Captain Arthur Hastings, invalided home from the Front, is looking for somewhere to spend his recuperative leave, and chances upon an old acquaintance, John Cavendish, who suggests he comes to stay at Styles Court. Cavendish has concerns regarding his mother Emily’s new husband, Alfred Inglethorp, and his concerns seem to be solid ones when Emily Inglethorp is found poisoned, apparently by strychnine.
Fortunately for everyone involved – apart from the murderer, obviously – Hastings has renewed an old acquaintance. A Belgian refugee from the war, a former police detective, a certain M. Hercule Poirot…
Inspired by Mark Aldridge’s superlative Poirot book, I thought that this year, I’d start a regular-ish re-read of the Poirot canon in order. I haven’t reviewed all of them – indeed, there are a couple I haven’t actually read before – but I’ve needed comfort re-reading from time to time, and what could be more comfortable than Dame Agatha and her finest creation?
Poirot does come reasonably fully formed in this first appearance. His moustache may be a little less extravagant – it’s described as being “very stiff and military” – and he has a limp, which I don’t think lasts very long, but his characterisation seems to be the Poirot we know and love. There are a few quirks that I don’t recall – he seems to have a bit of OCD when stressed, straightening everything on a mantelpiece (although that is actually important) and builds towers of playing cards when thinking.
Hastings – well, I’ll be honest, I’ve never thought much about his character. One has to ask why he puts so much detail into his completely unsuccessful (and somewhat humiliating) pursuit of two women when narrating the story. Indeed, one has to question his gentleman-ness when the first thing he does when meeting John Cavendish’s wife is to start creepily obsessing over her.
Apart from Hastings and Poirot meeting for the first time (although it isn’t the first time) and Poirot and Japp meeting for the first time (although it isn’t the first time there either), there’s nothing here to show this is Christie’s first published novel, it’s amazingly accomplished. Robert Barnard claimed it was “over-liberal with clues and red herrings” and it is a tad busier than most of her books, but the talent on display here is stunning. All of Poirot’s deductions are based on things we have been told about and overlooked, often simple things, although some of the behaviour from characters to leave the relevant clues does seem a little much, serving only to plant yet another red herring. A number of the characters have some heft to them, although others do get short shrift, such as Dr Bauerstein and Alfred Inglethorp himself, who comes across as little more than a walking beard.
On the more critical side, there are some bits and pieces that don’t really work. While the location of the crucial evidence is well-clued, the reason why it was put there is pretty poor – there are easier ways – and to be honest, the fact that it exists in the first place seems forced. The other things that occurred to me is the primary love triangle here works in basically the same way as another one of Dame Agatha’s, from one of her finest works.
This is an astonishingly strong debut novel, possibly the most accomplished from any mystery novelist and it should be essential reading. For some reason, I always get the impression it gets a bit overlooked – this might be due to it not being reprinted with the majority of her canon by Fontana in the seventies/eighties (I think) – but so far, in my re-reading of the Poirot canon, it’s the best so far!
Ranking Poirot (so far):*
- The Mysterious Affair At Styles
*obviously this will be a bit more useful when I’ve done a few more reviews…