The Mysterious Affair at Styles:
Hercule Poirot (the now famous detective and former officer of the Belgian Police Force), Captain Arthur Hastings (Poirot’s old friend and narrator of the story)
The Styles household:
Mrs. Emily Inglethorp (The matriarch of Styles household and who holds all the purse strings)
John Cavendish (Mrs. Inglethorp’s elder step-son)
Mary Cavendish (John’s wife)
Lawrence Cavendish (Mrs. Inglethorp’s younger step-son)
Alfred Inglethorp (Mrs. Inglethorp’s husband, twenty years her junior)
Cynthia Murdoch (daughter of Mrs. Inglethorp’s old friend, whose responsibility Mrs. Inglethorp has taken & doesn’t mind to make that clear in some way)
Evelyn Howard (Mrs. Inglethorp’s caretaker, she dislikes Alfred Inglethorp to the core)
Dr. Bauerstein (An expert on poisons, staying in the village for rest cure)
Dr. Wilkins (Mrs. Inglethorp’s doctor)
Mr. Wells (Mrs. Ingelthorp’s lawyer)
Mr. Albert Mace: (Assistant at the village chemist shop)
The servants at Styles: Dorcas, Annie, Two gardeners
Detective Inspector Japp, Superintendent Summerhaye
Captain Arthur Hastings after being injured in First World War is looking for a place to spend his one month leave. During this he comes across an old acquaintance John Cavendish. John Cavendish invites Captain Hastings to his mother’s place Styles Court in the village of Styles St. Mary. A place Captain Hastings often stayed as a boy.
In this process he confides his step-mother’s re-marriage to a man 20 years her junior, Alfred Inglethorp, and how hard their life has been since the marriage.
When Hastings arrives at Styles he is struck by a feeling of unreality of Alfred Inglethorp. Like he does not belong there. It is also evident that no one in the Styles household likes him. Evelyn Howard makes this most public.
Also, during his stay Hastings gets attracted and falls in love with both Mary Cavendish and Cynthia Murdoch at the same time.
One day during this visit he bumps into Hercule Poirot, an old friend and one of the most celebrated detectives of Belgium Police Force. As it happens that Hercule Poirot and some of his compatriots had to seek refuge in England due to invasion of their country. Poirot informs Hastings that Emily Inglethorp has provided them with a residence in Styles St. Mary. Hastings has a high regard for Hercule Poirot and his detective skills. Of course, they don’t know that these skills are to be needed soon.
Soon after Hastings arrival, Evelyn Howard, Emily Inglethorp’s companion leaves her 10- year long post due to a fight over Alfred Inglethorp whom she immensely dislikes.
To be precise Hastings arrives at Styles on 5th July. On 16th July a lot happens. An event has been organized to provide help in wartimes and after a hectic day and eventful night the 17th of July arrives.
On the afternoon of 17th July Emily Inglethorp has a long argument with a family member. It’s a warm day and she retires to her room after dinner. At midnight or rather towards early morning John Cavendish wakes up Hastings. He tells Hastings that some strange noises are coming from his mother’s room and that her room is locked. Together they break open the door and everyone watches helplessly as after sometime Mrs. Inglethorp has a severe attack and dies. Amidst the initial confusion the family doctor (Dr. Wilkins) is called. Also, another doctor (Dr. Bauerstein) living in the village and a specialist (in poisons) happens to be passing by the house and is called in. He suspects something fishy and confides so in the family doctor. They decide to send the body for post-mortem.
In the morning Hastings reminds John Cavendish about his friend Hercule Poirot and persuades him to take the Belgian’s help, before all other investigations begin, without delay. John agrees. And this eventually proves to be a prudent decision.
Hereon begins the first of the many cases where one of the most beloved fictional detectives displays his many powers of observation, skills as a detective and tact as a person. How he goes about that and what conclusions he draws are there for you to find out.
Remarks & Recommendations:
It is not as easy as I thought it would be. I would like to write so much about the reasons for being an Agatha Christie fan that I am not able to get hold of the correct words and bring forth a coherent discussion.
Anyways, first things first. If you like Agatha Christie’s work and in case you have somehow missed her first venture get hold of it. On the other hand, if you have never read any of her novels but can do with a dose of mystery and good reading, get hold of it. So, that’s my recommendation for you.
Now a few things about the book itself.
