“You’ll feel better after a nice cup of tea, m’m.”
In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie introduced Hercule Poirot, one of literatures most recognizable characters. Poirot was small, neat, and a bit affected. He owes a great debt to Sherlock Holmes, who, although the two character’s appearances are entirely different, share the trait of using impersonal objectivity and logic in the solving of crimes.
Also introduced in The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Hastings, who fulfills the role of Watson to Poirot’s Sherlock – the slightly dense assistant.
Growing up, my father was a great fan of Dame Christie, so I read probably dozens of her books. Even the solutions are mostly left to the dimness of history, though, so rereading them is a pleasurable exercise. One of the things that I enjoy most about Christie is her engaging characters. She frequently wrote about bright young things, as in this description of one of the characters: Mary Cavendish – as seen through the eyes of Hasting.
“I shall never forget my first sight of Mary Cavendish. Her tall, slender form, outlined against the bright light; the vivid sense of slumbering fire that seemed to find expression only in those wonderful tawny eyes of hers, remarkable eyes, different from any other woman’s that I have ever known; the intense power of stillness she possessed, which nevertheless conveyed the impression of a wild untamed spirit in an exquisitely civilized body – all these things are burnt into my memory. I shall never forget them.”
Reading Christie is like dropping into post-world war I English society. It feels vaguely Edwardian – an idealized period of peace and prosperity amongst the upper classes, but she will often obliquely acknowledge the tension that provided an undercurrent to British society during this time period. The Mysterious Affair at Styles is no exception to this idea, as all of the major players in the novel are members of the British leisure class. Major financial pressures on this class are alluded to throughout the course of the novel – things like whopping death duties (known in America as “estate taxes), and the immense costs of upkeep on giant estates that are relics from a rapidly disappearing era present significant burdens on the characters. The setting of Ms. Christie’s books is enjoyable and populated with well-dressed characters having tea, and playing vigorous games of tennis or taking long country walks.
Agatha Christie excelled at the puzzle subset of mystery novels, and was a master of the whodunit and the locked room mystery. Misdirection abounds, and the reveal is always a primary point to her books. No spoilers here – the journey is about 75% of the fun, but revealing the solution to the mystery in a book discussion is just plain mean. If people want to know whodunit, they should read the book.
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