Note: contains spoilers for Styles and for The ABC Murders (1936)
This is Agatha Christie’s first novel, written in 1916 and finally published in 1920 – it’s also one of the handful of her books that I hadn’t previously read.
Firstly, a rundown of the story:
Having been invalided out of the army, Captain Hastings (also our narrator) is staying at Styles court with his old friend John Cavendish. Also living at Styles are John’s wife Mary, John’s brother Lawrence, a lady companion named Evelyn Howard, and Cynthia, a protégé of John and Lawrence’s stepmother. All is not well at Styles, however. John and Lawrence’s stepmother (who owns the house and has sole control of the family fortune) has recently remarried. The new spouse is one Alfred Inglethorp, whom the family view with understandable suspicion, both on account of his being twenty years his new wife’s junior and also because of his great big bushy beard. But all is not as it seems. When Mrs Inglethorp dies suddenly of strychnine poisoning, therefore, it’s lucky for everyone that another of Hastings’s old friends happens to be staying at a local establishment for Belgian refugees – a certain retired policeman by the name of Hercule Poirot.
Christie’s debut novel pretty much establishes the good, the bad and the downright ugly in terms of what we can expect of the rest of her long literary career. She decided early on that the cast of suspects would all be drawn from the same family circle, since this would be the most realistic approach to the kind of murder she had in mind. In doing so, however, she also established a winning formula in which a small group of people are gathered in an isolated setting (often a country house) before one of them is bumped off. Whodunnit? How? And why? And how are we to work it out? No one handles this kind of story better than Agatha Christie, largely because her puzzles almost always play fair. What Poirot says to Hastings near the end of Styles might well be taken to describe Christie’s own attitude towards the presentation of clues to the reader: ‘I am not keeping back facts. Every fact that I know is in your possession. You can draw your own deductions from them.’ Even so, the solution to this particular mystery draws so cleverly on Christie’s own experience of working with poisons in her day job at a dispensary, that it’s unlikely the reader will guess it.
Another element of Christie’s plotting – especially prominent in film adaptations of her novels – is the characteristic denouement, in which Poirot gathers all the suspects together in the presence of a police official in order to present a lecture that outlines in detail his vision of the facts as he sees them, usually culminating in the murderers either angrily giving themselves away or having their guilt conclusively proven in an ingenious fashion. This is what happens here but, interestingly, this wasn’t originally to be the case. Apparently the initial draft had the revelations come thick and fast in a courtroom sequence, but publisher John Lane requested (rightly I think) that this be changed, thus creating a long-standing crime fiction tradition.
The novel is written in a style that might best be described as ‘unshowy’. This is not to say that it is badly written – an accusation often levelled at Christie’s novels, but one with which, in general, I don’t agree. On the contrary, I find her prose less ‘badly written’ and more supremely unpretentious – it tells you everything you need to know in a graceful, no-nonsense manner. Rather than ending up sparse, banal and unpalatable this minimalist style has a pleasing effect that’s difficult to describe precisely in words – like the particular character of a favourite wine.
The way the novel handles the dreary formality of a death in the family, for example, is particularly effective – the routine way in which all of Mrs Cavendish’s papers have to be gone through and the way in which the coroner and the local Doctor go off in private for a chat (to the chagrin of the deceased’s immediate family) are well-conveyed. It makes the death believable in a way that counteracts the sensational murder plot – more of which later. On a different note, Christie’s lightness of touch often succeeds in adroitly carrying off the occasional comic moment. There’s a nice scene in which Hastings, on a whim, proposes to Cynthia, only to be laughed at as if he’s made a really good joke. There’s some pleasing manipulation of narrative levels here at Hastings’s expense as Christie draws amusingly on her own experience of being proposed to left right and centre by military gentlemen she’d only just met:
‘Mr Hastings – you are always so kind, and you know such a lot.’
It struck me at this moment that Cynthia was really a very charming girl! Much more charming than Mary, who never said things of that kind.
The sweet fatuousness of the remark could have come from Bertie Wooster.
Yet, amusing though it is, the effect is a bit jarring – this Wodehousian Hastings seems to come from nowhere and the effect is less successful than it will be in her next novel, The Secret Adversary (1922), where the tone seems consistently lighter throughout. Here it sits awkwardly alongside the rest of the narrative’s stiff-upper-lipped earnestness. Much worse, however, is the sub-D.H. Lawrence Hastings, who emerges during an interview with Mary Cavendish that follows shortly afterwards:
‘You are going to leave him?’
She paused a long time, and said at last:
‘Perhaps – because I want to be – free!’
