Murderous Reviews – The Mysterious Affair At Styles (Poirot #01) – Agatha Christie (1916)
Written in 1916, ‘The Mysterious Affair At Styles’ introduces one of Christie’s iconic detectives, the dandified Belgian, Hercule Poirot. Christie employs some of her classic trademarks; red herrings and misdirection, the manor house inhabited by a clutch of class-conscious ‘people of breeding’ and their servants, and a seemingly impossible murder in a room locked from the inside.
It is fascinating, not only as a satisfyingly puzzling murder mystery (albeit not Christie at her best, but this was in fact her first published novel) but as a snapshot of lives and attitudes during the First World War. Oddly, the war itself is hardly mentioned, although Lieutenant Hastings (one of Poirot’s semi-regular partners in crime-solving) is on sick leave from the Western Front. Poirot himself is a Belgian refugee, owing his place in the UK to the poor not-very-lamented murder victim. At this point Poirot is a retired Belgian Police Officer.
The suspects – as can be expected – are professional gentlemen or members of the privileged classes (apart from the Lady’s companion, Evie Howard). Dorcas, a maid, is the only one of the servants, gardeners or farmworkers whose presence rises above that of a mere cypher. There is mention of someone at a fancy dress event dressing up ‘as a nigger’.
There would be no point in criticising Christie in any way for what we might see today as racism or class distinction. This is the world Christie inhabited nearly a hundred years ago and our world today would be as alien to her as hers would be to us.
Moving swiftly on, it is a joy to try and unravel the crumbs of clues that Poirot gives us, in order to spot the murderer before the denouement. I haven’t succeeded yet. If I ever do, I think I may feel less than triumphant.