This is not the first novel of Poirot or even Agatha Christie that I read. In fact, I had already read (and re-read) most of her famous one’s before I got hold of this one. So, by this time I was aware of the writing style and settings adopted in Christie novels. Therefore, to discuss about it keeping in mind that it marks the beginning for the “Queen of Crime”, was a little difficult.
The novel is set amidst the First World War. There are mentions of all the budgeting and rationing that went on in war households at that time. On the day of his arrival, Mrs. Inglethorp tells Hastings: “We are quite a war household; nothing is wasted here -every scrap of waste paper, even, is saved and sent away in sacks.”
Now I cannot claim to have a deep understanding and knowledge of history or the settings in which the book is based. Nor can I comment on whether it captures the socio-cultural and economic situations of that era in England. But I felt that it more or less does. Beyond that I cannot say and actually do not care. A fact which however is highlighted is that Mrs. Inglethorp being a wealthy lady spends quite some amount on charity and for war causes and of course likes to be praised for it. As Hastings puts it: “I recalled her as an energetic, autocratic personality, somewhat inclined to charitable and social notoriety, with a fondness for opening bazaars and playing the Lady Bountiful.”
And since she has an authoritative personality and the power necessary to go with it, namely money, you can but know that the people in her house are dependent on her. Though she provides her step-children with essentials for living, her character does not seem to be a very caring or loving one. Perhaps she does not even care. To illustrate this, we can take Cynthia Murdoch’s case. Cynthia is the daughter of Mrs. Inglethorp’s old friend and as both her parents are now dead, she has been taken under her wing by Mrs. Inglethorp. Hastings however comments on her position as being of a dependent one. For instance, when the family are having tea on the day of Hastings’s arrival Mrs. Inglethorp asks Cynthia to write a few notes for her. Seeing Cynthia’s reaction Hastings quotes:
“She jumped up promptly, and something in her manner reminded me that her position was of a dependent one, and that Mrs. Inglethorp, kind as she might be in the main, did not allow her to forget it.”
With such layout of characters in a good murder mystery you just know who is going to be the murder victim.
FEW COMMON ELEMENTS:
As I mentioned before, this is not the first Agatha Christie novel that I read. But I can say that her first book lays down some of the common elements which were necessary part of the set ups in all the later ones.
Evil in the air:
The very-very essential one of these is the presence or feeling of “EVIL”. This “evil” is not some supernatural or out of the world force. This “evil” so often referred to in her books is the one residing in people and some character or the other always feels its presence. If they could only point out the direction it emanates from. But then we wouldn’t have a good story.
Mostly in murder or suspense novels a rich person is usually, if not always, involved. And money is an important motive for a crime. But where there is money there will be greed and the consequent insecurities among family members. These usually are therefore also present in any Agatha Christie book. There are often tensions brewing underneath the calm and seemingly friendly atmosphere.
However, even if money isn’t involved the descriptions of families, the relationships between the family members always seems to be one fraught with aloofness. The warmth and informality is often missing. The dialogues make me feel that there is too much formality in their behaviour towards one another. It makes me wonder if the English people really talked with each other in that kind of formal tone. I don’t know, but this tone is generally a common feature in Agatha Christie books.
Women characters as portrayed by Agatha Christie in her novels are not just strong but are very uniquely depicted. They might be delightful or enigmatic; charming or complicated; adventurous or restrained; proud or jealous; but always unique. Mary Cavendish in this novel is one such example. See how she has been described by Hastings here: “Her tall, slender form, outlined against the bright light; the vivid sense of slumbering fire that seemed to find expression only on those wonderful tawny eyes of hers,……………………….conveyed the impression of a wild untamed spirit in an exquisitely civilized body…”
These unique portrayals are a major reason for my being a Christie fan.
One might feel that many times there are too many clues or red herrings spread about in these suspense stories. Personally, I feel that a suspense story would be less interesting if there are too few or just enough clues. If one really paid attention the dialogues sometimes reveal the real culprit very easily, we just have to apply order and method. As Poirot puts it in this one: “…we will arrange the facts, neatly,…We will examine- and reject. Those of importance we will put on one side; those of no importance, pouf.”