Possibly the most ill-advised use of a dash in the whole of the literature. It gets worse:
And, as she spoke, I had a sudden vision of broad spaces, virgin tracts of forests, untrodden lands – and a realization of what freedom would mean to such a nature as Mary Cavendish. I seemed to see her for the moment as she was, a proud wild creature, as untamed by civilization as some shy bird of the hills.
On the whole though, the novel is well-written – for what it is. Nor is this to damn with faint praise. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote several essays where he argued that the point of genre fiction is basically to transport you out of yourself while you’re reading. On the reader’s part, this means entering into the rules of whatever generic game is being played, while on the writer’s part it means creating exactly the kind of environment, story and characters that the reader expects to find in a tale of this sort – a consideration more important than ensuring that environment’s truth to life (indeed, part of Stevenson’s argument is that writing can never really be true to lived experience anyway so might just as well go for the sensational heightening of experience – but that’s another debate). This is harder than it sounds and Christie does it beautifully because she manages to make her prose so effectively anonymous. Whole hours pass by and you’re absorbed in the story without really thinking about the fact that you’re actually reading words on a page – which is what would happen if the prose was particularly expressive or, indeed, jarringly bad. Christie is a genius at lightly sketching the characters and situations to give us, clearly and efficiently, just what we need for the unfolding of the mystery plot, but no more.
And yet, much more. One of the things that really appeals to me about a lot of Christie’s work, but particularly this one, is its sense of nostalgia. Obviously, as a period piece, this is doubly so for modern readers and I must confess that, for me, the mythical long Edwardian summer in the leafy garden of an old country house surrounded by lanes and rolling fields is one that I like to get lost in – a fairytale world where the sensational intrusion of violent death can be enjoyed in safety. It’s also the case though that this is a nostalgia that’s already there in the novel. Written during the First World War but hardly ever mentioning that great conflict, the novel itself hearkens back to a domestic idyll that the upheavals of war are slowly eroding – an idyll that is completely restored by the novel’s happy ending: ‘“Dear me, Poirot,” I said with a sigh, “I think you have explained everything. I am glad it has all ended so happily. Even John and his wife are reconciled.”’ Poirot can’t stop the Great War, but he can restore the kind of old-world happiness the war has ruined – the stepmother is killed, the culprits ostracised, husbands and wives are reconciled and the line of inheritance is put right again. A fairytale conclusion indeed.
Another thing that struck me when reading this was the way in which the narrative brings to our attention the circumstances framing Hasting’s account. He has apparently been asked ‘both by Poirot and the family themselves’ to write an account of the affair, in the hope that it will ‘effectually silence the sensational rumours which still persist’. If this is his aim, then he only partially succeeds. Certainly everything is fully explained so that no doubt can remain about what actually happened at Styles – but sensation is certainly not banished. Although he begins by professing objectivity, Hastings seems quickly to cotton on to the fact that he is also writing an exciting detective story and the needs of the latter soon start to outbalance the former. The first chapter ends, for example, with an evocation of an atmosphere whose ‘air seemed ripe with suspicion. The sinister face of Dr Bauerstein recurred to me unpleasantly. A vague suspicion of everyone and everything filled my mind. Just for a moment I had a premonition of approaching evil.’ Little wonder that orderly, methodical Poirot finds fault with his friend’s imaginative account of the night of the murder. As a narrative serving the desires of the detective-fiction-reading audience it might do – but as a work of dispassionate documentation it is flawed:
You have a good memory, and you have given me the facts faithfully. Of the order in which you present them, I say nothing – truly, it is deplorable!
This problematises the way in which Hastings appears to believe his account to exist in contradistinction to the newspapers’:
We had read of such things – now we were actors in the drama. Tomorrow the daily papers, all over England, would blazon out the news in staring headlines:
‘MYSTERIOUS TRAGEDY IN ESSEX’
‘WEALTHY LADY POISONED’
There would be pictures of Styles, snap-shots of ‘The family leaving the Inquest’ – the village photographer had not been idle! All the things that one had read a hundred times – things that happen to other people, not to oneself. And now, in this house, a murder had been committed. In front of us were ‘the detectives in charge of the case’. The well-known glib phraseology passed rapidly through my mind in the interval before Poirot opened the proceedings.
