Whenever I start a 'new' Agatha Christie mystery I tell myself that I am going to note the clues down properly so I can solve the crime. She has written some tricky stories, challenging to unravel, but she always gives the reader a fighting chance to uncover the murderer fair and square. (Well, there might be an occasional exception, but her novels are always puzzles that you can piece together if you are diligent enough). Alas her first published novel and her first Hercule Poirot mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, once again stumped me.
Agatha Christie is so good at diverting attention and dropping in red herrings. You are looking in one direction, crossing out suspects left and right, sure you are on the right track, but while you are looking in one place the murderer just walks across the stage right in front of your eyes grinning at you. And you are none the wiser. Of course when all is said and done and Hercule or Miss Marple calmly explains the mystery away you just think to yourself, now how did I miss that. It was obvious all along.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920 and was generally well received. Apparently the story was first serialized in the Times and a little piece of trivia for you--it was one of the first ten books published by Penguin when it begin in 1935. Agatha Christie novels really are true puzzles. There are bits about the personal lives of the characters, in particular the suspects, but I'd say her novels are much more about the sorting out of the crime rather than developing the characters. There are a core number that return again and again yet it doesn't really seem to matter which order you read the mysteries as there is not really a lot of detail about their personal lives or backstories. And while there are hints to time and place, but other than as elements that have to do with the mystery, her stories are not really social critiques or historical observations.
The story takes place during WWI at Styles Court in Essex. I don't think Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple ever narrate their stories in first person (though I might be mistaken in this). In this novel it is Poirot's friend, Hastings (is his first name ever given in this story? I don't think so, or I didn't note it down), who narrates the story. Hastings is an interesting man. He almost seems a bit of a rival of Poirot in terms of wanting to solve the crime and gets a little frustrated with Poirot when he won't fill in details. But it is all done good-naturedly. Hastings has met up with his old chum John Cavendish of Styles who invites him down to this country home and after the murder Poirot, a Belgian refugee of the War, has joined the group.
Our victim is John Cavendish's stepmother Emily Inglethorpe. John is a barrister with a gorgeous wife, and his younger brother Lawrence is a doctor-turned writer. John would have been set to inherit the manor house had not his father willed it to his second wife for the duration of her life. There is a bit of animosity, but they would likely have gotten on well enough with her had she not remarried a much younger Alfred Inglethorpe whom everyone is sure is just a fortune hunter. He is Emily's junior by more than twenty years though seems pretty devoted to her. He is a little odd with this great black beard. Lady Emily is known as the Lady Bountiful with her work with the community. Her friend and dedicated factotum is Evelyn (Evie) Howard who acts as secretary and is fiercely protective of Emily. As a matter of fact she loathes Alfred, certain he is only using Emily for her wealth and status. Emily has a young protegé, Cynthia Murdoch, who works in the Red Cross dispensary.
There is a twist to this mystery/murder. Emily goes into convulsions behind the locked doors of her bedroom. It is obvious that she is in some sort of distress but no one can get to her in time as the locked out of her rooms. And after the coroner has had a chance to examine the body it is determined she died of strychnine poisoning. And as you can see there is a full cast of suspects. Young husband? Either of two stepsons? A daughter-in-law? A young woman with access to medications? Someone else entirely? There are other peripheral characters introduced. There are cups of cocoa and coffee. A torn up letter later concluded to be a will. Motives abound, but with Emily in a locked room who had access to her? The husband was not even on the estate when the death occurred.
Oh, so tricky. But mere child's play once Poirot has looked at it all from all the angles and questioned everyone. I would need a flow chart to keep it all straight, but our wily detective (did you know he was a policeman in Belgium? I didn't), with the agility of a grasshopper pieces it all together in his head--such brain power does he possess!
Agatha Christie always tells a cracking good story and this one was no exception. I do love a good vintage crime novel and plan on reading more this year (more Agatha, and maybe something by Margery Allingham or Ngaio Marsh or Mignon Eberhart and definitely something by Josephine Tey). The Mysterious Affair at Styles was my February prompt (these prompts are turning out to be so much better than any other formal list I have tried to read from in the past). I have already turned my sights on to March and will be sharing my selection in just a couple of days!