It has been ages since I read a Poirot novel. Poirot is my favourite fictional detective. So I thought I should start again from the beginning, with his debut in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It is at once classic Christie with so many of the nascent attributes that would become hallmarks of Poirot’s career. Nevertheless, it is also much rougher and undeniably an early work, with much looser plotting and characterization than some of the books that come afterwards.
Much of one’s opinion of the book rests upon one’s opinion of the narrator. Captain Hastings is the most famous narrator of Poirot’s cases, even though (much to my surprise) he actually narrates few of the novels. He’s probably iconic because he is the Dr Watson to Poirot’s Sherlock Holmes; Hastings is a bit of dolt, and when present, he serves as a perfect foil to Poirot’s methodical, analytical nature. Christie showcases this perfectly in this, their debut: Hastings, fancying himself every bit the detective, jumps to conclusions and allows Poirot to lead him down blind alleys of thought. His attitude towards women prevents him from reliably evaluating whether they could be the murderer. Poirot repeatedly insults Hastings using backhanded compliments, and this flies right over Hastings’ head.
Still, as way of introduction to Hercule Poirot, Hastings is effective. In addition to offering such a stark contrast in wits and temperament, Hastings is full of admiration for Poirot, even if he occasionally declares that Poirot is obviously getting old and past his prime as a detective. (I feel sorry for Hastings, because Christie clearly understands dramatic irony and is determined to wring as much from this man as she possibly can.) It’s Hastings who essentially gets Poirot involved in this case, singing his praises both to the reader and to John Cavendish. I suspect that Christie wanted Hastings to be the English everyman through whom readers could enjoy, from a distance, the quaint foreign idiosyncrasies of the Belgian Poirot.
When it comes to the actual mystery of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, this is far from the most substantial or interesting of Christe’s novels. The mystery is fairly straightforward, with only a few red herrings. I’m generally not a fan of mysteries that employ tricky legal concepts either, but I suppose it would have thrilled some readers.
The highlight of the novel has to be how Poirot handles the climax and resolution of the case. He doesn’t just find and reveal the guilty party; he does so in a way that helps to heal the wounds of the people at Styles and bring them closer together. This is intentional on his part—in the denouement he explains to Hastings how he could have helped acquit one of the characters falsely accused of the murder, but that he let the trial continue for a little longer because it helped the accused reconcile with his loved one. The reason why I love this is that it shows us another side to Poirot. Despite being portrayed as analytical and devoted to logic and order, Poirot clearly has a softer, more human side that is sympathetic to the needs of the heart. This is Christie’s most deft characterization, far above the generally stereotypical nature of the other characters, and it sets the tone for the rest of Poirot’s career.
Christie pretty much singlehandedly created the country house murder mystery genre that feels so quaint and comfortable to modern readers who are so far removed from that milieu. The Mysterious Affair at Styles is in many ways the prototype, then, and it shows. This is not where I would recommend a casual reader pick up Poirot; reading his cases in order are not really all that essential. For the Poirot fan, of course, this is required reading, especially because he returns to Styles in his final case.