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the mysterious affair at styles

28 november 2019

Hercule Poirot will soon be 100 – or rather, since he was basically retired when he started his English-language career, I suppose he'll be well over 150. The Belgian sleuth first appeared in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), which has long been in the public domain and is thus free on several e-book platforms. I figured I'd read it, in the interests of completism and being lulled to sleep at night.

Styles is an archetypal murder mystery. A country house, a wealthy testatrix with a penchant for changing her will, various wannabe heirs at one another's throats, a gold-digging new husband, our narrator Hastings in the midst of it all, and nearby, without the slightest attempt at plausibility, a semi-retired Belgian master detective.

When Mrs. Inglethorp collapses from a fatal dose of strychnine, things don't look good for said gold-digging Mr. Inglethorp. But everybody else in the house seems to have a motive for the murder, including two stepsons, the wife of one of them, loyal retainers, and a sinister expert on strychnine who (as Christie's persistent anti-Semitism prompts Hastings to inform us) is an adventuring Jew.

Poirot, as is sometimes his wont, seems to pay little attention to the maelstrom of motives, which in any case is so overdetermining as to throw little light on the case. Instead he begins to examine a set of clues that include coffee cups, cocoa cups, candle-grease stains, jimmied coffres-forts, strychnine vials, pantomime beards, and scraps of green fabric torn from women's clothing. Poirot's solution to the mystery involves a concatenation of poisons, traces, plots, counter-plots, and precise timing that is all frankly somewhat insane. At one point, to steady his nerves, the great Belgian starts building a house of cards. He does this apparently just to annoy Hastings, but it's an emblematic moment. The Poirot solution to many a murder case reads like a verbal house of cards. The slightest miscalculation will send it toppling. But he, Hercule Poirot, never miscalculates.

The characters are forgettable, the ideologies dubious, the plot absurd, and the Poirot series would get a lot better, but The Mysterious Affair at Styles remains readable enough after a century. Many another best-seller from the period has passed beyond the bounds of bearability, so that's saying quite a lot.

Christie, Agatha. The Mysterious Affair at Styles. 1920. Amazon Classics, n.d. Kindle Edition.