The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a detective novel by Agatha Christie. It was written in 1916 and was first published by John Lane in the US in October 1920 and in the UK by The Bodley Head (John Lane's UK company) on February 1 1921. The US edition retailed at $2.00 and the UK edition at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6).
It is Christie's first published novel, and introduces Hercule Poirot, Chief Inspector Japp and Captain Hastings. The story is told in first person by Hastings, and features many of the elements that, thanks to Christie, have become icons of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. It is set in a large, isolated country manor; there are a half-dozen suspects, most of whom are hiding facts about themselves; the book includes maps of the house, the murder scene and a drawing of a fragment of a will; and there are a number of red herrings and surprise plot twists.
The novel is set in England during World War I at Styles, an Essex country manor (also the setting of Curtain, Poirot's last case). The manor is owned by the wealthy widow Emily Inglethorp, who has recently remarried to a much younger man, Alfred Inglethorp. Emily's two stepsons, John and Lawrence Cavendish, as well as John's wife Mary and several other people, also live at Styles.
Late one night, the residents of Styles wake to find Emily Inglethorp dying of what proves to be strychnine poisoning. Captain Hastings, a house guest, enlists the help of his friend Hercule Poirot, who is staying in the nearby village, Styles St. Mary. Poirot pieces together events surrounding the murder. On the day she was killed, Emily Inglethorp was overheard arguing with someone, most likely her husband, Alfred, or her stepson, John. Afterwards, she seemed quite distressed and, apparently, made a new will - which no one can find. She ate little at dinner and retired early to her room with her document case. The case was later forced open by someone and a document removed. Alfred Inglethorp left Styles earlier in the evening and stayed overnight in the nearby village, so was not present when the poisoning occurred. Nobody can explain how or when the strychnine was administered to Mrs. Inglethorp.
At first, Alfred is the prime suspect. He has the most to gain financially from his wife's death, and, since he is so much younger than Emily was, the Cavendishes already despise him as a fortune hunter. Evelyn Howard, Emily's companion, seems to hate him most of all. His behaviour, too, is suspicious; he openly purchased strychnine in the village before Emily was poisoned, and although he denies it, he refuses to provide an alibi. The police are keen to arrest him, but Poirot intervenes by proving he could not have purchased the poison. Scotland Yard police later arrest Emily Inglethorp’s oldest stepson, John Cavendish. He inherits under the terms of her will, and there is evidence to suggest he also had obtained poison.
Poirot clears Cavendish by proving it was, after all, Alfred Inglethorp who committed the crime, assisted by Evelyn Howard, who turns out to be his lover, not his enemy. The guilty pair poisoned Emily by adding a precipitating agent, bromine, to her regular evening medicine, causing its normally innocuous strychnine constituents to sink to the bottom of the bottle where they were finally consumed in a single, lethal dose. Their plan had been for Alfred Inglethorp to incriminate himself with false evidence, which could then be refuted at his trial. Once acquitted, due to double jeopardy he could not be tried for the crime a second time should any genuine evidence against him be discovered.
The Times Literary Supplement of February 3, 1921 gave the book an extremely enthusiastic, if short, review which stated that "The only fault this story has is that it is almost too ingenious". It went on to describe the basic set-up of the plot but gave away the game that there was more than one murderer. It concluded: "It is said to be the author's first book, and the result of a bet about the possibility of writing a detective story in which the reader would not be able to spot the criminal. Every reader must admit that the bet was won".
The New York Times Book Review of December 26, 1920 was also impressed, beginning, "Though this may be the first published book of Miss Agatha Christie, she betrays the cunning of an old hand" and concluding, "You must wait for the last-but-one chapter in the book for the last link in the chain of evidence that enabled Mr. Poirot to unravel the whole complicated plot and lay the guilt where it really belonged. And you may safely make a wager with yourself that until you have heard M. Poirot's final word on the mysterious affair at Styles, you will be kept guessing at its solution and will most certainly never lay down this most entertaining book." Poirot was described as a "delightful little old man".
