To be honest, I don’t read a lot of murder mysteries. To date, this is only my 2nd Agatha Christie novel, and I chose this book because I chose Christie as my author for the reading challenge whose first published novel I would read. I knew I wanted to choose an author with a prolific writing history whose works are considered classic. Christie wrote this novel in 1916 while the Great War was raging, and it was published in the United States in 1920. I’m glad I chose this one, as it’s an important piece of literary history. It’s not only Christie’s first novel, but it’s the first novel featuring one of her most famous characters, Hercule Poirot.
Our narrator for this novel is a man by the name of Arthur Hastings who is visiting Styles court, the estate of the wealthy matriarch of the Cavendish family, Emily Inglethorp. One evening, Mrs. Inglethorp dies under very suspicious circumstances and there are a whole host of people on the property who may have been responsible for the heinous crime. Of course, Mr. Hastings knows who best to call, an eccentric Belgian refugee from the war who just happens to be a detective of high standing in his home country. Monsieur Poirot puts his retirement on hold to come to the estate to investigate, and this strange little man always closes a case. The result is a twisty tale full of red herrings that will keep you guessing till the very end.
As I stated before, I don’t read a lot of murder mysteries. I do find them enjoyable, but they simply aren’t my go-to genre. This is an important novel, as it is the beginning of an incredible era, an era in which Agatha Christie continues to reign supreme as the Queen of Mystery. I mean, the woman has a mind-boggling amount of literary output. As debut novels go, I think this was a very solid piece of writing. By And Then There Were None, she had truly honed her craft to a fine art. That was my first introduction to her, and I enjoyed it immensely. I didn’t quite feel as invested in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and I think that boils down to the rather silly nature of Hercule Poirot. Though he does have a certain amount of charm, he definitely is eccentric and prone to little fits of madness, which I know many people find endearing. He’s a little difficult to take seriously until you really begin to understand his thought process.
The writing is a bit dated, naturally, as this book is more than 100 years old. However, Christie very deftly employs the unreliable narrator trope, as Hastings is just a bit too dense and naive to believe the most obvious of truths but far too dramatic to refrain from jumping to incorrect conclusions, which is Christie’s clever little trick to lead readers astray. To make matters worse, Poirot is not above using actual deceit to make sure he reaches the correct final conclusion, playing with the mind of our hapless narrator and, subsequently, the reader, which is where some of our red herrings come into play. Christie has us hopping all over the place before she has Poirot sit us down for a big ole’ “WAIT FOR IT” reveal. It really was quite an interesting ride despite a few petty annoyances which are simply the result of my mind being programmed for a much more modern and less sophisticated type of suspense.
I didn’t really like any of the peripheral characters, to be honest, but this is purely intentional on the part of Christie. Everyone is a suspect, because everyone is a bit of an imbecile. I think that’s really quite typical of murder mystery novels, so I don’t necessarily see it as a minus. Overall, this is a charming book and an excellent piece of literary history, especially for enthusiasts of mystery novels. I’d hazard to think anyone could be a fan of the genre without an accompanying familiarity with Christie. It’s a novel that deserves our admiration if only for its vital place in the literary canon and its effectiveness at keeping us guessing. Overall, I give it 3 stars.
Published Oct 21 2002 by Deodand (first published 1920). ISBN: 0646418432. Paperback.