Ah, Agatha Christie. The Queen of Mystery. While Arthur Conan Doyle may have invented the whodunnit mystery story with Sherlock Holmes, she was the one who refined it to what it is today. Her stories are a masterclass in writing surprising, unexpected twists that, while completely shocking, still makes total sense in retrospect. Truly, she was a master of the craft.
This week, I’m gonna fulfill my murder mystery needs with one of the works of the woman who made it what it is. But that begs the question: which one should it be? And Then There Were None? The Secret Adversary? That one episode of Doctor Who that had a giant was for some reason?
Ultimately, I decided to go with one that I hadn’t really hard much of before reading. One that I wasn’t already familiar with inside and out. Thus, I came upon this. The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
Which I only just found out was her first published novel. Holy shit.
The plot is simple. In a country manor at Essex, elderly lady of the house Emily Inglethorp is poisoned to death. Protagonist Arthur Hastings enlists the help of his old friend Hercule Poirot, a legendary detective. Together, the two investigate the scene and narrow down their list of suspects, all to find which member of the victim’s family had murdered her.
Now, you can definitely tell that this was Christie’s first work. It’s still very impressive and shocking, don’t get me wrong. But it does feel a little bit bloated as compared to some of her later novels.
Mainly in the number of clues. Red herrings are a necessity in a good mystery story. But put too many of them in there, and the story just becomes convoluted. This is a problem that many classic Sherlock Holmes novels had; there were often so many false leads that it became impossible to find the true one. And sadly, The Mysterious Affair at Styles also suffers from this problem.
There is way too much going on around this mystery. Several love affairs, unhappy marriages, multiple varieties of poisons, two separate drinks in which they could’ve been administered, the list goes on. While it all ultimately comes together, it doesn’t do so in a neat and clean package. It’s more like when you haphazardly fold your laundry to get it over with; technically organized, but still a bit messy.
The characters within this mystery are a mixed bag. Poirot and Hastings are fantastic characters, a perfect Holmes-Watson dynamic. Each scene they share together is a delight. Plus, Hastings actually has some agency in the story, which is more than poor Dr. Watson got in most Sherlock Holmes outings. It’s refreshing to see the perspective character actually get to do something, rather than just follow the lead detective around like a lost puppy.
Also, watching Hastings keep getting rejected by women while Poirot just shakes his head is really funny to me.
Everyone involved in the mystery itself, on the other hand? They don’t really have a sense of presence. Most of them are very forgettable, lacking in the necessary time in the spotlight to flesh them out. Of all the suspects, only about three of them are given the proper time to actually become suspicious.
All in all, this book is definitely a little rough around the edges. But it’s still a damn enjoyable murder mystery. It’s a bit messy, but it’s still shocking and engaging enough to be worth the read. If you haven’t checked out Christie’s first work yet, I’d recommend you give it a shot.
If only so you could get everything out of her next murder mystery.