A few months ago Kerrie who is hosting the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge & Blog Carnival prompted me to look for a way to re-visit Agatha Christie’s work, something I hadn’t done for more than 20 years. I picked up a copy of an audio book of David Suchet narrating Death on the Nile and enjoyed experiencing an old favourite in the new format so much that I sought out some more. Now, with the first of Ms Christie’s books to have been published, I come to the end of my mini-challenge to listen to all of the Christie works I can find narrated by David Suchet (though apparently he has recorded more but these have not yet been transferred to a format I can use in 2010 so I might return in the future). It’s the 17th book that counts towards the 2010 Audio Book Challenge (for which I have to listen to 20 books by the end of the year).
Emily Cavendish inherited Styles Court in Essex from the father of John and Lawrence Cavendish to whom she is a loving stepmother though she is recently remarried to the much younger Alfred Inglethorp whom the Cavendish boys do not like. John Cavendish invites his old friend Arthur Hastings, invalided home from the First World War, to recuperate at the house where he spent many happy days as a young boy. When the new Mrs Inglethorp dies of strychnine poisoning Hastings urges John Cavendish to secure the assistance of Hercule Poirot who is a well-known Detective of Hastings’ acquaintance and who, as a Belgian refugee from the War, has been billeted in the nearby village of Styles St Mary. What remains is to discover how Poirot will arrive at the solution to the mystery.
We meet the main characters of the Poirot novels who fans will later come to love including Lieutenant (later Captain) Arthur Hastings who narrates the tale and, like Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes novels, provides the role of a slow-on-the-uptake, slightly foolish person who Poirot can explain things to. Inspector Japp is also present to essentially carry out Poirot’s suggestions whenever a formal police presence is required. And of course the funny little Belgian detective is introduced with a description that enables readers to picture him well
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. Even if everything on his face was covered, the tips of moustache and the pink-tipped nose would be visible. 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 dandified 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.
Poirot’s superior intellect and detecting abilities are also evident from the very beginning of the book as he immediately spots vital evidence in the room where Mrs Inglethorpe died and starts to make connections between events that no one else can see the significance of. The logic and cleverness of Christie’s best plots is already present in this, her first published novel.
We also see Christie’s characteristic populating of the story with an array of interesting people, almost all of whom have motive for committing the crime in question so that readers will normally choose several culprits as they progress through the book. Is it John Cavendish whose wife Mary appears to be consorting with a German spy? Or Cynthia Murdoch who works at the hospital pharmacy and has ready access to poisons? Or Alfred Inglethorp who wishes to be rid of his much older wife? Having half-forgotten the culprit despite having read the book years ago I found myself suspecting several other people on my way to the inevitable denouement.
In some ways the classic whodunnit has become clichéd these days but Agatha Christie was one of the original creators of the genre and this country house mystery with its plethora of clues, red herrings and plot twists remains as engaging and suspenseful today as when it was published. The Mysterious Affair at Styles was written, reportedly as part of a bet, in 1916 and published in 1920. It really is damned impressive how well it stacks up given its age and its place in Ms Christie’s canon. I doubt there are many authors who have produced such a solidly accomplished first novel that is also perfectly readable and enjoyable ninety years after its release.
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My rating 4.5/5
Publisher: Audio Partners[this edition 1999 original edition 1920] ISBN: N/A; Length: 6hours 8minutes
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