An Appreciation of Styles
In 2020, we celebrate 100 years of Agatha Christie as an author extraordinaire, 100 years of Christie mysteries, and 100 years since Hercule Poirot's first appearance. Poirot's debut was in The Mysterious
Affair at Styles, completed in 1916 and subsequently turned down before appearing in October 1920 in the United States. Its first true publication was serialized in The Times
earlier in that year. Dedicated to her mother Clarissa, the novel came about as a challenge set forth by her sister Madge for Agatha to write a detective novel. This appreciation for Poirot's first case comes after
a re-read of the novel and will contain spoilers.
In this her first novel, the reader will spot elements employed by Christie during her career. The novel contains many characteristics in her writings. There's the use of Christie's favorite weapon, poison. She
employs already red herrings and plants doubt in the reader's mind as to motive. She uses the family gathering for the denouement of the mystery. The family is an upper-class one with servants living in a large home.
There is already chicanery going on with wills and disguises. Poirot already exhibits his fastidious attitude towards cleanliness, order, method, and demonstrates the quiet moments he relishes to employ his "little
grey cells". Early on in the novel Poirot already lists questions that demand answers and holds back some of his thoughts. The relationship between Poirot and his friend (and our narrator) Arthur Hastings is
established. Hastings shows an admiration for Poirot's skills but also is infuriated at the detective's idiosyncrasies. Poirot is already misquoting literature and English idioms. He already nicknames himself
"Papa Poirot" and acts as a father confessor.
Having revisited the novel this year, I have a new admiration and appreciation for Agatha Christie's effort. I have rekindled my love for Christie's mysteries and for Hercule Poirot. It's been said her first published novel was a valiant effort, and it is. It's been said mistakes were made. More on those two statements later. This is an analysis, and appreciation, and a love letter to Christie and her novel. For a first-time detective novelist, it is a marvel. It is an example of what a great career Christie will have. It is an excellent preview of what's to come--classic and exemplary Poirot novels such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, The ABC Murders, Death on the Nile, Five Little Pigs, and others.
This analysis and discussion on Styles are for those readers who have already read the novel, as plot, clues, and the whodunit are mentioned. So be aware that there are spoilers throughout.
Creating a Foundation
Elements that are common in Agatha's stories already first appear here. It is in Styles where she creates a foundation for her writing. They are more raw or undeveloped but these are already planted in this novel. These elements are establishing alibis, the question of wills and inheritance, the setting of a county house filled with servants, the misdirection through the use of red herrings or fragments of conversation, and the denouement of the cases with suspects all gathered. All of the elements present in Styles will reappear in her novels. Her earlier novels will feature the family and suspect gathering at the end for the solution. Her earlier novels also deal with the upper and upper middle class of society complete with large homes including servants. Agatha's future stories will also feature mistaken identities and the use of disguises like in Styles. One item used prominently in Agatha's books is poison. Her favorite murder weapon first appears in Styles, and employed well due to her knowledge during her service in the war.
When Agatha describes characters, sometimes it's an important detail. She first establishes that here and does it in future books. In fact, don't overlook anything she puts down on paper. It just might be important. I love Hastings' description of specific people like Mary Cavendish, Alfred Inglethorp, and Evelyn Howard (especially the last two as they are the guilty party and their description is important to the plot). She employs this characteristic in her future novels, but I will not mention these stories as to not ruin the enjoyment of these.
Agatha made wills and inheritance key ingredients in her numerous mysteries. Some stories involved elaborate subterfuge and deception, too. She included multiple wills in her stories to cloud the issue. This novel focuses on inheritance and Emily's will because the motive for murder lies there. Other novels involving inheritance and wills in Agatha's career include Sad Cypress, Hallowe'en Party, Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, Peril at End House, Taken at the Flood, and others.
Agatha's mysteries sometimes include fragmented conversations as furthering the plot, and giving clues, too. In this novel the maid Dorcas overhears a quarrel. That proves important--what was said at the time it was said. Interestingly enough, even Poirot hears a fragment of conversation later in his career (in Appointment with Death). Conversation can mislead us and Agatha employs it here and to much better effect in her later books (which I will remain silent about).
Agatha will use misleading conversation as a clue or for plot development but she might also purposely confuse the reader. She will make the reader think "It's this! Yes!", when in fact it's not. It's something else completely different like in Styles. Agatha also causes confusion when characters are using nouns or pronouns correctly (or not!) but the reader misinterprets it. It's a trick that's more raw here but she perfects it in her later novels to great effect. Agatha is not playing unfair, but rather it's part of the game we as readers play with her.
In this novel, Agatha is already adding some romance and love early on in her career. Many times it furthers the plot, adds character and personality, and motivates characters to do what they do. That last bit certainly is applicable to The Mysterious Affair at Styles. This is not just true for the character of Lawrence Cavendish but for his brother John and his wife Mary. Sometimes when it comes to affairs of the heart, Poirot refers to himself as "Papa Poirot". That nickname appears for the first time in this novel. He's always loved giving people his heartfelt blessings in their happiness and union. I've always felt Agatha was a romantic at heart and it shows here and in her other works. In his career, Poirot's solving cases and mending hearts.
