The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Mysterious AffairI finished Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  This is the Bantam 1974 edition.  This is actually Agatha Christie’s first published novel (1920) and it also introduces the famous Hercule Poirot. In 1990, an episode based on this novel was aired as part of the Agatha Christie’s Poirot series in the UK.

All things considered, this is a really good first novel.  I mean, let’s face it, some writers published dozens of books nowadays and never reach this level of novel.  Not that this is a great novel, by any means, but there is an inherent quality to it that seems almost lacking in a lot of the mass-marketed novels.  I am not trying to be overly critical, but I really can appreciate the efforts of Christie in this novel.

The plot is really kind of lame – especially in 2012.  But it is necessary for the reader to at least try to keep in mind that the setting and culture of Christie’s novel is very different from our own.  This novel takes place at Styles Court.  This is a manor house on a large property.  Again, not something that many Americans in 2012 have a referent for.  It takes place during the time of WWI, which does not overweigh the novel, but hints of the effects of the war pepper the novel nicely.

The novel is narrated by the main character, Arthur Hastings.  He is invited to spend time at Styles Court by his friend John Cavendish.  And this whole part of the novel seems really strange and foreign.  Inviting people to stay – for almost an entire summer – at one’s house is rare.  Particularly if these people are not even close family.  And then, after a murder occurs (or any like tragedy) for those houseguests to stay onward and not leave also seems odd by today’s standards.  I feel a lot more awkwardness and discomfort would be called for.  But being a houseguest at a country manor during WWI is not exactly something I have experience with.

We are introduced to Christie’s famous detective, Hercule Poirot – and he is enigmatic, weird, and arrogant.  He also comes across in this novel as loveable, intelligent, and quirky.  He’s actually quite loveable as a character.  And often Hastings gets frustrated with Poirot, but remains drawn to this Belgian eccentric because Hastings, too, has a mind and heart for the detective scenarios. Poirot is probably the descendent of Sherlock Holmes – the odd, brilliant, English detective – but there’s no fun in comparing the two at this point.  Poirot and his Belgian-French are a whole lot of fun and though the reader, too, is frustrated with Poirot’s antics (he constantly hints and misdirects, but never really unfolds all of his ideas) the reader also learns to cherish the character’s exuberance.

As I mentioned above, the plot is lame.  And the whole thing is a bit convoluted.  Poirot is frustrating.  And there’s really no way the reader can guess early on who is the murderer and why.  So why am I giving this four stars?  Because the writing is so erudite – Christie’s prose leaps from the page.  The writing is beautiful – not stilted or cluttered.  There are no unnecessary pages of descriptions, purple prose, or filler chapters.  The author’s actual use of language is very good.  None of this seems carbon copy from “How to Write a Novel in a Month,” so to speak.  In laymen’s terms:  it’s just a really charming read.  And now, it’s actually kind of become a classic in it’s own right.  I recommend this to everyone. It’s short enough that it won’t tax anyone, nor put them off whatever else they are reading. Don’t fret too much about the details of the case, but relish the novel as a cool vintage enjoyment.

4 stars

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