Speaking for myself, the other element that I mostly read the novels for is the descriptions of people and their observations. Whether it is written in first person narrative or some other way the manner of describing someone’s characteristic attributes or nature always appeals to me. Sometimes we can reckon with some of the observations and descriptions of people or their behaviour, either by way of narration or dialogues. One feels human nature has not much changed over the century. And the language is often humorous. Just to sample a few of them:
Captain Hastings amused at the display of affection by Mrs. Inglethorp towards her husband (whom Hastings describes as being unreal) says how Mrs. Inglethorp was beaming at her husband and quotes:
“Strange infatuation of an otherwise sensible woman.”
But Miss. Howard has an answer to that, because when she leaves her service she tells Mrs. Inglethorp that her husband married her only for her money:
“You are an old woman, Emily, and there is no fool like an old fool.”
Or the description of Styles St. Mary by Hastings as:
“An absurd little station, with no apparent reason for existence.”
After a murder in a family Ms. Christie always describes the reaction of the maids etc. to be a mixture of curiosity and enjoyment. For eg., when Poirot calls a maid Annie for questioning her attitude is described as:
“…labouring under intense excitement, mingled with a certain ghoulish enjoyment of the tragedy.”
THE MAIN CHARACTERS:
And now let’s come to the main characters, i.e. apart from Poirot, Hastings & Japp too.
Detective-Inspector James Japp:
To begin with Detective Inspector James Japp. Many novels and especially short stories have Japp taking Poirot’s help. Here in the first book he is introduced as being already acquainted with Poirot owing to their respective jobs. Way back from 1904. He is shown to respect Poirot and have a regard for his skills. Also, in the first book he nowhere appears to be critical of Poirot’s methods.
Captain Arthur Hastings:
To me Captain Hastings is more than a mere side-kick of Poirot. Also, I do not take him to be dumb. He is endearingly simple and honest. He is just over-enthusiastic as he is deeply interested in the detective work. That’s his secret desire as he responds to a question by Alfred Inglethorp. And Hercule Poirot is one of the main reasons for this inclination as Hastings had come to admire Poirot a lot during their meeting in Belgium. The truest description for him would be that given by Poirot: “You gave too much rein to your imagination.”
Often in books that do not feature Hastings and have his secretary Miss Lemon, Poirot often laments that while his friend Hastings had too much imagination, Miss Lemon has none.
Apart from the descriptions of people and place he gives, it is actually Hastings’s own interpretation (mostly erroneous and off the tangent) of the numerous clues and incidents that make the reading much more interesting.
AND FINALLY- HERCULE POIROT:
Hercule Poirot is still being interpreted by many film and television makers and the actors playing him. But I maintain David Suchet is the most definitive Poirot. But we are not going to talk about Mr. Suchet right now. Only Poirot.
The first book itself establishes all the characteristics mannerisms and the facets of his nature for which Hercule Poirot is so much loved. The code of order and method by which he lives, the penchant for symmetry, the dislike to dirt, mud and other things which can even a wee-bit upset his neat attire. And it’s not just his own attire but any asymmetry or lack of cleanliness from others also upsets him. Like this one incident:
“John flung the match into an adjacent flower bed, a proceeding which was too much for Poirot’s feelings. He retrieved it, and buried it neatly.”
Yes, he is always described as pompous. According to some articles Agatha Christie did not quite enjoy the pompous attitude. But however pompous and confident of his faculties he might be, Hercule Poirot is not arrogant. There is always a graciousness of manner with which he interacts, using tact and calmly listening to everyone. In case you have seen him in action, you would notice that he does not talk in a denigrating manner to anyone nor does show a superior attitude. He talks with the same respect to servants as he would talk with their employers. It is much better to describe him as not showing modesty about his achievements and why should he. As for me, I absolutely love the way he says “It puzzles me. ME. Hercule Poirot.”
And that soft corner he has for two lovers or spouses driven apart due to some reason. In the first book itself this is evident. As he says to Hastings: “The happiness of one man and woman is the greatest thing in all the world.” So, if anybody feels that Poirot is unromantic I would like to disagree with that view.
I find him to be a dear little man just as the characters, especially women, in the novels do.
TO SUM UP:
There are still so many things I would like to describe here, the elements, the dialogues but then I do not want to take away the fun of reading it from anyone. Suffice it to say that I feel it is more than just the suspense to Agatha Christie’s books which attracts me or perhaps other readers too. After all she is still the third most sold and translated author in the world and it cannot be only to read a good murder story that it has happened.
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