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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Mysterious Affair At Styles

Reviewed: August 22, 2007
By: Agatha Christie
Publisher: Berkley Books
208 pages, $9.99

Back in 1920 Agatha Christie decided to write a mystery novel with a quirky lead character, Following the lead of Arthur Conan Doyle she decided that it would be best to have the actual adventure narrated by an “everyman” who could observe, but not really understand, the actions of the star.

The detective, of course, was Hercule Poirot, an amazing little Belgian with a very distinct sense of style and a high opinion of his own “little grey cells”, an opinion honed by a prior career with the Belgian police. The mustache, the grooming, the sartorial splendor, the slightly mangled English, the sly wit - all the trademarks of Poirot are there on that very first outing.

The story takes place in the English countryside, in that combination of village life and country squire elegance that would be the setting for so much of Christie’s work. Poirot is in England as part of a group of expatriate Belgians who have sought refuge there during the Great War. Quite by accident he is drawn into a murder mystery, a classic locked room affair with some very interesting points and lots of red herrings.

The narrator is Captain Hastings, who is quite a bit dimmer of perception that Dr. Watson ever was. In later novels he seems to have added some IQ points, but in this one, he is well below the average level of the reader, full of opinions, jumping to conclusions, and creating half the false solutions in the story.

Watching the David Suchet/Hugh Fraser Poirot mysteries on PBS I used to wonder why their version of Hastings was such a class bound ass, but now I realize that Fraser took his portrayal from these earlier stories and that it was spot on.

There are bits of this book that are badly dated, and if you have no background in the British detective story genre, there are references to customs and opinions that will baffle and annoy you, but the book holds up quite well after 87 years, and the interplay among the characters is interesting, as is the setting and the sense of peeking into another time and way of life.

Apparently, Christie would be right at home in today’s CSI flavored mysteries if she were still alive and writing, because the solution to this one hangs on some very particular forensic evidence. The book was praised in a contemporary journal of pharmacology for its accuracy in dealing with the matter of the poison used in the murder.

As formulaic as Christie could be later in her career, in her early novels she often broke with convention and got away with it. In The Murder of Roger Akroyd she had the story told to us by the murderer. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles she actually hid the murderer by making that person the most obvious suspect right from the beginning.

Staying power seems to be a fair way to evaluate the success of an author or a book. Why do some authors fade when they die (Ross MacDonald) while others stay in print (John D. Macdonald)? In Christie’s case, there is no shortage of her work on the book racks, and this particular volume can be had in paperback, hard cover, large print, audio CD and MP3 audio versions. Allowing for some duplication, there were well over 40 different hits when I checked the online bookstores.

I happened to read this one as an e-book (from Renaissance E Books as distributed by Fictionwise) on my PDA while travelling. It was a pleasant airport companion.

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