Monday, 6 June 2016

Poirot Project: The Mysterious Affair at Styles (review)

This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The last review was of ‘The Adventure of the Western Star’, and the previous post was a guest post about The Mysterious Affair at Styles by a newly converted fan.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie’s first novel. It was first published as an eighteen-part serial in The Weekly Times (the colonial edition of The Times) between February and June 1920. The final instalment of the story included an advert for a full edition, to be published by John Lane in the US. The novel was published in the US in October 1920, and then by Bodley Head in the UK in early 1921. According to the dust jacket of the first edition, the book was the result of a bet. Agatha Christie had wagered that she could write a detective novel in which the reader would be unable to spot the murderer, despite being given exactly the same clues as the detective. The blurb also asserted that, not only had she won the bet, she had also introduced ‘a new type of detective’ in the form of Hercule Poirot.

The academic in me needs to note here that the edition of the novel I’m using is the one that appears The Complete Battles of Hastings, Vol. 1 (HarperCollins, 2003).

The novel takes place during WWI – Christie wrote it around the middle of 1916 – and is told through the narration of a man named Hastings (just Hastings, by the way, as we don’t find out his first name or rank until later) who has been ‘invalided home from the Front’ (we find out in ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ that he was wounded on the Somme but Styles isn’t so specific). From the off, Hastings sets himself up as the appointed chronicler of Poirot’s exploits (the Watson to his Holmes) – he says he has been asked ‘to write an account of the whole story’, though he doesn’t tell us where or when this account was due to be published. I think we have to assume that the conceit here is that the 1920 publication in The Times is the vehicle for Hastings’s narration, but it’s not made clear either here or in other stories where (or why) Hastings is publishing his accounts of the great Belgian detective.

I’ve mentioned in some of my previous posts the relationship between Poirot/Hastings and Holmes/Watson, and I think it’s worth reflecting on the way Christie uses the legacy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s earlier detective fiction in setting up The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

In A Study in Scarlet (1887) – the first part of which is subtitled Being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D., late of the Army Medical Department – Doyle introduces Dr John H. Watson in some detail. Not only do we learn his full name (or, at least, his Christian name and middle initial) and his profession title, the novel begins with several paragraphs outlining the background to Watson’s fateful meeting with Sherlock Holmes. He took his medical degree in 1878 at the University of London and then studied as an army surgeon. He was then attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers and stationed in India during the second Afghan war. He served in Candahar, before being attached to the Berkshires at the battle of Maiwand. During this battle, he was shot in the shoulder, damaging his subclavian artery. He was saved by Murray, his orderly, who managed to (eventually) get him to a hospital at Peshawar. There, Watson contracted enteric fever, and he was sent back to England. He was granted nine months’ leave to recover, on an income of eleven shillings and sixpence a day (£210 a year), and moved to London as he had ‘neither kith nor kin in England’. For a while, he stayed in a private hotel in the Strand, but this quickly drained his finances. Just as he has decided to leave London and find somewhere cheaper to live, Watson runs into a man named Stamford (who had been a dresser at St Bartholomew’s Hospital) at the Criterion Bar. He explains his situation to Stamford, who offers to introduce him to a ‘fellow who is working at the chemical laboratory up at the hospital’, who is looking for a flat-mate. That fellow, of course, is Sherlock Holmes.

In the first five paragraphs of A Study in Scarlet, we learn more about Watson’s background than we learn of Hastings’s in the entirety of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. We know his educational background, his military history, the exact nature of his injury, his subsequent income, his place of residence, and even the nature of the publication that will bring the exploits of his illustrious friend to the public eye. In Styles, we never even find out Hastings’s first name. Indeed, there are some details (his income, his place(s) of residence, the nature of his war injury) that we’ll never find out.

The more I think about the opening to Styles, though, the more I think we can see the beginning of the little game Christie was playing with Doyle’s work. On the surface, it seems that she omits the specifics of Hastings’s background because, in light of Doyle’s creation, it’s not needed. By this I mean, the reference to Hastings as an injured military man chronicling the cases of a detective is enough to make the reader go, ‘Ah. So he’s the Watson, then.’ We don’t need to know anything else, because we’ve seen this before. At the beginning of Styles, it’s tempting just to fill in the Hastings blanks with recourse to the more detailed CV of Watson.