The novel's review in The Sunday Times of February 20, 1921 quoted the publisher's promotional blurb concerning Christie writing the book as the result of a bet that she would not be able to do so without the reader being able to guess the murderer, then said, "Personally we did not find the "spotting" so very difficult, but we are free to admit that the story is, especially for a first adventure in fiction, very well contrived, and that the solution of the mystery is the result of logical deduction. The story, moreover, has no lack of movement, and the several characters are well drawn.
The contributor who wrote his column under the pseudonym of "A Man of Kent" in the February 10, 1921 issue of the Christian newspaper The British Weekly praised the novel but was generous in giving away the identity of the murderers when he said," It will rejoice the heart of all who truly relish detective stories, from Mr. McKenna downwards. I have heard that this is Miss Christie's first book, and that she wrote it in response to a challenge. If so, the feat was amazing, for the book is put together so deftly that I can remember no recent book of the kind which approaches it in merit. It is well written, well proportioned, and full of surprises. When does the reader first suspect the murderer? For my part, I made up my mind from the beginning that the middle-aged husband of the old lady was in every way qualified to murder her, and I refused to surrender this conviction when suspicion of him is scattered for a moment. But I was not in the least degree prepared to find that his accomplice was the woman who pretended to be a friend. I ought to say, however, that an expert in detective stories with whom I discussed it, said he was convinced from the beginning that the true culprit was the woman whom the victim in her lifetime believed to be her staunchest friend. I hope I have not revealed too much of the plot. Lovers of good detective stories will, without exception, rejoice in this book.
The Bodley Head quoted excerpts from this review in future books by Christie but understandably did not use those passages which gave away the identity of the culprits.
Robert Barnard: "Christie's debut novel, from which she made £25 and John Lane made goodness knows how much. The Big House in wartime, with privations, war work and rumours of spies. Her hand was over-liberal with clues and red herrings, but it was a highly cunning hand, even at this stage.
"In general The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a considerable achievement for a first-off author. The country-house-party murder is a stereotype in the detective-story genre which Christie makes no great use of. Not her sort of occasion, at least later in life, and perhaps not really her class. The family party is much more in her line, and this is what we have here. This is one of the few Christies anchored in time and space: we are in Essex, during the First World War. The family is kept together under one roof by the exigencies of war and of a matriarch demanding rather than tyrannical. - not one of her later splendid monsters, but a sympathetic and lightly shaded characterization. If the lifestyle of the family still seems to us lavish, even wasteful, nevertheless we have the half sense that we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the Edwardian summer, that the era of country-house living has entered its final phase. Christie takes advantage of this end-of-an-era feeling in several ways: while she uses the full range of servants and their testimony, a sense of decline, of breakup is evident; feudal attitudes exist, but they crack easily. The marriage of the matriarch with a mysterious nobody is the central out-of-joint event in an intricate web of subtle changes. The family is lightly but effectively characterized, and on the outskirts of the story are the villagers, the small businessmen, and the surrounding farmers – the nucleus of Mayhem Parva.
It is, too, a very clever story, with clues and red herrings falling thick and fast. We are entering the age when plans of the house were an indispensable aid to the aspirant solver of detective stories, and when cleverness was more important than suspense. But here we come to a problem that Agatha Christie has not yet solved, for cleverness over the long length easily becomes exhausting, and too many clues tend to cancel each other out, as far as reader interest is concerned. These were problems which Conan Doyle never satisfactorily overcame, but which Christie would..
The adaptation was generally faithful to the novel, although some minor characters were left out. A slight mistake is, however, that it is left unexplained how the door of the late Mrs. Inglethorp's room (that had been broken in at her death) is fixed in the early morning before Poirot's arrival (which could prevent the other residents from altering the traces).
