The Mysterious Affair at Styles – Agatha Christie (1920)

MysteriousAffairAtStylesAm 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.

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26 thoughts on “The Mysterious Affair at Styles – Agatha Christie (1920)”

    1. I’m curious about that one. I know that Tommy and Tuppence are adored characters by some, although I vaguely recall hearing that this story may involve some sort of syndicate. If so, that doesn’t sound like my thing, but we’ll see.

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      1. The best T&T books for me were the short story collection Partners in Crime and N or M? TSA is more in the thriller territory.
        I found your review particularly interesting, as last month I read John Goddard’s book which examines all of the puzzles of the first 21 Poirot cases. I think one of the weakness mentioned with this Christie is its excessiveness, for the want of a better word, in its construction (I could be wrong of course). You might enjoy the Goddard book too, as you can read the chapters on each book as stand alones – though of course don’t read them before the books themselves!

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  1. I don’t think, although I might be wrong of course, that this is poorly regarded within the Christie canon. I found enjoyable, although Hastings was a bit irritating and the there were aspects of the solution I could pick at as part of it involves a certain trope that never really convinces me.
    Still, there are minor quibbles and it remains a remarkably strong debut.

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  2. I don’t remember ever hearing that “Christie begins at 35” quote! Still, I think Styles is one of the strongest tales of the 1920’s. Mostly it’s because of all the thrillers she wrote (five out of the nine books of the 20’s), and while they have their charms – well, most of them – they are, to me, inferior to her whodunits.

    But Styles is great! To accomplish this level of misdirection in her debut speaks volumes about Christie’s talent and what lies ahead. Yes, it’s the first use of that trope, and probably the least effective. More than anything, she shows her brilliance with poisons.

    On the podcast All About Agatha, they complained that the novel did not play fair. In some ways, they are right. One could do with some specialized knowledge to figure out the how, and as you mentioned, Ben, the final clue is a total deus ex machine for Poirot. The podcast actually rated the book quite low and gave it a lot of grief. Interestingly, a year later they revisited their scoring for all the books they had covered so far, and the one they felt they had really misjudged was this one. They raised its score accordingly, and that was the right thing to do!

    I don’t know what else from the 20’s you have read. The problem for me is that, aside from Roger Ackroyd, there’s nothing incredibly special about the other titles. But it’s Christie, man! There’s something to enjoy in every one of them (except, perhaps, for The Secret of Chimneys! That one is unreadable for me!)

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  3. I think that this is a vastly underrated book. In fact, the entire 20s could do with a bit more love. There is no classic except Roger Ackroydbut Styles, Links, Brown Suit are all very good and Seven Dials is excellent!

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  4. I remember very little about this one since I read it early in my Christie-ing and there’ve been a lot of books since then. However, I just want to point out that next year this will have been in print for a century, and that as this becomes true of more and more GAD books it’s going to be a struggle not to keep pointing it out. So I hereby apologise here for all the times you get sick of me saying this ove the next, like, 35 years.

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  5. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this though I am not quite so enthusiastic as you. Part of that is that I think it feels a little inelegant in the way it establishes some clues at the crime scene but also that I do think an aspect of the solution is overly technical. And then there is the costume box business… That being said there is some really good stuff here too. I particularly appreciate some of the discussion of how the war has affected gender roles and I think Poirot is a surprisingly complete character from the moment of his first appearance. The plotting is generally pretty tight and the characters are strong and defined very well.

    As much as I like the TV series, I am even more fond of the BBC radio adaptations. Simon Williams is about as perfect a Captain Hastings as I could imagine.

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  6. Your assumption about Christie’s first decade holds true in the main, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t golden nuggets sprinkled in among these titles. And I think you simply confused the rating of an average first decade Christie novel with the rating of this specific book. Because, like most commenters here, I think this is the best book she wrote until “Ackroyd”, and then we’re probably up to “Vicarage” before we find another novel at this level.

    Like Brad says, there were lots of thrillers in the 20s for Christie, and they are of varying quality (“Seven Dials” is pretty great, “Big Four” is fairly poor, to take two extremes), but the main problem – if you can call it that – with them is that there isn’t much of the “Christie brand” in them – less ingenious clueing, less excellent misdirections, and so on. To be honest, during Christie’s first decade, there are really only three true GAD mysteries among her works (this one, “Ackroyd” and “Murder on the Links”). I might be able to accept “Blue Train” in this category as well. Her reputation as the most eminent mystery writer begins with the streak of “Vicarage”, “Sittaford” and “Peril at End House”.

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    1. Yeah, I seem to have over generalized her first decade, although it led to quite a pleasant surprise when this one turned out to be really good. I guess now I’m a little less enthusiastic to continue my journey given the thriller heavy content, but who knows, maybe I’ll enjoy them.

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  7. Also have never head the “Christie…1935” quote but I will point out the obvious problem that many other commentators have that that would exclude one of, arguably, her top five, Roger Ackroyd. (And no, I do not agree with the camp that says Ackroyd is only memorable for its knockout solution and is otherwise inferior. Orient Express, we can have that discussion. Passionately, for me). Now if you said Christie didn’t become Christie until Ackroyd, I’d agree with that.

    I’m going to leave out 1930-1935 in examining that problematic quote because it starts a streak with Vicarage, Sittaford, and Peril at End House that just makes it ridiculous. However, it’s certainly true that on average, the 20s were not her best. You have one five star (Ackroyd), one four star (Styles), one no stars or at best one star (Big Four) and then a whole lot of two to three star forgettable titles that, also, are more zippy adventures/James Bond light attempts at spy novels than true mysteries. However, this is also the period of Christie’s collapsing marriage, her mother’s death, and the whole disappearance fiasco. Christie herself basically admits in her autobiography that The Big Four was the equivalent of a TV sitcom clip show episode-sewn together poorly out of four existent short stories when she had a deadline to meet and was incapable of producing anything else. Long winded point being, if you are going to go in publication order from here on out, you do have a lot of crap to sift through before stuff gets good again.

    Styles I remember as a fun and well constructed mystery that no, I did not get the solution. (Sidebar: I am consistently amazed by the GAD bloggers and commenters ability to remember so much about all of her books. I remember the true classics well, but average or above average but not fantastic ones like Styles tend to fade over time). I can’t remember all the details of the clueing, etc. but I do remember being shocked by the ending, and that I thought it was an incredible debut for a first time novelist, that showed all the promise of the greatness ahead.

    You also amused me commenting on the complaints of the lack of old fashioned help already appearing in her first novel. YES, that will continue well past the World War II years, when the era of Downton Abbey great estates with armies of servants closed entirely, if it hadn’t already. I think complaining about how servants keep getting worse is the English upper class equivalent of in America how Baby Boomers bitched about Generation X in their youth, and Generation X now bitches about Millennials, etc.

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    1. Ha – thanks for letting me know that I have a lot of crap to get through! My plan has been to go in chronological order, but to weave in other titles that I’m interested in every other book. The thought was that rather than slogging through 8 or 9 forgettable reads, I’d at least intersperse them with other books like Sad Cyprus, Murder in Three Acts, or Towards Zero – all titles that strike my curiosity for one reason or another. My enjoyment of The Mysterious Affair at Styles had me thinking that maybe I’d just keep going in chronological order, but perhaps I should revert back to my original strategy…

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  8. I remember enjoying this one, but it was a very long time ago that I read it.

    There a reasonablish copy of the Suchet adaptation on YouTube, if you can ignore the Arabic (I think) subtitles.

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    1. Thank you for the recommendation. I tracked down the version that you mentioned and watched it today (great way to start the year…). Aside from dispensing with some minor plot lines, the movie is pleasantly faithful to the book. I have to laugh though because they always seem to have to write in some random Poirot scenes in an attempt at comedy.

      As much as I enjoyed the film, I still remain skeptical that the medium can ever really capture one of these mysteries appropriately. There’s just something about the written word that allows emphasis to be placed in the right place without being ham handed. For example – in the book, the question of who handled the coffee cup has a striking importance. The reader can easily recall the scenes involving the coffee, who was where, etc. In the film, things are just a bit subtle and I don’t know that I would have even noticed that the characters were having coffee. Then when the question of the coffee cup comes up, you have to rely on your visual memory to even really attach the right importance of it.

      I don’t know that I can adequately explain this without rambling, but it just seems like even if an adaptation captures all of the proper events, it can’t necessarily capture the significance of them. When I watch one of these with a friend, I can’t help but want to explain what is happening because it feels like so much isn’t being properly communicated (of course I don’t though).

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  9. The 1935 thing is also a new one on me–after all, her two most famous Poirot novels (ROGER ACKROYD and ORIENT EXPRESS) were both published before that year!

    As others have been saying, Christie in the ’20s was still figuring out what type of writer she wanted to be. Out of her first six novels, three (STYLES, MURDER ON THE LINKS, and ACKROYD) feature Poirot and are in the style which she’d eventually settle on; the other three (THE SECRET ADVERSARY, THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT, and THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS) are straight thrillers. Then in the late ’20s, she started trying to mix and match genres. Her seventh novel was THE BIG FOUR, which is the only Poirot thriller and very, very strange. THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN is closer to the Poirot we know and love, but also features thriller-ish elements such as a masked international criminal. Both of her books from 1929 (THE SEVEN DIALS MYSTERY and the short story collection PARTNERS IN CRIME) are sort of parodies/subversions of the thriller genre (PARTNERS IN CRIME is explicitly marketed as a book of parodies, but I can’t say more about SEVEN DIALS without going into spoilers). It’s in 1930, with the publication of the first Miss Marple novel, that Agatha Christie really became *Agatha Christie*, with basically every book from then on being in the same style.

    Hope you eventually get to see the David Suchet adaptation of STYLES–I remember it being one of the best from the first few years of the series.

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  10. As most people said, it isn’t this book as much as the next ones until 1929 (Roger Ackroyd of course excepted) that aren’t as much beloved. However, count me in to the group who loves Seven Dials Mystery, and I think the Man in the Blue Train, even though it has some flaws, at the very least has an interesting solution.

    One also shouldn’t forget, that she went through a very hard time in the mid 1920s. First her mother died. And a few months later she learned that her husband had an affair an wanted a divorce. Then her infamous disappearance followed and her privat life was made public. It’s no wonder that she had other things in mind than thinking about brilliant plots.

    She admitted in her autobiography, that the Big Four was cobbled together so that she could fulfill her part of the contract with her publisher. She called it dreadful and even chose the following book (Mystery of the Blue Train) as the worst book she ever wrote about until that point. I don’t think it’s completely fair to Blue Train, at the very least it has some interesting characterisations. But it’s admittingly also rather at the bottom on my personal ranking list, and I haven’t seen it on anyone’s top list so far.

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  11. Well, you overlook certain problems I think, shortcomings.

    1 Poirot was an ordained priest and yet there is no mention of it here.
    2 Poirot wore a goatee, not curled mustaches. A strange error, even in a first book.
    3 Poirot was a tortured soul, an outcast, made unwelcome in England. This is elided here.

    Well, I could go on, but those are the major problems.

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  12. Your response to this book, and especially your association of that response with the experience of reading Carr’s debut novel, resonate with me quite a bit. I too was struck by how both “Mysterious Affair” and “It Walks by Night” are much better than they—as apprentice works—have a right to be. More to the point, each of these books captures key aspects of each author’s unique talent: Christie’s flair for a certain kind of alibi-based misdirection, for instance, and Carr’s masterly handling of the mechanics around an impossible crime. At some very important level, the genius of these authors was present at the creation. (As you and I have noted elsewhere, and as others have noted, that wasn’t true of Ellery Queen.)

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