Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Reading Agatha Christie is like opening a time capsule.  Every time I open one of my old, slightly battered, paperbacks, I walk into a flood of memories.  Cover prices usually under $5, stamps from long-gone used book stores, out-of-fashion cover art, inserts, and odd bits I apparently used as bookmarks bring me back to my teens and early 20s.  The Mysterious Affair at Styles is one of the Christies I bought new, so there's no Book Swap mark, and it's about as unworn as a 30-year-old paperback can be after multiple readings.   I did find a card from a United Jersey MAC machine, so I must have last read this when I lived near Princeton - and then I remembered my plan to read all of Christie's books in order (I got up to Murder on the Links before, well, I don't know why I dropped that plan).  It's a Bantam paperback - for some reason, they published a handful of the titles which Pocket didn't - and looking at the cover art, I remember reading Christie's last-written book, Postern of Fate, and thinking something didn't add up. 

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a time capsule in another sense as well.  It's Christie's first novel, published in 1920 and set during World War I.  While on sick leave after being injured on the front, Captain Hastings runs in to an old friend, Lawrence Cavindish, who invites him to stay with him at his stepmother's estate.  A country estate owned by a widow recently remarried to an unsuitable man, what could possibly go wrong?  The characters may have been surprised when Lawrence's stepmother died, apparently poisoned by her evening coffee, but readers expect it.  We also expect that everyone - her husband, her stepsons, her secretary, her daughter-in-law, and her "poor relation" (who works in a hospital dispensary) - has a motive and opportunity.  Only Captain Hastings and a Belgian refugee of his acquaintance (Hercule Poirot, of course) escape suspicion, and they solve the case.

What struck me on this reading was how although this was Christie's first novel, her formula was clearly set.  Hastings bumbles through the case, the innocent cast suspicion upon themselves while covering up lesser secrets, and the evidence clearly supports the surprise ending.  The Mysterious Affair at Styles feels like the work of a long established writer, hinting at Dame Agatha's enduring career.

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