Book Title: The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Publisher: The Bodley Head
Writer: Agatha Christie
Release Date: October 1920
England has been rocked by the Great War, and Captain Arthur J.M. Hastings has been invited by his friend to a weekend retreat to Styles. Once there Hastings finds himself intertwined in a murder mystery when Mrs. Inglethorp (formerly Mrs. Cavendish) is found murdered in her locked bedroom. With the whole house having motives for wanting to kill, anyone could be a suspect. Fortunately for Hastings, his Belgium friend Hercule Poirot is also in Styles…and Poirot will not rest until he finds the killer!
The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie’s first published novel and introduced the character of Hercule Poirot. The book was well received at the time and launched Agatha Christie’s career as a mystery writer.
Mystery books have a real format and often are cliché. The Mysterious Affair at Styles is no different in that sense, but it was Agatha Christie who helped make this format of mystery cliché so when this novel was released, it is hard to judge whether this was still a fresh style.
Christie was writing after the premiere of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and didn’t invent the genre (which was created by Edgar Allen Poe), and the novel is a bit reflexive in that sense. Sherlock Holmes was so established by the 1920s that the characters reference him…so Christie acknowledges that she’s following in his footsteps. The plot is worn by now with the classic, cliffhanger chapter endings where the murderer’s identity is up in the air, and the story ends with a long explainer to who committed the crime and how.
The story really picks up with the arrival of Hercule Poirot who fled Belgium due to World War I. This would have been understood by readers in 1920, but today, it is an interesting and underplayed aspect of the story which would have been fun to explore more. Poirot isn’t very tied to the plot in that his character simply is there to solve the crime despite his “friendship” with Hastings…it rather seems like an deus ex machina solution to the crime that there just happens to be a Belgium inspector to unlock the mystery and who shows up only when he’s needed. Many scholars have noted that Poirot does resemble a previously existing character named Inspector Hanaud from A.E.W. Mason’s 1910 novel At the Villa Rose.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a classic mystery told in a classic fashion. If you are on the fence as a mystery reader, I don’t know that it can be recommended since it does fall into the mystery pattern of reveals, story development, and stock characters, but if you are a fan of Poirot or Christie, the book is a must read. It is worthy reading as well if you want to explore the genre and see its roots. Christie became a name tied to the genre of the mystery and this is where it all started. Agatha Christie followed The Mysterious Affair at Styles with The Secret Adversary in 1922, but Hercule Poirot returned in 1923 in The Murder on the Links.