However, there’s much more to it than that. If you consider the opening of A Study in Scarlet in light of the stories that follow (and in light of their legacy), you realize just how much of the information about Watson is… well… a bit superfluous. Sure, some of it turns out to be useful background in later adventures. But do we really need to know the name of the orderly who carried him to Peshawar? I guess it’s important to know Watson was shot in the shoulder, but do we need to know that it was specifically the subclavian artery that was damaged? Or how much his pay was before he met Holmes? (Don’t get me wrong, I love the Sherlock Holmes stories, and these little details give us a great introduction to the way Watson looks at the world… but still…)

In introducing Hastings, it feels like Christie is almost actively rejecting the superfluity of Doyle’s introduction. Here’s a military man, he’s been invalided, he knows a great detective – you know the type. What was his rank? Doesn’t matter. How was he injured? Doesn’t matter. Where did he serve before he was injured? Doesn’t matter. What’s his name? Doesn’t matter. Bring on the great detective.

But then, just when you start to suspect that this ‘Hastings’ is a poor man’s Watson, Christie starts to scatter little details to differentiate her creation from his forebear. And these details, which will continue to accumulate throughout the Hastings-narrated stories, turn him into a beloved character with more depth than Watson ever had. Dispensing with the ‘facts’ of Hastings’s background (aside from the little details that he worked at Lloyds before the war, and he has ‘no near relations or friends’ in England), Christie focuses on a far more engaging concern: the way Hastings likes to imagine himself.

In the first chapter, we see our narrator besotted by his first sight of his host’s wife, and then embarking on a series of ‘humorous’ anecdotes that he flatters himself ‘greatly amused [his] hostess’. Sitting amongst his new friends, he then announces that he’s ‘always had a secret hankering to be a detective’. What follows is the first introduction to our illustrious Belgian detective:
‘I came across a man in Belgium once, a very famous detective, and he quite inflamed me. He was a marvellous little fellow. He used to say that all good detective work was a mere matter of method. My system is based on his – though of course I have progressed rather further. He was a funny little man, a great dandy, but wonderfully clever.’
The tone struck here tells you everything you need to know about the relationship between Hastings and Poirot – and it reveals more of Hastings’s character than any CV could.

Before I turn to the adaptation, I guess I should say a little bit about the plot of Christie’s first novel.

As I’ve said, Hastings has been invalided out of the army. After staying for a while at a convalescent home, he meets an old friend, John Cavendish, and is invited to stay at Styles Court while he recovers. Here, he is introduced to the residents of Styles Court: John’s wife Mary, his brother Lawrence, his stepmother Emily and her new husband Alfred Inglethorp, Evie Howard (Emily’s companion), and Cynthia Murdoch, the orphaned daughter of Emily’s friend. Cynthia has been adopted into the family and works as a dispenser for the Voluntary Aid Detachment (just as Christie herself did during WWI). In addition to the family, Hastings learns of Dr Bauerstein, a London doctor who is a specialist in poisons and is recovering from a nervous breakdown, and Mrs Raikes, the ‘pretty young wife’ of a local farmer.

Shortly after arriving at Styles, Hastings takes a trip into the village and runs into an old friend… it turns out Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective Hastings met before the war, is now living in Styles St Mary. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Poirot is a refugee from the German occupation of Belgium, and he is staying with a group of other Belgians at the invitation of Emily Inglethorp. The first description of Poirot is worth quoting in full, because this is a pretty momentous introduction (if you’re a fan):
‘Poirot was an extraordinary-looking man. He was hardly more than five feet four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, but he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police. As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day.’
Not long after this, Emily Inglethorp is murdered in very mysterious circumstances, so it’s pretty handy that Poirot is in the village. Just before the investigation gets properly underway, there’s one last member of the team to introduce… ‘Detective-Inspector James Japp of Scotland Yard – Jimmy Japp’ (though Poirot never calls him Jimmy again – clearly this wasn’t a welcome nickname). Poirot knows Japp of old, and the Scotland Yard man seems more than happy to be reacquainted with his old colleague:
‘Why, if it isn’t Mr Poirot! […] You’ve heard me speak of Mr Poirot? It was in 1904 he and I worked together – the Abercrombie forgery case – you remember, he was run down in Brussels. Ah, those were great days, Moosier. Then, do you remember “Baron” Altara? There was a pretty rogue for you! He eluded the clutches of half the police in Europe. But we nailed in Antwerp – thanks to Mr Poirot here.’
We never learn any more about these cases – perhaps, like the giant rat of Sumatra, the world just isn’t ready to hear about them – but I love this little glimpse into Poirot and Japp’s early adventures and the idea of the pair hunting down a fake baron in the backstreets of Antwerp.

