Friday, October 14, 2011

Flashback Friday: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

The Mysterious Affair at Styles
By Agatha Christie
Narrated by Nadia May
6.8 hours

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is the first title in the Hercule Poirot series. The Belgian exile and former police detective is called upon to investigate the death of an elderly woman.

In March of 2009, the Yahoo! group, Sounds Like a Mystery (S.L.A.M.) discussed The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Because the discussion went forward on the premise that participants in the discussion had already listened to The Mysterious Affair at Styles, there are spoilers in the comments about characters and, I've marked out the passages below ("SPOILER ALERT" and "END SPOILER ALERT.") The following comments were drawn from the discussion (03/20-23/2009):

S.LA.M. Discussion Questions

Did you like the book? Why? Why not?
I liked the book, but I made a serious mistake when I first approached it: I underestimated Agatha Christie. The last time I read AC was in high school (The ABC Murders and Murder on the Orient Express) and now I had thought her dated and perhaps even less-than- sophisticated! I was struck by the density of the cast list, the plot, the motives and the subterfuges. I anticipate returning to this book again and being able to appreciate it more with each re-reading or re-telling.

How did you like the narrator?
As much as I love Nadia May, she was miscast for this book. The narrator is a 45 year-old Captain coming in from the Front. Despite Nadia May's versatility, there was no way to ignore that she wasn't a 45 year-old Captain coming in from the Front! There is a scene early on wherein Captain Hastings looks out the window to see Lawrence Cavendish walking with Cynthia Murdoch. In my mind's eye, I saw Miss Marple peering out the window! Later, as Captain Hastings expresses his crush on Mary Cavendish or even later, proposes to Cynthia Murdoch, it took me aback.

Did anything grab your attention?
I've started playing a little game with the audiobooks I've been listening to this year: What common factor can be found within the last three audiobooks I've listened to? Right now, the last three books are The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Invisible Monsters (by Chuck Palahniuk; narrated by Anna Fields) and, The Gargoyle (by Andrew Davidson; narrated by Lincoln Hoppe.) It turns out that all three narrators in the novels are people who have been hospitalized. In The Gargoyle, the narrator is recovering from a car accident in which he suffers 3rd/4th degree burns. In Invisible Monsters, the narrator is recovering from a gunshot wound received while she was driving on a highway. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the narrator is on sick leave from the War, but we do not know exactly what it is he is recovering from! I found this interesting if only because one might expect that whatever illness or injury Captain Hastings was suffering from, one that merited a prolonged convalescent leave, would have some sort of impact, whether physical or mental, on his bearing.

Even though there is no precise date given as the time period for the book, I have to think it is somewhere near the onset of WWI and before the introduction of gas warfare, so between April 1914 and April 1916. I couldn't find a reference as to when paper usage limitations were being introduced into English life, but the mention of Belgian exiles also make me think it was probably 1914-15.

********** SPOILER ALERT **********

Did you figure out “whodunit?”
After Mr. Inglethorpe had been cleared, I was totally at sea! I was overwhelmed with too much information and unable to even formulate a hypothesis. I knew the stamps and the timeline were important; but as to “how” I couldn’t ascertain. After a while, I stopped trying to figure it all out and just went along unquestioningly. Even after having it all explained (“Poirot Explains”) I felt bemused. Were I to read the title repeatedly, following a different thread each time or writing little notes in the margins, I would be able to parse it out better and make sense of it all. Maybe.

Was there a twist that threw you? Was the plot believable?
The whole business with who was actually buying the strychnine while in disguise threw me. Owing to Dr. Bauerstein’s close physical resemblance to Alfred Inglethorpe, his knowledge as a toxicologist, and his seemingly personal interest in Mary Cavendish, he was the logical suspect and clearly the perfect red herring!

Did other items in the story help or hinder the story?
Poirot "played" Evelyn Howard. I did not understand the psychology or reasoning behind this approach and those passages felt alien to the work itself.

How did you feel about the main characters? Did you connect with the characters in the book?
At the beginning of the book, the number of characters was challenging. I actually listened to parts of the beginning a couple of times over so that the characters were clear in my mind. The most sympathetic character was Lawrence Cavendish, the image of the “watercolor” blond aristocrat and dilettante (cf Sebastien in Brideshead Revisited.) John Cavendish was the most pitiable by reason of his marriage and unrequited love. Captain Hastings was the least appealing. His intellectual vanities and limitations, coupled with his arrogance masquerading as reason, were off-putting. The character of Poirot himself was a little strange and was reminiscent of the-larger-than-life flamboyant Oscar Wilde (without the scandal.) Monk seems to be patterned somewhat after Poirot’s fastidiousness.

