The Mysterious Affair At Styles
Stage magicians use a technique that they call “misdirection”. Whilst you are looking over here, ladies and gentlemen of the audience, watching something totally intriguing yet utterly irrelevant, the magician is covertly manipulating something over there, so that when your attention is drawn back to the focus of the performance, something miraculous appears to have happened. Everyone knows it is a trick, of course—and a proportion of the audience almost certainly knows how it is done—but everyone applauds loudly, not so much at the trick itself but the conjurer’s skill at being able to deceive us with such apparent ease.
A stage magician and a writer of mystery novels have more in common than people might imagine. The writer of mysteries doesn’t want the reader to guess the solution before the detective gives his summing up in the final chapter, so some skilful misdirection is essential to keep the reader entertained (also perplexed, bamboozled, mystified and even frustrated) whilst the author carefully arranges the pieces of the puzzle, so that everything falls neatly into place at the final revelation.
When it comes to the art of literary misdirection, The Mysterious Affair At Styles is little short of a master class.
The novel, set during the First World War, presents us with a familiar setting of a large house deep in the English countryside. This house, Styles Court, is the home of an upper middle class family with an embarrassingly extensive catalogue of secrets, jealousies and petty squabbles. The eldest brother, John Cavendish, is due to inherit the house from his mother; but when she dies unexpectedly (murdered, you won’t be surprised to learn) the question of who will inherit her money remains open. There is a will—or rather two wills, with one being discovered as little more than ashes and singed fragments in the fireplace. There was a fierce quarrel between the victim and another person on the afternoon preceding the murder, although the exact time when this quarrel occurred is debatable (but crucial to the solution) and the identity of the other participant is also somewhat in question. One member of the family may (or may not, depending upon whose opinion is sought) be having an affair with a local farmer’s attractive wife. A false beard purchased from a theatrical outfitters for a fancy dress party seems to have used as a disguise, but who wore it? And what about the universally disliked Mr Inglethorp, the victim’s second husband? Is he a cunning fortune hunter (as one of the guests at Styles vociferously insists) or merely a misjudged, innocent bystander?
One early review of The Mysterious Affair at Styles described it as “almost too ingenious” and I can understand why this was said. There are so many clues, false trails, and red herrings that the average reader sometimes has to struggle to remember all the details. (For instance, a significant piece of information provided in the very opening pages could easily be forgotten by the time we reach the denouement, when its full significance is revealed.) In her later books, Christie is a little more subtle with her red herrings; here they are rather heaped on, with even a sub-plot involving a German spy to add to the mix.
In the middle of this maelstrom, like the still centre around which the storm revolves, is the precise and fastidious figure of Hercule Poirot, a refugee from Belgium—a nation which (at the time Christie was writing) was in the process of being overrun by the horrors of the First World War. Indeed, the fact that Poirot is Belgian would have been very significant to Christie’s original readership.
The narrator, Hastings, introduces Poirot as follows:
He was hardly more than five feet four inches but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. Even if everything on his face was covered, the tips of moustache and the pink-tipped nose would be visible.
The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police.
Curiously, the limp is never mentioned again—indeed, Poirot proves to be quite agile at times: more than once he takes long walks in the country. It is totally unlike Agatha Christie to overlook even the tiniest detail, so I can only presume that this mention of a limp is a surviving facet of some theme that Christie decided not to pursue.
Christie’s later books often place more importance on the psychological aspects of the mystery; The Mysterious Affair at Styles however takes the more traditional line of solving the puzzle mainly from the correct interpretation of the evidence. Do a suspect’s fingerprints on the stopper of a bottle of poison indicate that the contents were purloined for purposes of murder, or simply that curious fingers turned the bottle around to read the label? Does the fact that the lock on a case containing important documents has been forced indicate something nefarious, or did the owner simply mislay the key? Evidence is always morally neutral. It is only the innocent effect of an unknown cause, and it is the task of the detective to deduce the most plausible cause from all the possibilities.
One of Christie’s master strokes is how Poirot reveals some (but crucially not all) of his reasoning to his old friend Hastings as the novel progresses, leaving both Hastings (and the reader) struggling to fill the gaps and failing utterly. Hastings even provides Poirot with his own speculations (which likely mirror the reader’s own theories) only to have them earnestly but comprehensively demolished. Hastings does have his uses, however: at one point, Poirot sends him off to deliver a message that neither Hastings nor the message’s recipient understands. An important clue, or just another piece of misdirection?
Then there is the murder itself. There is no doubt that the victim was poisoned with strychnine, but how was the strychnine administered? This conundrum forms the backbone of the story, with each of the possible methods being dismissed, one by one, until (so it seems) there are no credible alternatives left. In the final chapter, however, Poirot reveals exactly how it was done. Christie’s extensive knowledge of pharmacology (and poisons in particular) comes to the fore here, and perhaps it is not too harsh a criticism to suggest that most readers would not have been able to deduce this solution for themselves.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie’s first published novel and her very first attempt at the genre for which she rightly became famous. Here she displays a remarkable (and apparently innate) skill for misdirection. Not only does she expertly blend the clues with the red herrings but she also plays on the reader’s preconceptions, allowing them to stray, briefly, along fruitless byways of speculation before Poirot, with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, guides them back on to the correct road. The most remarkable aspect of all, however, is the figure of Poirot himself, one of the greatest creations in the whole of crime literature, who steps from the pages fully formed, just as though he always existed and was waiting for this moment to prove himself.
And I cannot, of course, conclude without mentioning that this is the book in which the phrase “little grey cells” makes its first appearance.