Poirot and Hastings
This novel is not the first meeting between Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings. Hastings explains that he had met Poirot in Belgium before, with this Styles case being their first recorded. Early on in the novel we already learn of Poirot before being meeting the character. Christie already establishes the relationship of these two friends. Hastings has an admiration for Poirot's abilities ("a marvellous little fellow", Hastings says), yet also describes Poirot's methods as old fashioned.
It's funny how Hastings had this secret desire to be a detective for a profession. Certainly he was going to do detective work as he became the narrator for Poirot's cases. Hastings flattered himself that his first impressions or judgments were shrewd. He thinks this throughout the novels and short stories with Poirot. It aggravates Poirot when Hastings postulates an idea without thinking it earnestly. Hastings' conclusions are not accurate because he's too imaginative and lets the fantastical take over. At times, their exchanges are comical.
We learn a little about Hastings in the early chapters of the novel. We learn from Hastings that his friend John Cavendish was 15 years older than him. Hastings explains John was 45--that makes Hastings 30 years of age. (A reader can always surmise Poirot's age with this little detail.) He explains to Alfred Inglethorp and to the others that before the war, he worked for Lloyd's of London, the insurance company. He served as a captain in the Western Front in World War I. He spent several months at a convalescent home recovering from injuries when he met up with his friend John. Other information Hastings offers is that he has a female cousin who is a nurse.
Hastings describes Poirot with the famous first description of the celebrated sleuth:
"He was an extraordinary looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible, I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandyfied little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police. As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day."
Poirot states the greatest tool for crime solving is the mind, thanks to the "little gray cells". Agatha already has Poirot show this to be true, even in his first appearance. He's methodical. He looks at Emily Inglethorp's room in great interest at every clue he can find. He writes down questions (something he does regularly in his future novels) and asks them in turn to Hastings (and to the reader). He concentrates on the case by moving the clues as if they were puzzle pieces to create a whole picture. Even in this first novel Poirot simply sits in a chair working out the mystery in his mind and later builds a house of cards to concentrate. By now, Agatha establishes Poirot as a detective "thinker" who puts method and order as a high priority. This modus operandi of Poirot's is what makes him successful and is prevalent in all of his stories.
In my opinion, it was good of Christie to introduce Poirot this early on in the novel through Hastings. I don't see another way of both Hastings and Agatha introducing the reader to Poirot without Alfred and Mary asking about Hastings' work (before the war). I suppose Agatha could've had Hastings begin the novel talking to the reader about Poirot--that would've been awkward though. In the very beginning of the novel, Hastings already introduces himself and explains he was in the War, mentions Poirot already, says the Styles case was a sensational one, and talks already about John Cavendish and the family.
The statements of witnesses are all laid out, given throughout the novel and the events are put forth not in chronological order. We as readers are going to exercise our little grey cells. We are putting the puzzle pieces in the correct places. Emily has an argument with John at 4pm about his relationship with Mary. Then at 5pm Emily was greatly agitated. The emotion at 5pm had nothing to do with the 4pm scandal. Needing stamps, Emily asks Dorcas for them--that was a clue. Poirot says that the coffee cup drunk by Cynthia with a narcotic to knock her out was placed into a brass vase (done all by Mary). This cup was later found by Lawrence.
None of this action is shown but deduced by Poirot. This new information is sprung upon the reader. Is that an unfair omission by Christie? I say no, for every action of every character cannot be shown to the reader. Hastings is narrating and clearly he is not omnipresent. It also demonstrates the brilliance of Poirot. This is not the last time Christie does this. It is a Christie characteristic that shows in many of her mysteries. Agatha is a novice author here at this point. You could argue that there are faults in the novel where information and clues are not given. I already explained the chronology of the novel's events is weak, but I don't fault Agatha here in reference to all the confusion of the coffee cups.
Amongst the various clues, there was the green fabric caught on the bolt of Cynthia's door. Poirot said that it was from an armlet. He said he examined a tear in Mary Cavendish's armlet. I didn't spot that explained or shown in the book. I don't think Agatha included that, so are we to correctly guess that clue as a reader? Poirot says she claimed that Mary heard the crash of the little table in Emily's room in the inquest. That was a lie--and the reader can deduce that. Later Poirot tested that idea with Hastings when he didn't hear the sound of the crash.
Back to the drugging scheme of Mary's. That is why the strychnine poisoning took so long--the narcotic to induce sleep delayed the poison. Mary did this--whilst wearing the green land outfit and drugging both Cynthia and Emily to get that piece of paper Emily had. (Mary thought it was a confession about her husband John's infidelity which Emily refused to show. But it wasn't that.) Poirot explains why he had the cocoa sent to be analyzed not for strychnine but for a narcotic. That is why Poirot says Mary is a jealous woman and also why there's a missing cup. That's why he asks Lawrence about the missing cup and why he invited Mary to confess to him.
