Saturday, 9 April 2011

Agathon #1: The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)

Tansy and I have taken the challenge to read every book written by Agatha Christie, in order of publication and we’re blogging as we go along. We’re calling it the Agathon! You can find Tansy’s post over here if you’d like to read the conversation going on in the comments. As a warning, there may be spoilers, though they will be signposted.

1 - The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)
Featuring: Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings, Inspector Japp

TANSY SAYS: Wow, I was not expecting the first person narrator. It’s all very Watson and Holmes, isn’t it? I rather loved Hastings, silly rabbit that he is, and the way we get to see Poirot through his eyes. Also his tendency to fall in love with unattainable women and accidentally propose to entirely different women! It’s all a bit Dorothy Sayers, really. Is that heresy?

I knew nothing about Hastings going into this - I’ve never read a book with him as narrator before and it’s funny to see Poirot as part of this odd partnership. Also, I’m a little taken aback to see Poirot described as so VERY old, retired already... goodness. Doesn’t he have another 50 years of crime solving to go?

I always enjoy the mechanics of Christie’s plots, and it’s interesting to see that even at this early stage, she’s trying to pull a bait-and-switch on the reader, messing with their expectations. I thought it was funny that the first chapter has a very post-modern discussion about murder mysteries, and how they work, and that the whole plot of this one hinges on this being a universe of clues and unnecessarily complicated murder plans - which do not go entirely to plan! It always amuses me that it’s the murderer’s errors that make things harder for the detective, because it’s unpredictable. I was genuinely surprised that the story went as far as a trial, as I’m not used to murder mysteries having that kind of time frame, but of course that was sneaky, too.

Sneaky, sneaky lady.

Oooh, and I was delighted to see all the professional references to poisons, knowing that Christie herself worked in a dispensary during the war. Wonder if all that knowledge will come in handy for her in the future?

I read this one as an eBook on the iPad, from Project Gutenberg, and don’t recommend this edition at all - there’s a fairly VITAL clue missed, a note which Poirot and Hastings find, and which was evidently supposed to be depicted as an illustration. I got to find out what it said several chapters later, but it was still very annoying. Only crumpled second hand paperbacks for me in future!

KATHRYN SAYS: And so the Agathon begins! I was quite surprised to find that despite being familiar with the title, I don’t actually think I’ve read this one before! In a lot of ways this is a very typical Christie/Poirot read – action occurs at a country house, wills and money are involved, and there is a twist at the end (which, actually I was glad to be surprised with because for a while there Christie looked like she went down a relatively staid path). The book also culminates in a very traditional Poirot-gathers-everyone-in-a-room-and-tells-em-who-dunnit, and I was pleased to see that too. Actually, it will be interesting to see if any of the Poirot books don’t include that scene – certainly I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

One disappointment for me was that I would have really loved to have seen how Hastings and Poirot actually met, and how they got to know each other (and what Hasting really thought of Poirot at the beginning!). However, it seems that they met ‘off-screen’ before this first episode – indeed even Japp turns up having worked with Poirot back in 1904. I will have to see if anything is mentioned in other books, but Poirot’s journey from Belgium to England also seems have been glossed over, though I assume WWI was a driving force for the move.

The Mysterious Affair at StylesHastings’s pathway through the murder was a quite typical one for him - he manages to misinterpret most of the clues, but gives Poirot a spark of inspiration through an unexpected remark, and he is ultimately kept in the dark by Poirot so he doesn’t ruin the catch (poor Hastings!). Even in this first book a lot of Poirot’s particular characteristics seems quite developed, though there are certain character traits that pop up later that are not in here – his love of crème de cassis, and his obsession with his moustaches for example. I did, however find it amusing, given his fastidiousness, that Poroit one house-shared with seven other Belgians. I can imagine it must have driven him quite mad!

I borrowed my copy of ‘The Mysterious Affairs of Styles’ from the library (Ulversoft Large Print Edition no less!), and it’s quite nice to begin this way because most of my Christie exposure came in my teens when I would always check out the ‘C’ shelves at the library to see if there were any Christies there that I hadn’t read. From my research for the Agathon, the library system still has most of her books and most of them are checked out, being read right now. Also, it wasn’t til I gathered a whole lot Christie paperbacks (Fontana mostly) that I realised how absolutely cracked out some of the cover art is, and the mish-mash of clues represented on the cover of this hardback is no exception.

2. The Secret Adversary (1922)
Featuring: first appearance of Tommy and Tuppence; Inspector Japp (mentioned)
3. The Murder on the Links (1923)
Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings
4. The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)
Anne Beddingfeld, Colonel Race


Tanya said...

I'm (tantan from bc) enjoying reading along ladies. :-)

I can think of one Agatha that I don't think has the everyone-together-in-a-room scene at the end, but I'm not certain so I'll have to hunt the book out and double-check.

K said...

Glad to hear you're enjoying them Tanya!

Actually, I've just finished book 3 - 'Murder on the Links' and there was not together in a room scene at the end of that one - I didin't expect to be foiled so soon!! ;-)