Tuesday, November 3, 2020

First novel published by Agatha Christie is 100 years old

The Mysterious Affair at Styles has now been entertaining readers for a century

My copy of The Mysterious Affair at  Styles was published in 1954
My copy of The Mysterious Affair at 
Styles
was published in 1954
After suffering six successive rejections, Agatha Christie’s luck finally turned when her detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in October 1920.

The story is set in England in the middle of the First World War and introduces what was to become Agatha’s series detective, the Belgian policeman, Hercule Poirot.

The novel was first published in the United States by John Lane and then in the UK in January 1921 by The Bodley Head, Lane’s British publishing company.

Poirot has come to England as a refugee and is living in a village in Essex, thanks to the kindness of a rich woman, Emily Inglethorp, who lives at the local manor house, Styles Court. The novel also introduces Poirot’s sidekick, Arthur Hastings, who has been invalided home from the Front and is invited by Mrs Inglethorp’s stepson, John Cavendish, to stay at Styles.

When Mrs Inglethorp is killed, Poirot says he owes her a debt of gratitude for helping him to have a new life in England and vows to use all his detective skills to solve the mystery of her death. Hastings has met him before and happily introduces him to the members of the family living at Styles.

As an Agatha Christie fan, I read The Mysterious Affair at Styles many years ago, along with some of her other novels, but I read them all in no particular order.

When I realised The Mysterious Affair at Styles had now celebrated its centenary I decided to re-read it because it was Agatha’s first published book and I wanted to see what I thought of it now.

The first thing that struck me was that she lets Hastings tell the story in the manner of Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. It works well and is a device that more authors might consider trying. It helps her mislead the reader because Hastings fails to understand the hints Poirot gives him and at times even draws the wrong conclusion from some of the things Poirot says to him.

Agatha Christie as a young woman
Agatha Christie as a
young woman
My copy of The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published by Pan Books Ltd in 1954 by arrangement with John Lane of The Bodley Head Ltd.

I was intrigued by the fact that a plan of the first floor at Styles is inserted into the middle of the text on page 26 and a diagram of Mrs Inglethorp’s bedroom into the middle of page 38.

A rough drawing of a charred scrap of paper bearing the handwritten letters ‘ll and’  is inserted into the text of page 42 and a picture of words scrawled on a crumpled envelope into the text of page 53.

I noticed some repetitions in the book, for example Hastings twice observes that the maid Dorcas is a fine example of a good, old-fashioned servant, but then you have to remember it was Agatha’s first published novel.

Dorcas describes how the young people in the house enjoy having dressing-up evenings and putting on costumes from the dressing-up box in the attic and using techniques to darken their skin so they can dress up as ‘foreigners.’

Agatha shows how people thought about other nationalities at that time, in the middle of a terrible war, when Dorcas says of Poirot:

‘A very nice gentleman he is sir. And 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.’

According to the blurb on the inside flap of the dust jacket of the first edition, The Mysterious Affair at Styles came about because of a bet Agatha had agreed with her sister, Madge, that ‘she could not compose a detective novel in which the reader would not be able to spot the murderer, although having access to the same clues as the detective.’

The text of the book included some  helpful illustrations for readers
The text of the book included some 
helpful illustrations for readers
It was acknowledged at the time that Agatha won the bet and that the plot was clever and the clues well placed. It came down to a shattered coffee cup, an old envelope, a fragment of fabric and a splash of candle grease, but it was enough for Hercule Poirot to work out who was the murderer.

It launched Agatha’s writing career and she subsequently named her own house Styles. Hercule Poirot went on to become one of the most famous characters in detective fiction and featured in 47 of her novels and collections of short stories. When Agatha told the story of his final case in Curtain, she set the novel at Styles again.

At number six, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was one of the first ten books published by Penguin Books when it started up in 1935. The novel was later adapted for television, radio and the theatre.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles marked the start of a brilliant career for Agatha, who wrote 66 detective novels in total. She remains to this day the best-selling writer of all time.

While new writers can’t hope to surpass her achievement, or even equal it, her success can at least prove inspirational.


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