Now that the cast is complete, The Mysterious Affair at Styles concerns itself with the unfolding investigation. I know I’ve put a spoiler warning on this post, but I can’t really bring myself to give too much away about the details Poirot uncovers. I assume that anyone who’s read this far will already have either read the book or seen the TV adaptation, but I’m also assuming that it might have been a while ago. Spoilers now might ruin the enjoyment of a reread – and Styles definitely rewards rereading. Suffice to say, Christie plays a wonderful trick on her readers. Okay, it’s not Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but for a debut novelist who has wagered that no one will be able to spot her murderer, it’s a pretty bold move!

There are two main threads to Styles. The first is the investigation of Emily Inglethorp’s murder, and the reader is encouraged to use ‘order and method’ to work their way through the various clues that are placed before them. There’s a definite sense of a puzzle to be solved, as the book contains floorplans, descriptions and facsimiles of clues, and transcripts of testimony and conversation – we really are meant to have access to everything that the detective sees. In case we’ve missed anything, we have the voice of the detective nudging Hastings (but really the reader) along throughout: ‘So you think that the cocoa – mark well what I say, Hastings – the cocoa – contained strychnine?’

But it is easy to forget about following the clues, as Christie’s genius stroke in Styles (and, possibly, one of the reasons she thought no one would spot the murderer) is that the reader is frequently distracted from the puzzle because they’re watching the detectives bicker and banter their way through the investigation.

Up until the final revelation, our narrator remains absolutely convinced of his own ‘talent for deduction’, no matter how many times his companion points out his errors. They fall out about coffee cups and cocoa, Poirot makes fun of Hastings’s theories, and in return Hastings wonders whether Poirot has actually gone mad. The detective shows a seriously sarcastic streak, and many of his quips go whizzing right over his companion’s head (as though Hastings is more Bertie Wooster than John Watson). Here’s my favourite example of this, as it sets the tone for the men’s relationship in Christie’s later stories:
‘“We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.”
I acquiesced.
“There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”
I was pleased with the compliment. There had been times when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.’
(Going through the book again for this post, it’s interesting how many important clues are revealed just before or just after a bit of banter like this – like a seasoned conjuror, Christie seemed to know from the start that the more the audience watch the magicians, the more likely they’ll miss the trick.)

The investigation is wrapped up in a denouement that will set the tone for later Poirot stories, with the detective gathering the suspects and revealing the mechanics of the murder with theatrical flair. And, as one last intriguing treat, the book ends with the promise that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Christie’s dynamic duo:
‘Console yourself, my friend. We may hunt together again, who knows? And then –’

The ITV adaptation of The Mysterious Affair at Styles was first broadcast on 16th September 1990. It was written by Clive Exton and directed by Ross Devenish. Although the episode is now sometimes listed as either the last episode of Series 2 or the first episode of Series 3, it was actually a standalone episode, broadcast to mark the centenary of Agatha Christie’s birth.

Although the rest of the early episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot are almost exclusively set in 1935, ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ is, like its source text, set during WWI. (Of course, that makes the chronology of the TV show a little wonky, as there’s nearly twenty years between ‘Styles’ and ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’, which does make you wonder… what have they been doing for all that time?) But, as with all of Exton’s scripts, there’s a clear desire to stay faithful to Christie’s text and, given that Styles is perhaps the novel with the clearest connection to the time of its setting, that means staying faithful to that setting.