As the passage shows, the newspaper accounts and Hastings’s account are difficult to keep separate. Moreover, Hastings’s struggle to keep the glib phraseology of the newspapers out of his narrative echoes, here, the way in which murder inevitably causes the prosaic quotidian to be invaded by the jarring effect of the sensational. It’s a comment, in fact, on the way in which murder is comprehended, by those to whom it happens, precisely through the ways in which they have had it described to them when it is happening to others. Unsurprisingly, we discover that Hastings’s ‘unsensational’ account has adopted exactly the same title as a newspaper headline he’s read: ‘the newspapers seized with avidity on this crime in fashionable life: “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” was the topic of the moment.’ I suppose we should simply be glad he didn’t choose to call it ‘The Mysterious Tragedy in Essex’ really.
There’s a bigger point to make here, however, if we go back to Poirot’s comment on Hastings’s description of events – for Hastings’s sensational imagination represents precisely what Poirot’s order and method are intended to counteract. Of Alfred Inglethorp, John says that he is ‘an absolute outsider, anyone can see that’. Hastings agrees: ‘From the very first I took a firm and rooted dislike to him, and I flatter myself that my first judgements are usually fairly shrewd’. Of course, as it turns out, John Cavendish and Hastings are both right to distrust Alfred Inglethorp, but the novel still has something to say about the instinctive nature of the way they automatically distrust the person who most resembles an outsider. The book has a laugh at Hastings’s expense when he remarks that his own approach to detection is based on his old friend’s, but adds ‘of course I have progressed rather further’. That ‘of course’ (like the automatic suspicions that surround Inglethorp) derives from an unfounded but habitual assumption of the supremacy of the white upper-middle-class British man. Indeed, after Inglethorp is apparently cleared of the crime, John is horrified by the prospect that the murderer must have been ‘one of us’. Hastings concurs: ‘Yes, indeed, that was nightmare enough for any man! One of us?’ Any ‘man’ is, I’m sure, deliberate here – as with the comic scene of Hastings’s complacent proposal to Cynthia the Captain is the butt of the joke that is male hubris in general. Hence, while Poirot is ready to suspect everyone, Hastings falls into the trap of stereotyping women as either incapable of committing crimes or capable only of committing certain types of crimes, according to images absorbed from films, newspaper reports and novels. Hence his unwillingness to entertain the possibility that the German Dr Bauerstein (whom he suspects of the murder) has an accomplice: ‘surely it could not be! Surely no woman as beautiful as Mary Cavendish could be a murderess. Yet beautiful women had been known to poison’.
Hastings’s suspicions mirror the actual solution – the murderer (Inglethorp after all) does have a cunning female accomplice, only not as beautiful or as obviously enigmatic as Mary Caendish (Mrs Inglethorp’s companion, Eevlyn Howard, who play-acts an intense dislike of Inglethorp whilst actually being in love with him). Significantly, it is Miss Howard’s ability to play the part of someone who does not fit the part of the femme fatale that allows her to escape the suspicion of Styles’s inhabitants, whose minds are riddled with conventional attitudes to what murderers look like. Similarly it is precisely the fact that Mr Inglethorp ‘wears very peculiar clothes, has a black beard, and uses glasses’ (elements that combine to make him look like an outsider) that enable the murderers so successfully to make these accoutrements a part of their plan by fabricating a mock-attempt to incriminate him unjustly. Unthinking prejudice is so much a part of everyday life at Styles that the murderers can safely second-guess both its existence and the way in which the very unconsciousness of such attitudes will ensure that the possibility of such prejudice being performative only will not occur to anyone.
Poirot’s eccentricity (at once deriving from his foreignness and his old age) is tolerated in a way that Inglethorp’s is not – but even this is constantly remarked upon and viewed uneasily or patronisingly. Hastings says, at one point:
The idea crossed my mind, not for the first time, that Poirot was growing old. Privately I thought it lucky that he had associated with him someone of a more receptive type of mind.
Of course, it is against the eccentricities of Poirot and the murderer that the ‘normality’ of the other characters is placed in binary opposition. Yet it is Poirot’s insistence on bare facts (rather than instinctive distrust and sensational preconceptions of how and why murders happen) that allows him to see through to the truth of the matter – without his presence the murders would probably have succeeded in using the British upper-middle class’s distrust of the eccentric or foreign ‘other’ against them. Murder, in the minds of Hastings’s set has to look sensational, so that it can also remain something that happens in books or to other people. Hence, when they discover a scrap of paper on which Mrs Inglethorp has written ‘possessed’ lots of time and then ‘I am possessed’, he conjectures absurdly:
Had she some fantastic idea of demoniacal possession? And, if that were so, was it not also possible that she may have taken her own life?
