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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 the one- 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 an 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.

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

Christie had dedicated the book to her mother.

The novel has been adapted by ITV as the final episode for the second season of the Agatha Christie’s Poirot series starring David Suchet as Poirot, and by BBC Radio Four with John Moffat as Poirot. Tropes unique to the ITV adaptation can be found on the page for the TV series.

This work of fiction contains examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Past: It is mentioned in the second chapter that "the 16th of July fell on a Monday." Using this clue and the fact that Hercule Poirot himself is a war refugee from Belgium, it can be inferred that the story itself, having been published in 1920, takes place in July 1917.
  • Amoral Attorney: Sir Ernest (defence attorney), for all his shrewdness, is infamous for his tendency to intimidate witnesses into giving the testimonies he wanted to hear. When he is hired to defend John Cavendish, he practically bullies Lawrence Cavendish into implicating himself (though to be fair, the younger Cavendish had been acting rather unfortunately).
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Hastings got himself into quite some trouble by falling in love with both Mary Cavendish and Cynthia Murdoch. However, Mary is married to John, and Cynthia rejects his proposal because she is in love with Lawrence.
  • Arch-Enemy: Evelyn Howard cannot stand Alfred Inglethorp and will not hesitate to badmouth the man at every opportunity. When Mrs Inglethorp is killed, she keeps on insisting that he is the murderer, even when he is cleared due to his alibi. This is later revealed to be an act by the two, as part of their plan.
  • Asshole Victim: Downplayed; Emily Cavendish is stated to be generous, but in a heavily self-interested way that puts people in her debt and power. Accordingly, she is liked but not particularly loved; her family show clear signs of appreciation and fondness towards her, but aren't terribly cut-up when she dies.
  • Batman Gambit: Poirot caught on to Alfred's scheme of exploiting the double jeopardy law and does everything in his power to keep him out of jail while he looks for the real evidence of Alfred's guilt. Also he lets John Cavendish go to trial as the main suspect, as he knows that it will mend his strained marriage.
  • Big Brother Instinct: When John Cavendish is arrested and put on trial for the murder of his stepmother, he's not happy to hear that his defence attorney tried to shift the blame towards Lawrence instead. When he is later called to give his evidence, he publicly rejects Sir Ernest's insinuations and declares his younger brother's innocence.
  • Brutal Honesty: Evie Howard would not hesitate to speak her mind about anything. Before the crime took place, 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.
  • Chekhov's Gun: There's a comment about how wastepaper is saved at Styles because of "War economies." This is why the will was burned in the fireplace; there was no other way for Mrs. Inglethorp to destroy it.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: It turns out that Mary Cavendish is extremely jealous of her husband and over the possibility he is having an affair, to the point of drugging her mother-in-law to sleep so she could read in her will if her husband was indeed cheating on her. But still, she didn't commit the murder and managed to patch up her marriage.
  • Cross Dresser: Apparently, the "young ones" (John, Lawrence and Cynthia) often play dress-up, and Cynthia would occasionally wear male disguises. Plot-relevant with regards to Evelyn Howard, as she dressed male to buy strychnine in the pharmacy.
  • Double-Meaning Title: The "affair" of the title refers both to the business of the murder mystery in general and to an adulterous relationship: not John Cavendish's casual dalliance with Mrs. Raikes, but the secret liaison between Alfred Inglethorp and Evelyn Howard, which is, per the title, made extra mysterious by the fact that the two outwardly pretend to hate each other.
  • 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.
    • Poirot is a war refugee living at a group home for Belgians, and he's apparently financially dependent on the Cavendishes. In future novels he acquires both wealth and fame from his exploits as a private detective.
    • Hastings is still serving in the British military during this novel, and is transferred to the War Ministry in London between the chapters taking place in July and those taking place in September. He is a retired officer in all other stories. He is also still single, while he meets his future wife in The Murder on the Links and subseqent Christie novels depict him as a husband and a father. (However, the short stories in Poirot Investigates are set before thst, since he's sharing a flat with Poirot and hasn't moved to Argentina.)
    • Japp is introduced as a relatively minor character and would not receive an expanded role until the 1930s. He has worked with Poirot before, but they are not friends yet and Poirot has to reintroduce himself.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Poirot has one when Hastings mentions his hands shaking during his 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 real 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.
  • Gambit Pileup: Mary Cavendish drugs Emily Inglethorp with a narcotic to make her sleep, so that Mary can look for papers that might incriminate John. Coincidentally, Emily is also poisoned with strychnine that same evening. Strychnine normally acts quickly after ingestion, but in Emily's case, the narcotic delays the effects by several hours, an initially unknown complication that greatly frustrates attempts to determine the time of the poisoning.
