Literature / The Mysterious Affair at Styles

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:

  • Arch-Enemy: Evelyn Howard to Alfred Inglethorp when in fact they are kissing cousins and crime partners.
  • Brutal Honesty: A characteristic of Evie Howard until you realize that she’s been concealing the small detail of having committed a murder, that is.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • It's Personal: Mrs. Inglethorp's murder is this for Poirot, as she had been instrumental in helping the Belgian refugees.
  • Kaleidoscope Eyes: Poirot's eyes become "green like a cat's" whenever he's on the scent, according to Hastings.
  • Kissing Cousins
  • May-December Romance: Alfred and Emily Inglethorp.
  • Medication Tampering: The victim's medication, which contained strychnine, is tampered with using a chemical that precipitates the strychnine to the bottom, ensuring the ingests all the strychnine from the bottle in one go when she takes the last dose.
  • Obviously Evil: Alfred Inglethorp is seen as this. Of course, to the Genre Savvy reader that's a clue that he could not possibly have done it. Then the even savvier Poirot finds out that he did it after all.
  • Perfect Poison: Subverted.
  • Red Herring: Several.
  • Shown Their Work: Christie worked in a dispensary during World War I, and here she shows off her knowledge of poisons.
  • Summation Gathering
  • Terse Talker: Evie Howard.
    Her conversation, I soon found, was couched in the telegraphic style.
  • The Watson: Hastings.
  • Wham Line: "My dearest Evelyn."