Of course, Poirot is a creature of instinct too and his instincts often prove correct. Unlike Hastings, however, he is keen to make the theory (the impulsive idea) fit the facts and not the other way around. As he says: ‘Imagination is a good servant, and a bad master. The simplest explanation is always the most likely.’ The solution isn’t actually all that simple – nor is it as unsensational as Hastings’s introductory passage implies. But it is, at least, a lot less sensational than he cares to imagine, whilst also being more subversive than he is prepared to imagine. None of the Cavendishes or their household actually committed the murder, but the murderer’s accomplice does turn out to be one of their closest and most trusted friends. And if the Jewish, German doctor does turn out to be a spy and a blackguard, then we must not forget that the cruel, selfish Emily Howard is ‘an excellent specimen of well balanced English beef and brawn’. Murder is not something other to the norm of human experience. On the contrary it is, like Miss Howard, ‘sanity itself’.
Miss Howard is the first in a series of instances where Christie uses the implied prejudices of her upper-middle-class milieu against the reader by having the murderer concoct exactly the situation the reader would expect – and in doing so impels readers to recognise and question these unconscious pre-conceptions. The cleverest example of this is The ABC Murders (1936) where a sensational story involving a series of killings perpetrated by a madman are invented and played out purely as a disguise for the most banal of crimes. It bears out Poirot’s habitual surmise that, if something resembles excessively what it appears to be it almost certainly isn’t what it appears:
‘Yes, yes, too conclusive,’ continued Poirot, almost to himself. ‘Real evidence is usually vague and unsatisfactory. It has to be examined – sifted. But here the whole thing is cut and dried. No, my friend, this evidence has been very cleverly manufactured – so cleverly that it has defeated its own ends.’
If the writer of an anonymous note fulfils too much the stereotype of a madman then he’s probably completely sane. If the best friend of a dubiously-remarried old woman talks of little else but her dislike of her best friend’s new husband, she’s probably protesting too much.
I like this idea that the murderer has noticed that her compatriots are usually all-too-willing to see the crime as something which, they believe, must be the work of someone beyond their own circle or beyond the social pale. It’s a clever trick and Christie’s skill in pulling it off in story after story is, I believe, more than simply a flair for misdirection. As Poirot points out in Styles (he will do so again in The ABC Murders) the practical rather than the sensational accoutrements of a crime are the most important things to consider. Even if the truth turns out to be sensational (thus allowing the author to have her cake and eat it), it also has to be proveable and logically deductible from first principles:
Who? That is the question. Why? Ah, if I only knew. When? Since I was here an hour ago. As to the door being locked, it is a very ordinary lock.
It’s an important reminder that conventions always have to be interrogated from scratch and never taken at face value – that things aren’t so ‘just because’.
Christie had such an awakening herself in the early thirties when an encounter with an ardent racial purist from Germany disgusted her so much that her own casual anti-Semitism was thrown into relief and is conspicuous by its welcome absence from subsequent books. In Styles, however, Dr Bauerstein is the victim of precisely the kind of casual anti-Semitism that its author would come later to regret – as a German spy he is partly exonerated by Poirot on the grounds that he is, in his way, simply fulfilling his patriotic duty. Yet he also has his Jewishness arbitrarily and unpleasantly emphasised as a badge of his inevitable guilt.
I’m certainly not going to act as an apologisist for Christie’s racism. It’s unacceptable, unpleasant and definitely shouldn’t pass without comment. Indeed, I wouldn’t object to such instances being silently edited out in future editions. At the same time, I don’t think I’m quite as shocked as some commentators by the way that fiction from nearly a century ago will insist on ignoring the more enlightened identity politics of a later age (to avoid being confused for a positivist perhaps I’d better say ‘our own age’). Consequently, I’m less inclined to make it a stick with which to beat Agatha Christire specifically. Another way of putting it might be to say that, while there can be no doubt that the decision to change the ‘Ten Little Niggers’ rhyme in And Then There Were None to ‘Ten Little Soldiers’ (and to change the novel’s title) was the correct one, only a fool would suggest that the racist nursery rhyme that underpins the plot was actually included specifically as a means of demeaning black people. That it does have that effect is ample justification for altering subsequent editions, and a focus on this aspect of the novel is important if you’re a modern editor or a social historian. But to suggest that it tells us much about Christie’s own views on race would seem to me to be misleading.
I would say the same thing of the problematic attitude to race in Styles. For me, Christie’s racist slurs shock and disappoint the modern enthusiast in equal measure not because they indicate a considered and sustained hatred for other races (I don’t think they do) but because they suggest an unthinking adherence to the prejudices of the day. This is borne out by the way in which, until her encounter with the incipient Nazi party, Christie seems genuinely not to have thought of her own racist remarks as something that had any actual effect on the races in question. Such lazy complacency is all the more galling since it represents precisely the kind of unthinking adherence to habitual prejudice that her novels seem, in other ways, keenly to counteract.
