Literature / The Mysterious Affair at Styles

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Detective novel by Agatha Christie. It was the first novel she wrote and the one where that Belgian detective of hers was introduced. Or was he French? You know who I mean- that funny little man with the egg-shaped head and the ridiculous moustache. Written (and set) during World War I but first published in 1920.

The novel is narrated in first person by Lieutenant Hastings, who, returning invalided from World War I, is invited by his childhood friend John Cavendish at the family manor, Styles Court. On his arrival there, he meets John’s stepmother Emily, a generous but difficult woman who has recently married Alfred Inglethorp, a man much younger than her. Hastings also meets John’s beautiful but enigmatic wife, Mary Cavendish, his nervous brother, Lawrence Cavendish, the mysterious Doctor Bauerstein, Mrs Inglethorp's companion Evelyn Howard, and her young protégé Cynthia Murdoch.

Poirot is introduced as a retired Belgian detective and an old friend of Hastings’s. He is a war refugee staying at a village near Styles Court and meets Hastings coincidentally. When Mrs Inglethorp dies, displaying symptoms alarmingly like those of strychnine poisoning, Poirot is asked and agrees to investigate the case.

The novel is absolutely Fair Play Whodunit; if anything, it has an overabundance of clues (as well as an overabundance of red herrings) which would not be seen in Christie’s later works.

A review from the Pharmaceutical Journal, which applauded “this detective story for dealing with poisons in a knowledgeable way, and not with the nonsense about untraceable substances that so often happens” was Christie’s personal favorite.

The novel has been adapted by ITV as part of the Agatha Christie’s Poirot series starring David Suchet as Poirot, and by BBC Radio Four with John Moffat as Poirot.

One of only two of her books that have fallen into Public Domain; they can be read at Project Gutenberg

Christie had dedicated the book to her mother.


This work of fiction contains examples of:

  • Adaptation-Induced Plot Hole: A minor case, but a plot point in the investigation involves the suspicious manner in which Lawrence insisted that his stepmother's death is natural, and his feeble attempt to suggest that Mrs Inglethorp might have been accidentally (rather than wilfully) administered due to an overdose of her tonic. When Poirot mentions this oddity, Hastings dismissed it as a common layman mistake, until Poirot reminded his friend that while Lawrence is not a doctor, he has a medical degree and is thus qualified as one. While this is true in the books, in the movie, Lawrence is a medical professional, and he's working in the same hospital as Cynthia.
  • Adapted Out: In the TV adaptation, Dr Bauerstein is removed from the cast.
  • Amoral Attorney: Sir Ernest (defence attorney), for all his shrewdness, is infamous for his tendency to bully witnesses into giving the testimonies he wanted to hear. When hired to defend John Cavendish, he practically bullies Lawrence into implicating himself (though to be fair, the younger Cavendish had been acting rather unfortunately).
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Sort of. Hastings got himself into quite some trouble by falling in love with both Mrs Cavendish and Cynthia Murdoch. However, Mary is married to John, and Cynthia rejects his proposal.
  • Arch-Enemy: Evelyn Howard cannot stand Alfred Inglethorp and will not hesitate to badmouth the man at every opportunity. When Mrs Inglethorp was killed, she kept on insisting that he was the murderer, even when he was cleared due to his alibi.
  • Brutal Honesty: Evie Howard is not a woman of tact nor subtlety, and would not hesitate to speak her mind about anything. She got into a row with Mrs Inglethorp for expressing what everyone else was thinking: Alfred is an unscrupulous Gold Digger who would likely murder his wife to gain her inheritance.
  • Big Brother Instinct: When John Cavendish was arrested and put on trial for the murder of his stepmother, he was not pleased to find that his defence attorney tried to turn the accusation towards Lawrence. When he was later called to give his evidence, he rejected Sir Ernest's insinuations and declared his younger brother's innocence.
  • Cross Dresser: Apparently, the "young ones" (John, Lawrence and Cynthia) often play dress-up, and Cynthia would occasionally wear male disguise.
  • Death by Adaptation: Downplayed, as the character in question doesn't really have any role in the story, but in the David Suchet adaptation, Mrs. Raikes is a widow, while in the books, her husband is still alive.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: A few examples, primarily Poirot and the story itself placing a Sherlock Holmes-like emphasis on collecting physical clues, whereas later Poirot stories emphasise the fact that Poirot regards those as unimportant compared to simply thinking through the scenario with his 'little grey cells' and studying the psychology of the suspects.
  • Eureka Moment: Poirot has one when Hastings mentions his hands shaking during mania of rearranging objects on the mantelpiece in a room. If Poirot had to rearrange them, again, then that means someone else must have moved them since the first time, leading him to find an incriminating letter in a vase.
  • Fair Play Whodunit: The reader has access to the same clues as Poirot.
  • Fourth Date Marriage: Hastings proposes to Cynthia after knowing her for just a couple days (or weeks). The trope is defied, however, when Cynthia finds his proposal hilarious, and promptly turns him down.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: Alfred Inglethorp sets out a bunch of false clues incriminating himself in the hopes that he will be arrested and tried, at which point he can easily refute the false evidence. Once acquitted, he will then be unable to be tried again due to double jeopardy, even if proof of his guilt turns up later. Poirot foils this plan by refusing to allow Inglethorp's arrest until he has true evidence of his guilt.
  • Gold Digger: The fact that Alfred Inglethorp was married to a wealthy woman far older than he is almost immediately brands him as a "fortune hunter" of sorts.
  • It's Personal: Mrs Inglethorp had kindly extended her generosity to Poirot and his fellow Belgian refugees by providing them with shelter. This is why Poirot was determined to bring her killer to justice.
  • Kissing Cousins: Alfred Inglethorp and Evie Howard are revealed to be lovers as well as cousins.
  • Medication Tampering:The victim's medication, which contained strychnine, is tampered with using bromide, a chemical that precipitates the strychnine to the bottom, ensuring that the victim would ingests all the strychnine from the bottle in one go when she takes the last dose.
  • My Beloved Smother: Both John and Lawrence mostly lives on Mrs Inglethorp's allowance, which John complains is not enough to live the way he wants to. Mrs Inglethorp herself (seemingly) uses the money as a leverage to keep the family on a leash.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: The crime would never have been traced back to the killer if they weren't so impatient and wrote an incriminating letter to their accomplice when Mrs. Inglethorp's death came later than planned. Had they simply waited for the inevitable, they might have gotten away with it all.
  • Obviously Evil: Alfred Inglethorp and Dr. Bauerstein has long, black beard, which makes them look like fictional villains. One turns out to be the murderer, while the other is a German spy.
  • Operation Jealousy: Both John Cavendish and his wife love each other, but have drifted apart over their years of marriage. John tries to incite his wife's jealousy by flirting with Mrs Raikes, while Mary attempts to do the same by her frequent engagements with Dr. Bauerstein.
  • Red Herring: Several of the clues that Poirot finds in the crime scene, and the suspicious activities of some of the characters turn out to have nothing to do with the crime. For example, the green cloth and candle grease found in the victim's room was left by Mary Cavendish, who snuck into Mrs. Inglethorp's room trying to look for a letter, which she was sure contains evidence of John's infidelity. Dr. Bauerstein's suspicious manner was due to the fact that he's a German spy. The incrimination against Lawrence was caused by a mix of coincidence (e.g. his fingerprints on the poison bottle found in Cynthia's hospital) and his desire to protect Cynthia, whom he believes to be the criminal, by destroying any evidence that could be put against her.
  • Shown Their Work: Christie worked in a dispensary during World War I, and here she shows off her knowledge of poisons.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Hastings describes John and Lawrence as being exact opposites of each other: John is straightforward, assertive but has no imagination. Lawrence is shy and reserved, and has way too much imagination.
  • Spanner in the Works: Alfred and Evelyn's scheme to frame John Cavendish for the murder would have worked much better if not for Lawrence's suspicious activities. The latter is no fool, but his wrongful belief that Cynthia is the murderer, and his desire to protect her is what drove his odd behaviour.
  • Taking the Heat: While it is not explicitly mentioned that he's actually trying to draw suspicion towards himself, Lawrence's unfortunate behaviour is driven by his desire to protect his "lady love", Cynthia, whom he believes to be guilty of the crime.
  • Terse Talker: Evie Howard.
    Her conversation, I soon found, was couched in the telegraphic style.


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