11 May 2024

It Turns Out I'd Never Read The Mysterious Affair at Styles

A few months ago, I was wandering Barnes & Noble and came on a display table of Agatha Christie novels. As you might imagine, it was a large display. Now, I'm a book cover guy. A good cover is what stops me at random displays, and Christie novels reliably have inventive covers. Working on a solid budget helps. 

The cover that caught my attention that day was The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). It's a terrific design. The earth tones and Tudor house give an immediate sense of Very English Manor. The woods and tall grass reach for the house, dispelling any sense of peace. This is ominous, somewhere mysterious affairs are likely to occur. To underscore that, a shadowy dude has clear business with the place.

This edition--there have been many--is from Vintage Books (Penguin Random House), published in 2019. "The First Hercule Poirot Mystery" exclaims the header. I knew that, and I even knew it was Christie's first published novel. A well-received first novel. None of that kept me at the display table.

Fickle memory held me there. I couldn't remember if I'd read the book.  

I felt like I must've. I haven't read all 65 Christie novels, but I'm a Poirot fan since my mom introduced me to the character. Surely, I'd read how the guy was introduced. And yet, I couldn't remember a single detail or faded personal take. In some ways, Christie is a victim of her own success. The novels became best-selling products, and those consistency demands created a blurring factor. Christie forged many of today's mystery tropes--and then used them throughout her long career. 

Also, I couldn't trust the multimedia angle. I'd almost certainly seen a PBS Masterpiece Mystery version of Styles. David Suchet nailed the role and became my definitive Poirot. No, mes ami, I couldn't be sure I'd read the novel version.

I bought the book. 

Two things struck me when I cracked that intriguing cover. For one, I hadn't read The Mysterious Affair at Styles before. Nothing was familiar about it. Two, I'll repeat that last thing. This book wasn't familiar Christie. Her novels are always engaging, with deceptively simple prose. Often a sly wit sneaks in. This first Poirot has that, but it's wrapped in Hastings' rash and sometimes clueless perspective. He fancies himself up to the sleuthing job. Christie makes it wonderfully clear that's not the case. 

This first Poirot is fussy, but the fussiness is organic, not Christie torturing the character that . She has no running gags to manage. This Poirot is a known ex-detective but a diminished one, a war refugee living in an Essex cottage provided by Style's matron (and soon our murder victim). This Poirot gets antic, running off literally at each critical turn in the case. 

The crime is over-intricate, as Christie plots can be. There are too many clues, and there are too many red herrings. She was still learning here and deserves full credit for inventiveness. A flaw here that would repeat in later novels is a focus on how ugly the bad guys are. And here, as in other of her novels, that ugly person gets described as dark and foreign ("alien," in Styles). Writers are products of their place and time. For our place and time, HarperCollins has been editing her re-releases for sensitivity.

Spoilers: It's the dark-haired alien guy whodunnit at Styles. I was never fooled by that, but I also wasn't sure where she was going with it. Christie always has another trick up her sleeve. She did, and I hadn't guessed it. Should've. Didn't. Hat tip, and that trick I won't spoil.

Like many famous novels, the making-of story is fascinating. Christie wrote Styles in 1916 while she was a Red Cross volunteer, rising from nurse to apothecary assistant. The WWI home front effort, the displaced Belgians, and not least the knowledge of toxicology are all large parts of Styles and give it deeper roots than some of her stories

Multiple U.K. publishers declined the manuscript before The Bodley Head eventually bought the rights. Christie's relief at becoming published led her to sign a bad deal. She would get only a ten percent royalty after 2,000 U.K. copies sold, and she was tied down to five more books. 

Christie certainly got the last laugh. Her success after The Mysterious Affair at Styles is almost unfathomable. Estimates of her sales range 2 to 4 billion copies. For perspective, that is 3 to 6 times more than the Harry Potter series. Only Shakespeare and the Bible have outsold her. And she is still selling, to include at bookstore display tables near you.


  1. She was indeed a writer of her time, with the casual racism (or that's what we'd call it) of England well up into... well, some of it's still there. So was Dorothy Sayers. But Christie definitely became THE master of the hat trick, a turn that, no matter how hard you look, before you read it, you'd never thought about THAT. Later, you can go back and see where the nugget was buried, because she never cheats. She always put a nugget in, but with enough red herrings so that it went unnoticed. That's why I keep rereading her books. Master class and all that.

    1. i agree. I knew what she was doing, but she still caught me off guard.

    2. Mary Fernando12 May, 2024 04:18

      I agree with both of you. Agatha Christie is brilliant and also a woman who used the language of her time. The latter doesn't take away from the former.


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