I say all this because I’m wary lest I should appear to present Christie’s novels as the work of an arch radical. I do think some of the subtleties of her attitudes to class, race and gender have been missed – as I suggest above, there is at least some attempt, at the level of the very structure of the murder plot, to use that plot as way of questioning assumptions based on sensational stereotyping, habitual prejudice and unthinking adherence to established social norms. Yet, such a suggestion can only be taken so far. At the end of the tale her own entirely conventional values about the relationship between husband and wife are vindicated; for all that Poirot admires Bauerstein’s patriotism, his own caveat that the German is ‘a jew of course’ echoes in its casual racism the casual xenophobia in Hastings’s earlier claim to supremacy over his foreign friend, but without the irony. Likewise, if Mary Cavendish is not the femme fatale Hastings imagines, her reconciliation with her husband proves to Poirot that she is one of those women who show themselves best in adversity – ‘It brings out all that is sweetest and truest in them’ – illustrating the author’s own adherence to an outdated and simplistic model of innate femininity based on marital subservience. Even in the better-drawn female characters that appear in later novels this isn’t totally effaced.
A similar ambivalence surrounds the novel’s attitudes to class. I like the way in which the novel defends the police, for example, precisely by evoking as unfair the class-based criticisms they have to endure. Detective-Inspector Japp (not yet ‘Chief Inspector’) is a sympathetic character – an intelligent policeman tied down by beaurocracy and professional expectations. He is confined (as Hastings and even, to some extent, Poirot are not) by his role as a working man coming into this circle from outside. Unsure of the case against Alfred Inglethorp, Japp nevertheless feels pressured from above to arrest somebody. Hence his gratitude to Poirot when the Belgian comes up with an unimpeachable alibi for Inglethorp, whilst also conveniently preparing a list of witnesses that Japp will have to visit. The result is that Japp gets to look busy whilst not being pressured into taking action he knows to be unwise: ‘I’m much obliged to you. A pretty mare’s nest arresting him would have been.’ This counteracts Dorcas’s claim that the police compare unfavourably with Poirot, who is of ‘quite a different class from them two detectives from London, what goes prying about and asking questions. I don’t hold with foreigners as a rule, but from what the newspapers says I make out as how these brave Belgies isn’t the ordinary run of foreigners and certainly he’s a most polite spoken gentleman’. This is followed by a ‘Dear old Dorcas!’, to show that we are not meant to go along either with her xenophobia or with her anger that these crass police types get to come and snoop around the private lives of the rich – in this world, if a crime has been committed, it has to be exposed no matter who the perpetrator is, what nationality they are or to which class they belong. While this consideration of the interaction between the police and the landed classes is fine as far as it goes, however, it’s also true that Dorcas herself, as a domestic servant, is patronised by the remark, while in the novel itself one cannot help noticing that the lines of acceptable xenophobia (Belgians good, Germans bad) follows the lines of wartime allegiance.
It really isn’t a surprise, therefore, that at the end of the novel the hereditary flow of inherited wealth is restored, all the Cavendishes paired off or reconciled, and the unsavoury foreigners and eccentrics safely banished. The threat to the bastion of Englishness, this rural idyll of Styles, has been safely exorcised. The ‘mysterious affair’ that threatened to bring the household into close contact with sensational otherness (both in the flesh and discursively through Hastings’s suspiciously-titled account) has resolved itself to the satisfaction of the privileged classes. Indeed, so deftly is the central mystery unravelled and finally, conclusively, solved that the resultant catharsis is hard not to enjoy – even if the nature of the ‘problems’ at Styles sometimes go uncomfortably further than the tragic death of an elderly lady and come disconcertingly close to the convenient excision of England’s social, racial and gendered ‘others’. Yet if it’s important to note Christie’s limitations in going beyond the prejudices of the landed elite, it’s also important to note her attempt to upset at least some of their ideas. For all that these attempts are sometimes limited or ambivalent, their presence is still part of the novel’s appeal – to find that murder narratives are not just a game of problems, clues and deductions, but are something that, by seriously upsetting the status quo, inevitably reveal the fascinating faultlines in the social history of twentieth-century Britain. Faultlines which, even if hurriedly resolved or buried conveniently under the foundations of Styles court (to reappear in Poirot’s final case), cannot help but reveal themselves in all their fascinating complexity for the modern reader to pick over. At the same time though, none of this detracts from the fiendish dexterity with which is revealed the solution to what, when all’s said and done, is the main point here: who murdered poor old Mrs Inglethorp?