I'm a long time Agatha Christie fan, and I recently decided to re-read some of her novels.
'The Mysterious Affair at Styles' is Agatha Christie's first published book, and it's less sophisticated than her later work. The story does, however, introduce three well-known Christie characters: Hercule Poirot, Captain Hastings, and Inspector Japp.
As the book opens Hastings has been injured in WWI and is recuperating at Styles Court, a manor house in the country. Styles Court belongs to the Cavendish family, and is currently occupied by a diverse assemblage of people, including: Emily Inglethorpe - the widow of the late Mr. Cavendish - who inherited a lifetime interest in the house AND a large sum of money; Emily's new - much younger - husband, Alfred Inglethorpe; Emily's adult stepson, John Cavendish; John's wife Mary; John's bachelor brother Lawrence; Evelyn Howard - Emily's longtime friend and companion; Cynthia Murdoch - the orphaned daughter of family friends; and Dorcas, the maid.
There's a tense atmosphere at Styles because of simmering resentments and secrets. For example:
John Cavendish - who'll inherit the manor house when his stepmother dies - thinks it should have been his all along; in addition, John is suspected of dallying with the pretty wife of a neighboring farmer.
John's wife Mary, in turn, spends a lot of time with Dr. Bauerstein - the local toxicologist who hails from Germany. To add to this 'quadrangle', Captain Hastings has a crush on beautiful Mary.
Evelyn Howard hates Alfred Inglethorpe, convinced he only married Emily for her money.
Alfred Inglethorpe's thick beard looks like a disguise, and he has long poorly explained absences.
Lawrence Cavendish resents Cynthia Murdoch, who's very aware of her status as an 'outsider'; Cynthia supports herself with a job in a pharmacy.....and she seems to be the only one of this bunch who's actually employed.
As it happens, a group of Belgian refugees, including Hercule Poirot, are living in a house near Styles Court - an arrangement facilitated by Emily Inglethorpe. Hastings is thrilled to see Poirot and lauds the former policeman's detective skills - so it's clear they've met before.
In the midst of the testy atmosphere at Styles Court Emily Inglethorpe dies from strychnine poisoning - in a locked room. Hastings suspects foul play and prevails on Poirot to investigate, and the Belgian complies.....with Hastings as his partner. To round out the 'detective trio', Inspector Japp is assigned to the case.
During the investigation Poirot learns that Emily had a loud fight with an unknown male on the day before she died; Emily's latest will is missing; there have been shenanigans with Emily's locked document box; someone bought strychnine at the town's pharmacy; coffee and cocoa were consumed on the evening of the murder....and a cup has been smashed; there's something suspicious about Emily's medicine packets; etc.
As often happens in these stories, Poirot makes shrewd deductions about everything.....but doesn't share them; Hastings tries to demonstrate his investigative skills but misinterprets most of the clues; and Japp hares off after the wrong suspect(s).
The book is chock full of misdirection and red herrings, but - in the end - Poirot gathers the suspects and reveals the truth.
The book is just so-so. Though Christie's nascent writing skills are apparent, the plot is overly convoluted (to the point of unbelievability); Poirot talks too much (yak yak yak); and there's a whiff of anti-Semitism and classism (though this is common in Christie's books......a sign of her times.)
If you're a long time Agatha Christie fan, this book would make a fun re-read; and if you're new to the famous author's works, this is a good place to start.
Rating: 3 stars