things throughout this novel. There was one spot where he put his arms through Hastings’, linking arms with him to walk. He also told Christina that she could say anything to “Pappa Poirot.” It is things like this that really endured me to him in a way that I hadn’t been before. I loved that he seemed more engaged and even a bit joking with Hastings, goading him into attempting to figure out what he knows and does not know; as well as keeping Hastings in the dark. There is a playfulness about Poirot that I had not seen before. Probably one that was difficult to find when I was younger, but one that I caught as a more seasoned reader of mysteries and start to look for those relationships of the characters.
At the moment I’m also a bit obsessed with the roll of the sidekick in mysteries. I feel like it is the sidekick who decides whether or not I am drawn to the mystery as much–if not more than–the detective. I am also drawn to who tells the story. Is the sidekick presenting the mystery to the reader or is someone else chosen to do that? And, if so, who is it and what is there relationship to the events? One of the things that draws me to Poirot, at least this time around, is Hastings’ telling of events. He does not choose to make himself look more intelligent or involved than he actually was and he gives us enough information about his former relationship with Poirot and how it has impacted and influenced the experiences of the present mystery. I like Hastings. I always saw him as a bit more together than he was in this novel, but maybe that changes as we move along. I also like that he is the one narrating the events. Even though Poirot is the center of the text, in the world of Christie’s, as a Belgium, Poirot is still an outsider. Hastings gives us some insight into the world and allows Poirot to be there in ways that he could not be if he were alone or if there was a different sidekick.
I also wonder if the fact that Hastings was in the war allows Poirot to exist in the world of England in even greater ways. That a friend of Hastings, the veteran, is Belgium lets the “other” enter into the space and become easily accepted by those around him.
Inspector Japp also makes an appearance in this novel and will return in other texts. I appreciate how Christie brings in characters who return to the text. I’m wondering how long he lasts and when he disappears. (I know, I can look it up, but I want to do this through my reading.)
I also am intrigued by Christie’s derogatory references to Jews at various points in the novel. I am drawn to how this novel situates itself and Christie’s relationship to social and political events of the time. For example, Dr. Bussiarne is also a German spy. There’s apparently much spying going on in novels during this time, or at least it’s an interesting addition to the plot that Christie brings in.
All in all, I’m excited to continue on my quest to read Agatha Christie, in order of publication, and renew my love for the queen of mystery. I’d not read The Mysterious Affair at Styles before and I’m glad to have the opportunity to start off with Christie again with such a fun read.