The characters were purposeless aristocrats. They couldn't be anything else! The time setting of the book is 1915-1916. England was fully committed to WWI and Belgian refugees were crossing the Channel (i.e. Hercule Poirot.) At the time, there was a belief in Social Darwinism, that the best and brightest in society would make the best and brightest officers, not realizing that modern warfare would render Social Darwinism moot. Entire hometown regions of men were wiped out in a few hours of battle time. Men who served together often came from the same hometown or classroom. Hence, entire graduating classes from Eton, Harrows, Oxford and Cambridge, disappeared overnight. It turned out that the machine gun fire, grenades and later, gas, were indiscriminating. Those who were left behind on the home front, were not the best and brightest. There were physical misfits, second sons and, the old (e.g. John Cavendish, Lawrence Cavendish, the Head Gardener.) The pre-destined roles they had expected to play were stripped away. They were also left with the wreckage of a society that had never served them well. Understandably, they were not so eager to re-constitute a social order based on primogeniture and entailed legacies. These runts of society were now expected to make shift within the wreckage of an eviscerated social order. They were keenly aware of their own shortcomings. The better of them tried to form and/or adapt to the new and ever-shifting paradigms of the Modern Age and find their place (e.g. John Cavendish asking Mary Cavendish if she loved Dr. Bauerstein, a totally irrelevant question ten years prior) and the lesser of men just tried to fade into the background and find some measure of personal contentment (e.g. Lawrence Cavendish scribbling away at his poetry and finally asking Cynthia Murdoch to marry him.) For all, the idea of "purpose" as they understood it (predestiny) had been abrogated and they were left to contend with fate.

WWI killed La Bell Epoque and its attendant Age of Romanticism. Mrs. Inglethorpe could be seen as a symbol of the Old Ways with her patronages and affection for opening charity bazaars. Neither she nor the Old Ways went quietly into the night! Both were poisoned, by strychnine and modern warfare respectively.

Anyone or anything distract you in the story?
Everything was distracting! What was valuable information or evidence was difficult to thresh out.

Did the book grab you emotionally?
The Mysterious Affair at Styles is not an emotionally provocative book nor even a particularly an emotionally engaging one. The “locked room” mystery was meant to be an intellectual challenge.

Did you connect with the place? Do you feel like you have been or want to go there?
England during WWI? No, thank you.

Did you get hooked? At some point did you have a hard time putting it down? What was the point?
“Hooked” may not be the appropriate word, but for lack of a better term, I was “hooked” after Mr. Inglethorpe had been cleared. I knew I wasn’t processing all the information correctly and so I was anticipating the parlor scene in hopes that all would be made clear to me. Now that the book is done, I feel compelled to go over it again so, in that way I’ve been “hooked” twice!

What about the use of sex or violence in the story?
The sex and violence were very abstracted. The scandalous Mrs. Railkes and her activities are inferred but never spelled out. The exact nature of the relationship between Mary Cavendish and Dr. Bauerstein is never made explicit. As for the crime itself, while rather lurid, did not entail any scatological details or goriness. Poisoning is a rather passive or “feminine” method of homicide. Overall, this title ranks fairly low in terms of sex and violence. I would place it, as a cozy, in league with Crocodile on a Sandbank.

********** END SPOILER ALERT **********

On a Scale from 1-5 (5 is best) or a Grade of F-A+, how would you rate this book?
I’m tentatively rating this title a “B.” If I actually do return to the book, I suspect it will go up in my estimation.

Would you read other books in this series (if there are any)?
I’m willing to continue with the Hercule Poirot series, but I’d like to take some time with each book.

Would you seek out other books by this narrator?
I recently cited Nadia May as my favorite female narrator. I based my assessment on her work on Zoe Heller’s What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] and am looking forward to Barbara Tuchman’s The First Salute. As for this series, I think I would like to try either David Suchet or Hugh Fraser if I were to continue in the audio format.

Poirot - The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Directed by Ross Devenish
Starring David Suchet and Hugh Fraser

This DVD works as a great companion to the book as it serves to elucidate some of the points in the novel that are not clear from the writing (i.e. what a green armlet is, what a spill vase is and does); sets a specific time reference (June 1917) and therefore a context; fills in some back-story (Captain Hastings suffers from a leg injury) and; provides some other interesting and appropriate other material (the role-playing drills of people left behind on the home front, the nightmares of Hastings, the rumors of the American Expeditionary Force’s arrival.) The movie, however, collapses the time frame and, eliminates a major character (and therefore avoids the counting teacups business from the book; but does help clarify why Lawrence was staring at the mantelpiece as his mother was dying.) The book and the movie are great examples as to the possibilities and limitations of either medium.


Other Stuff: I borrowed a library CD edition of the audiobook from Blackstone Audio, Inc. I rented the DVD of the movie from Netflix.

This post is part of the Murder, Monsters, Mayhem feature being hosted by Jennifer L. at

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I like how the format really lets you dig into the book.

    I added a link to my review of this book.

    I also read this one with my ears, but the reader of my audio edition was Penelope Dellaporta. It was odd to have a book narrated by a man read by a woman, but it didn't throw me as much as it might, because I've been listening to P.D. James's Adam Dalgliesh series and Dellaporta is the reader on those too. I've kind of gotten used to it.

    Rose City Reader