Adapator: Clive Exton
Director: Ross Devenish
David Suchet as Hercule Poirot
Hugh Fraser as Arthur Hastings
Philip Jackson as Chief Inspector Japp
Gillian Barge as Emily Agnes Inglethorp
Michael Cronin as Alfred Inglethorp
David Rintoul as John Cavendish
Anthony Calf as Lawrence Cavendish
Beatie Edney as Mary Cavendish
Joanna McCallum as Evelyn Howard
Allie Byrne as Cynthia Murdoch
Tim Munro as Edwin Mace
Donald Pelmar as Judge
Morris Perry as Wells
Tim Preece as Phillips, KC
David Savile as Summerhaye
Eric Stovell as Chemist
Caroline Swift as Nurse
Merelina Kendall as Mrs Dainty
Ken Robertson as Army Officer
Robert Vowles as Driver of Hired Car
Michael D. Roberts as Tindermans
Michael Godley as Dr Wilkins
Penelope Beaumont as Mrs Raikes
Lala Lloyd as Dorcas
Bryan Coleman as a Vicar
Gordon Dulieu as the Clerk of the Court
Jeffrey Robert as the Jury Foreman
The novel was adapted as a five part serial for BBC Radio 4 in 2005. John Moffatt reprised his role of Poirot. The serial was broadcast weekly from Monday, September 5 to Monday, October 3 at 11.30am to 12.00pm. All five episodes were recorded on Monday, April 4, 2005 at Bush House. This version retained the first-person narration by the character of Captain Hastings.
Adapator: Michael Bakewell
Producer: Enyd Williams
John Moffatt as Hercule Poirot
Simon Williams as Arthur Hastings
Philip Jackson as Chief Inspector Japp
Jill Balcon as Emily Inglethorp
Hugh Dickson as Alfred Inglethorp
Susan Jameson as Mary Cavendish
Nicholas Boulton as Lawrence Cavendish
Hilda Schroder as Dorcas
Annabelle Dowler as Cynthia Murdoch and Annie
Nichola McAuliffe as Evelyn Howard
Sean Arnold as John Cavendish
Richard Syms as Mr Wells
Ioan Meredith as Mr Phillips
Michael Mears as Sir Ernest Heavyweather
Harry Myers as Mr Mace
Richard Katz as Costumer's assistant
Peter Howell as the Coroner
Robert Portal as Dr Bauerstein
Don McCorkindale as Summerhayes and a Rustic
The novel received its first true publication as an eighteen-part serialisation in The Times newspaper's Colonial Edition (aka The Weekly Times) from February 27 (Issue 2252) to June 26, 1920 (Issue 2269). This version of the novel mirrored the published version with no textual differences and included the maps and illustrations of handwriting examples used in the novel. At the end of the serialisation an advert appeared in the newspaper which announced "This is a brilliant mystery novel, which has had the unique distinction for a first novel of being serialised in The Times Weekly Edition. Mr John Lane is now preparing a large edition in volume form, which will be ready immediately." although another line of the advert stated that the book would be ready in August. In the event, it was first published by John Lane in the US in October 1920 and was not published in the UK by The Bodley Head until the following year. Some sources state that the exact date of the UK publication was January 26 1921, others state February 1, however the English Catalogue of Books confirms the latter month of release.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles later made publishing history by being one of the first ten books to be published by Penguin Books when they were launched on July 30, 1935. The book was Penguin Number 6.
The book's dedication reads: "To my Mother".
Christie's mother, Clarissa ("Clara") Boehmer Miller (1854 -1926), was a strong influence on her life and someone she was extremely close to, especially after the death of her father in 1901. It was whilst Christie was ill (in about 1908) that her mother suggested that she write a story. The result was The House of Beauty, now a lost work but one which hesitantly started her writing career. (Christie later revised this story as The House of Dreams and it was published in issue 74 of The Sovereign Magazine in January 1926 and many years later in book form in While the Light Lasts and Other Stories in 1997).
Christie also dedicated her debut novel as Mary Westmacott, Giant's Bread (1930), to her mother who, by this time, had passed away.
The blurb on the inside flap of the dustwrapper of the first edition reads:
"This novel was originally written as the result of a bet, that the author, who had previously never written a book could not compose a detective novel in which the reader would not be able to "spot" the murderer, although having access to the same clues as the detective. The author has certainly won her bet, and in addition to a most ingenious plot of the best detective type she has introduced a new type of detective in the shape of a Belgian. This novel has had the unique distinction for a first book of being accepted by the Times as a serial for its weekly edition".
The Mysterious Affair at Styles was the only first edition of Christie's to be published by The Bodley Head which carried such a blurb on its dustwrapper.
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