The very first of Agatha Christie’s detective stories, Mysterious Affair at Styles was a breath of fresh air – air scented with ancient country mansions, rich but foolish old ladies, a rogues gallery of extended family, poison, wills, minute yet vital clues, and, of course, an intelligent detective to bring it all together.
Like Arthur Conan Doyle, Dame Christie knew that to write her piece from the perspective of the ever-right Poirot would be too easy, so the story comes from the pen of his friend Captain Hastings.
When Captain Hastings goes to stay with an old friend, we meet a dizzying assortment of characters. Can any of them be trusted? Is the “sweet young thing” too innocent to be believed? Is the universally hated New Husband really an upstart rogue, or is the family biased by jealousy and anxiety over the matriarch’s frequent will-changing?
Hastings is a very human narrator, going from ecstatic curiosity as he and Poirot puzzle out the mystery together, to nettled pride when he thinks Poirot is ignoring an obvious point or disregarding his own opinion. He brings a very relatable tone and perspective to the confusing happenings, including his own perceptions of the people around him in the tale. After all, intuition isn’t just for women!
While Poirot has at times been mocked as pompous and irritating, I found him sympathetic in this tale. His secretiveness ruffled Hastings, yet his politeness and frank appreciation for his friend’s qualities win the day. (Not to mention his funny Belgian accent and fastidious manners.)
To top it all, it explores the romance of a married couple…a disappointment to Hastings, but a satisfaction to me!
In the end, for one exhausted by so-called “mysteries” that primarily focus on the sleuth’s love life – not actual clues! – Dame Christie’s subtle hand did not disappoint in scattering snatches of conversation, moments when suspects were alone, arrangements of the furniture, tidbits of period medicine, and all the little items that (once Poirot has assembled them in the proper order) make the reader go, “Aha! I should have had it all along!”
Cover image courtesy of Wikipedia.