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.
There is a murder in Mesopotamia. Poirot arrives. Case is solved. I was baffled. Christie is a genius of misdirection.
The case is narrated by Nurse Leatherman, who is hired by the head of an archaeological expedition to keep an eye on his wife, an enigmatic and paradoxical beauty who seems to be in fear of her life after receiving threatening letters from an ex-husband she thought dead.
It is not long before she is found murdered in her room, with seemingly no way that the murderer could have gained access without being seen.
Luckily, Hercule Poirot just happens to be passing through and is called upon to unravel this singular puzzle.