Christie’s novel is rather circumspect about the nature of Hastings’s war injury. Additionally, there’s never any real sense of Hastings being traumatized by his experiences. For modern readers, now used to talking openly about the horrors young men faced during WWI, Hastings’s casual attitude to his military experience can be a little unsettling. At one point in the novel, Hastings gazes out across the ‘green and peaceful’ Essex countryside and muses on how hard it is to remember ‘that, not so very far away, a great war was running its appointed course’. As I’ve said in a previous post, in ‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’, Hastings reveals a reluctance to see ‘premature peace’ and a desire to see the war played out until military victory is achieved. There is very little indication that Hastings has been permanently affected by his wartime service (except for, possibly, recurring bouts of fever – but that’s assuming that the malaria he mentions in Peril at End House was contracted during the war).

Exton’s adaptation stays faithful to this depiction of Hastings as a man who (on the surface) is rather blasé about his experiences. However, it’s impossible to ignore the few details given in Christie’s text. Hastings wasn’t a military man before the war – he worked in insurance – but he fought at the Front, and he was so severely injured that he didn’t see active service again (at the end of the novel he’s offered a desk job at the War Office). So, although Hastings rarely evinces any sign of trauma, we know this is a man who has endured just as much pain and fear as John H. Watson before him (although he’s only given one month’s sick leave to Watson’s nine).

In the TV episode, Exton subtly plays with this material. Although Hastings is never anything other than cheerful when talking about himself – dismissing his injury as ‘just a scratch’ when offered sympathy – we occasionally get to see a hint of what might lie beneath that mask. The episode opens with Hastings in his convalescent home, watching a film about General Haig’s 1917 Flanders campaign. A close-up of Hugh Fraser’s face is enough to convey something of the trauma that lies beneath the fatuous surface.

As in Christie’s novel, Hastings is rescued from the hospital by the arrival of his old friend John. He travels to Styles St Mary (by a gorgeous steam train) and joins the family at Styles Court. Again, this is fairly faithful to the source. The house is presided over by the imperious but generous Emily Inglethorp (played by Gillian Barge), though she is now John and Lawrence’s mother, rather than stepmother. This small change, along with the removal of Dr Bauerstein from the plot, is simply the result of having to condense an entire novel into two hours of television – and it’s far from being the most dramatic change to a novel that we’ll see in the series.

Similarly, the adaptation keeps the basic shape of Christie’s plot and some of the more memorable bits of dialogue, with most of the ‘big’ clues retained, but streamlines and jettisons some of the flourishes in order to fit the puzzle into its new form. Obviously, as a big fan of the book, there are a couple of clues that I miss in the TV version (and I’m sure other fans will have their own examples), but the main ‘trick’ is kept – and, in my opinion, done very well indeed.

Just like with Christie’s book, though, a lot of the joy of ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ lies in the characterization, particularly the relationship between Poirot and Hastings (and, to a lesser extent, Japp). We get to see the lovely reunion of the two central characters…

… and the adaptation retains Japp’s enthusiastic nostalgia for the ‘Abercrombie forgery case’, with the addition of a few throwaway lines for Japp that, while not found in the source, viewers will find familiar from Philip Jackson’s earlier performances (‘My word, Poirot, you’re the goods!’, ‘Haven’t had my tea yet, you know.’).

However, while I have nothing but love for the way in which Exton (and Suchet, Fraser and Jackson) translate Christie’s characters to the screen, I’ve got mixed feelings about some of the other characters.

It’s fair to say that the Cavendish brothers are not dramatically different in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. While there is plenty of information about how their lives are different – and they definitely do behave differently in the aftermath of their stepmother’s death – they aren’t exactly chalk and cheese. In some of Christie’s later country house mysteries, she would create families with much more clearly differentiated siblings (4.50 From Paddington springs immediately to mind), but that’s just not the case here. The TV versions of John (David Rintoul) and Lawrence (Anthony Calf) reflect this, as they’re really not that dissimilar.

The brothers’ mother and stepfather – the stepmother and step-stepfather of the novel – also feel very close to their literary counterparts. In my opinion, Michael Cronin’s portrayal of Alfred Inglethorp is just perfect, and absolutely captures the ‘rather alien note’ struck by Christie’s character.

Sad as I am to make a criticism of the episode, the women just aren’t quite right. Evie Howard (Joanna McCallum) feels a little too young and (at least when she sneaks crumbs of seed cake) a little too wry for the sensible factotum with the manly voice. Weirdly, McCallum was actually exactly the right age to play Evie Howard, as she was forty when the episode aired. But Christie’s story was careful throughout to distract the reader from the fact that Evie is probably about the same age as Mary and five years younger than John – and I just don’t think the TV Evie is quite as successful in this.

