The Mysterious Affair at Styles
This was Agatha Christie’s first published novel, and introduces Hercule Poirot as a retired police officer and Belgian refugee. The setting is wartime, the writing more careful of place and time than most of Christie’s later work, and the characters, sub-plots and physical clues are almost too abundant. Wisely, this was recreated for television explicitly as Poirot’s first case (in a private capacity) although the series had been running for some years.
As in the novel, Hastings is on leave from wartime duty, he and Poirot meet accidentally, and when their hostess and friend is murdered, Hastings turns to Poirot for help.
As per the conventions of the time, Hastings is established as the narrator and bumbling sidekick to Poirot’s maverick genius, a convention that served the shorter adaptations very well, but one which Agatha Christie soon tired of in her novels (more of which later). Nevertheless, Hastings is an integral part of the story here, falling in love with one of the suspects, being oblivious to anyone’s true motives and character, and accidentally providing Poirot with the final clue he needs to clinch the case.
As with Dr Watson to Sherlock Holmes, Hastings serves to humanise the near alien intelligence of Poirot, provides his mentor with an introduction to a society which would otherwise exclude him (Holmes is anti-social, Poirot foreign in a time of ingrained xenophobia), and is also a foil to the great man’s vanity. Unlike with Watson and Holmes however, the clues are scrupulously fair to the reader. Arthur Conan Doyle’s best works are adventures, Agatha Christie’s best works are pure whodunits. Many of the now familiar conventions which she made her own and for which she lives on in the popular imagination are here: the large country house; the closed circle of suspects who all have something to hide; the ingenious method of poisoning.
For those reasons alone this is a classic Poirot story, introducing us also to many of Agatha Christie’s recurring themes – inheritance, sexual jealousy, marital infidelity, disguise and misdirection (and a certain basic plot device which came to be repeated many times).
A good, solid adaptation of a good, solid first novel.
TV Episode: 7/10
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