  • 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.
  • Idle Rich: The two Cavendish brothers are in their forties, and have never worked for a living. They rely on the family fortune, which is controlled by their stepmother. John used to be a barrister and Lawrence was a doctor, but they both chose to give up their professions early in their lives. John acts as a "country squire" without actually working in their estate, and Lawrence has spent his money in self-publishing his poetry.
  • Imaginary Love Triangle: Lawrence mistakenly believes that Cynthia is in love with his brother John, and expresses jealousy whenever he sees them together. This is presumably why he is often very reserved around Cynthia, causing her to think that he dislikes her.
  • 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.
  • Locked Room Mystery: Part of the mystery is just how Emily got poisoned, since she'd been in a locked room for some hours, strychnine is relatively fast-acting, and it was the small hours of the morning when she died.
  • Marriage Before Romance: Mary Cavendish married her husband John because she was bored of living with her aunts after having traveled for years with her late father. It took years before a romance blossomed.
  • 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 ingest all the strychnine from the bottle in one go when taking the last dose.
  • Mistaken for Insane: When investigating Emily Inglethorp's room after her murder, Hastings and Poirot stumble upon an old envelope with "possessed," "He is possessed," and "I am possessed" scribbled on it multiple times (with some instances of the word "possessed" being misspelled as "posessed"). Hastings theorizes that Mrs. Inglethorp was insane and delusionally thought that someone was suffering from demonic possession. Turns out she actually forgot how to spell the word "possessed" while writing her will and tried writing the word a few times on an envelope to see which spelling looked right.
  • My Beloved Smother: Both John and Lawrence mostly live 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.
  • Never the Obvious Suspect: Subverted. The murderer deliberately makes himself the very obvious first suspect, then prepares fake evidence, so the case against him will be overturned and he won't be suspected again (in English law at the time, one couldn't be tried twice for the same crime).
  • 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 did not come as early as planned. Had they simply waited for the inevitable, they might have gotten away with it all. This is lampshaded in the adaptation, where the accomplice calls their partner-in-crime a fool when Poirot produces the letter as an evidence to their crime.
  • Obviously Evil: Both Alfred Inglethorp and Dr. Bauerstein have long black beards, which makes them look like fictional villains. One turns out to be the murderer, while the other is a German spy (and bear in mind that WWI is still underway).
  • 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 through her frequent engagements with Dr. Bauerstein.
  • Possessive Wrist Grab: "John sprang after her, and caught her by the arm," when John is accusing his wife of having an affair 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 were left by Mary Cavendish, who snuck into Mrs. Inglethorp's room trying to look for a letter, which she was sure contained evidence of John's infidelity. Dr. Bauerstein's suspicious manner was due to the fact that he is 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.
  • Revised Ending: The original ending had Poirot giving his summary, and the solution, in open court after he is called as a witness. Christie's publisher objected to this for being nonsense—a witness in a murder trial would not be allowed to expound at length on how the crime was committed. So Christie wrote a different ending where Poirot sums up what happened and exposes the murderer in a summation delivered to all the characters. This ending, brought about by invokedExecutive Meddling, may be the trope maker for Summation Gathering.
  • Shown Their Work: Christie worked in a dispensary (for the benefit of American readers, that means a pharmacy, not a "head shop") 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.
  • Stealth Insult: Poirot says "We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all," then follows that up by saying "There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me." Hastings, being Hastings, completely misses the stealth insult.
  • Summation Gathering: Near the end of the novel, Poirot gathers together most of the suspects and witnesses to reveal his findings. This would become a Christie trademark and may be the trope maker.
  • Taking the Heat: While it is not explicitly mentioned that he is 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, whom Hastings describes as speaking "in the telegraphic style."
    Miss Howard: Weeds grow like house afire. Can’t keep even with ’em. Shall press you in. Better be careful!"
  • Title Drop: "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" is a newspaper headline.
  • Two Dun It: This became one of Christie's favorite tropes, and she used it in her very first novel. Alfred and Evelyn pretend to hate each other, and in particular Evelyn uses every chance she can get to express her loathing of Alfred. They're actually lovers, and in cahoots to kill Emily, his wife and her boss.
  • The Watson: Hastings. He serves as Poirot's assistant in this case, chronicles the events for posterity, and serves as the narrator of the tale. He has his own ideas about the mystery, but he is always guessing wrong and serving as only a foil for Poirot's brilliant deductions. Unlike the original Watson, who was content to be Holmes's admirer and chronicler, Hastings often expresses irritation at how Poirot outguesses him and makes him look dumb.