Cynthia Murdoch and Mary Cavendish are also a bit further away from their literary counterparts. The former (played by Allie Byrne) is pretty and charming, and it’s very easy to see how she charms the men she meets. However, some of the character’s more sparkling dialogue is cut and there’s very little reference to her working in the dispensary. This is a bit of a disappointment, as Christie’s female dispensing chemists are always a bit feisty (like Tuppence Beresford and Julia Simmons, for instance) – and it’s always tempting to imagine that these characters are a tiny little bit based on the author herself. Even more egregious though: the TV version of Cynthia Murdoch doesn’t have red hair.

In Christie’s novel, Cynthia’s auburn hair is one of the features that Hastings admires early on. This particular predilection will become a running joke in the subsequent stories, with Poirot frequently teasing his friend about his fondness for redheads. For some reason, and I’ve never been sure why, the TV series mentions this aspect of Hastings’s characterization early on (in ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’) but then drops it, replacing some of the literary redheads (e.g Mary Durrant in ‘Double Sin’) with brunettes. Between darkening her hair and playing down her chemistry, the TV adaptation waters down Cynthia a little too much for my liking.

Finally, then, there’s Mary Cavendish. Played by Beatie Edney (in her first of two appearances in the series), the TV character is also somewhat watered down from the source.

In the novel, Hastings’s descriptions of his friend’s wife are remarkably effusive:
‘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.’
While Edney’s performance occasionally captures a sense of wildness, I’m not sure there’s really an ‘intense power of stillness’ or ‘slumbering fire’. Part of the problem is that, in removing some of the subplots from the adaptation, the character of Mary has been substantially reduced. In the TV version, she is a nervous and jealous wife, driven to wildness by her suspicions about her husband’s infidelity (and, possibly, worse). This is a far cry from Christie’s ‘proud wild creature’, who is the daughter of a beautiful Russian woman and a world-travelling English father. In the novel, Mary Cavendish’s malaise derives more from her husband’s monotony than his adultery.

It’s time to finally wrap this post up now, I think. I’ll end with a high point… I really like the fact that the adaptation retains the scene in which Hastings watches Poirot build card houses. This is such an important part of the story – both in terms of the detective’s investigation, but also in setting up the character of Poirot – that it’s nice to see it played out on screen. And it is a very impressive house of cards…

Overall, Exton’s adaptation is a fitting tribute to Christie’s debut novel. Although it’s not actually our introduction to the characters – as it was made after two solid series of adventures – it works as an affectionate flashback to where it all began. The Mysterious Affair at Styles introduced readers to a duo that (despite a pretence at similarity) were very very different to Holmes and Watson, and the 1990 adaptation captures the essence of this relationship beautifully. I think the programme-makers were aware of the significance of their centenary adaptation, and the result is something designed to delight Christie fans.

But it can’t be denied that this episode is all about the boys. The female characters in The Mysterious Affair at Styles don’t get much of a look-in here, which is a shame because (despite some claims to the contrary) Christie created an array of complex and fascinating female characters in the Poirot stories.

Speaking of which… it’s time I looked at one of those characters in more detail


  1. I enjoy your posts. Is this where you stopped with Poirot? At the end you don't mention the next episode in the broadcast series (HINT: we need an episode-by-episode index).
    I would also like to hear your opinion on what makes a Christie book unmistakeably a Christie. With your thorough scholarship of all of her writing, your insights would be fascinating. - Toby Flenderson

    1. Hi Toby, thanks for your comment. I have done more of the series, don't worry! If you follow the link at the end of this post, it'll take you to a post about Miss Lemon and then to 'How Does Your Garden Grow?' and the next series. I have slowed down a bit this year (I'm only up to The ABC Murders), but will be getting back to my project as soon as I can.

      I'm not sure my fandom counts as scholarship! But I think that my idea of Christie's characteristic style is the way she handles clues. No one can place/hide a clue like she can, and the moment when you finally realize how they all fit together is the thing that makes her books so satisfying.

      More posts to come - promise! But here's a list of where I got up to last year: