Am I the only one with an odd bias towards the early works of prolific authors? Not a bias in that I don’t like the books after I read them, but in that I assume they won’t be that good before I read them. Well, it’s probably just me, so let me explain this quirk of mine.
Say that an author published four mystery novels and then disappeared into the depths of history. I wouldn’t pay any mind to whether I was reading their first, third, or last novel. But now let’s say that author published 30+ novels… Well, the first few were obviously them finding their voice so they couldn’t be any good… right?
I had that sort of assumption in my head when I approached John Dickson Carr’s first novel, It Walks By Night. In reading it, I was absolutely shocked that his prose were as rich as ever, his plotting much the same, and his impossibilities as crafty as they come. Of course, it seemed silly in retrospect – it’s not like Carr dragged his knuckles through several volumes of garbage before he hit pay dirt. That isn’t to say that he didn’t evolve over time, but even his earliest work featured that spark that I knew and loved in his wider library.
Still, for some reason, as I approached Agatha Christie’s first book – The Mysterious Affair at Styles – I couldn’t help but prepare to be let down. I’d loved everything I’d read by her so far, but honestly I’d been drinking deeply from some of her best work. What would happen if I went a bit off the beaten path? Not just off the beaten path, but to the very start of it?
There’s a phrase that sticks in my mind about Christie that I’m about to get wrong, but it’s something along the lines of “Christie didn’t become Christie until 1935”. I probably have the date wrong, but this remark captures a theme that I’ve noticed in comments on various blogs over the past few years – the first decade of Christie isn’t really that good, or at least not representative of her later output.
It was with this in mind that I approached The Mysterious Affair at Styles, although still I was open. Even if it wasn’t that good, I was interested to see how Christie had evolved as a writer.
Having read it, my thoughts may be best summarized as thus – are you people on crack?
The Mysterious Affair at Styles is simply wonderful. It captures everything that I love best about Christie – the country houses, the characters, the misdirection, the changing society. If Christie simply wrote this book over and over again for the next three decades, I’d be perfectly happy.
Of course, maybe I missed my mark. Maybe this is a well regarded book and I just didn’t realize it. No matter. I loved it.
The set up to the mystery is somewhat unremarkable by GAD standards – a rich matriarch is poisoned, leaving behind a family with hungry eyes on her fortune and an inevitable question of the legitimacy of the will. Hmm, maybe Christie did write this same story again over the next few decades…
It’s Christie’s execution of this set up that had me swooning. First we have the sprawling country estate of Styles and the neighboring village. Mix in a memorable cast, with everyone possessing a motive for murder. It may be that I was overly thirsty after recently reading a Christopher Bush country house story that had none of these qualities, but I was lapping up all of the window dressing.
One of my favorite touches that Christie brings to a story is a look back on changing society – think A Murder is Announced or After the Funeral. Although published in 1920, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was written in 1916, and Christie provides a glimpse at the changes wrought by the first world war. At one point a character laments how difficult it is to get old fashioned help, a theme Christie would return to even forty years later.
And of course, The Mysterious Affair at Styles has Christie’s trademark misdirection. I’ve had the bad luck of spotting the killer in most Christie books that I’ve read, but I was pleasantly caught off guard by this one. That figures, as the book was famously written as a bet by Christie that she could successfully hide a killer in a detective novel. I was ready for all of Christie’s trickery and had my suspicions on everyone. I was fairly certain that I had locked in on the guilty party, only to have my neck snapped by a sudden reversal.
The one qualm I had with the story is that a critical piece of evidence is introduced during the denouement. Although I question whether this was completely fair play, there is a nice reference to a moment earlier in the book that should have keyed the reader that something was off, although I doubt anyone could ever jump to the proper conclusion. That’s fine though – I was happy enough to be fooled, and moreover, to be shocked.
People may say I’m crazy, but this is a heavy contender right now for my favorite Christie (Murder in Retrospect still wins out). I enjoyed it more than several of her more popular titles like Crooked House and Death on the Nile. I got such a taste of what I was looking for that it took super human strength to not immediately read either The Secret Adversary (Christie’s next novel) or The Murder on the Links (the second Poirot novel).
So, did I learn my lesson? When I next approach the first book by a prolific author will I still go in with the same trepidation?
Of course I didn’t learn my lesson! It’s too fun being wrong.
I always look forward to finishing a Christie novel because it gives me the opportunity to watch the David Suchet adaptation. I’ve heard that the version of The Mysterious Affair at Styles is pretty faithful to the book, but unfortunately it isn’t available in my market at the moment. I can only hope that this eventually changes and the movie becomes available on either Netflix or Amazon.