There are clever clues about Lawrence protecting Cynthia. He loved her. He saw the door bolt was unbolted (left by Mary) and it was he who crushed the coffee cup (because he knew it was Cynthia who took it to Emily). Curious thing as to Lawrence's attitude during the inquest. He kept on and on with the theory of death from natural causes. Confusing for the reader perhaps? Clever though for Christie, using this question throughout the novel. Would the reader think about the crushed coffee cup having a connection to Lawrence? As seen in this novel, Christie has multiple suspects tampering with the crime scene. This is only the first time in many instances where Christie's characters have a hand to play in the scene of a murder. Curious thing is that during the inquest Lawrence brings up the facts that the tonic that Emily takes has strychnine. He says that during his studies, he's learned that a cumulative effect of a drug over time causes death. This theory was quickly dismissed at the inquest by the testimonies of Emily's doctor (Doctor Wilkins) and the maid Dorcas. Well, with these two testimonies the theory of death by overdose has been refuted. Christie has now told us to dismiss this theory. So, we abandon this idea. And overdose is ruled out. This must be so, for this is an inquest!
There are a few "key" characters in the novel. Lawrence is one of them. So much of the mystery was centered on the character of Lawrence. He notices the door from Cynthia's room to Emily's was unbolted. He knew Cynthia prepared the bromide, suggested at the inquest that Emily's death could've been natural (to protect Cynthia), went in search of the hidden coffee cup to satisfy himself and Poirot, he mentions Emily took a tonic (which has strychnine in it), went through the poison cupboard at the hospital in Tadminster (also having strychnine), and "receives" the package for the fake black beard in his name.
Agatha provides two instances--through Poirot--where she is pointing an accusing finger at Evelyn Howard. After the inquest he said two people were speaking the truth. Hastings said John Cavendish and Evelyn Howard. Poirot was almost aghast at Hastings' suggestion that she was "so essentially honest--almost uncomfortably so." Poirot said one spoke the truth, not both. He was about to tell Hastings why Evelyn was't truthful but stopped himself.
The conversation Poirot had with Miss Howard was quite revealing--Poirot states Evelyn wishes to believe Alfred Inglethorp committed the crime, capable of such a heinous act but instinct says he did not. Poirot says to Evelyn she's been so vehement against Alfred Inglethorp because there's another name. She cries that's not true and she doesn't know why she has these thoughts. She says to Poirot "it's too monstrous, too impossible. It must be Alfred Inglethorp . . . I won't admit it even to myself. I must be mad to think of such a thing." Hastings is annoyed that Poirot will not explain what he and Miss Howard were discussing. So annoyed was Hastings in fact, that he lies coldly to Poirot that he's not annoyed. Does Poirot reveal the meaning of the conversation? He doesn't. Hastings speculates, and of course comes up with the wrong assumption. I believe Poirot was pointing his finger directly as Miss Howard as the architect of the crime. It is up to the reader to trust his or her own instincts (or the one Hastings provides).
How about Doctor Bauerstein? Is he important, a "key" character? My answer is yes: he's a red herring. I believe that in mystery, a character herself/himself can be a red herring. A red herring is a clue (or person) intended to be misleading or distracting. He's important to the story. He provided important testimony about Emily's poisoning because he was an expert. Too much of an expert, perhaps. Since he's knowledgeable, does he apply his expertise of poison firsthand? I don't think it's a coincidence he's a tall bearded man like Alfred Inglethorp. Bauerstein has misled us because he's arrested, but not as a murderer. He's revealed to be a German spy and perhaps we now need to point our finger at someone else. Bauerstein is distracting because he seemingly causes a rift between Mary and John. Cynthia tells Hastings that Bauerstein is a "great friend of Mary's" to which John quickly changes the subject and has a face of disgust. Hastings describes the doctor as having a sinister face. Agatha gets the reader to dislike him when Hastings describes him as such, and then Hastings follows that comment with "for a moment I had a premonition of approaching evil".
Two things I thought of from the ending. Firstly, Agatha is going to not only send a suspect to trial and have court scenes in future books, but also have a wrongly accused suspect be arrested (for example, Sad Cypress and Witness for the Prosecution). The second, Agatha also uses Poirot to bring people together--good ole Papa Poirot. He could have saved John from having a trial, but didn't for Mary's sake. Poirot decided to side with a woman's happiness. Says Poirot, "The happiness of one man and one woman is the greatest thing in all the world." His belief in this happiness between a couple has been expressed in subsequent books.
Legacy of Styles
I do love this novel. It's not perfect. For a first-time published author, it is perfect. As already explained, this novel laid out the foundation for what's to come. And what is that? Superb novels in Poirot's career, such as: The Murder of Roger Ackryod, Death in the Clouds, Murder on the Orient Express, Five Little Pigs, Hercule Poirot's Christmas, The ABC Murders, Taken at the Flood, and Death on the Nile. That's just Poirot stories. Styles is the groundwork for other classics like And Then There Were None, Crooked House, A Murder is Announced, Sleeping Murder, Ordeal by Innocence, The Pale Horse, Endless Night, and others.
Poirot concludes the novel by saying, "We may hunt together again, who knows?" He turns out to be prophetic. They do indeed hunt together for many stories to come. And it's not just Poirot's career. This applies to Agatha's career, too. All thanks to a mystery novel titled The Mysterious Affair at Styles.