Golden Age, Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

StylesI had initially planned for my next Agatha Christie read to be The Man in the Brown Suit but in an act of absent-mindedness I contrived to leave it at work and was stranded without a read. My Audible collection came to the rescue and I quickly settled on a recording of the story read by David Suchet. Incidentally, if you do wish to listen to this on audio, his reading is superb.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is narrated by Captain Hastings who, after receiving an injury at the front, has returned to England for convalescent leave. At a loss for what to do he visits a friend at their country house, Styles. This house is owned by his friend’s stepmother who inherited it for the remainder of her life upon her husband’s death along with the majority of his fortune. This has made her stepchildren reliant on her for financial support. She had been fairly generous, if controlling, with them in previous years but we learn that things have changed following her marriage to a much younger man.

Several days later Emily Inglethorp is found dead in her boudoir from an apparent case of strychnine poisoning though it is not clear how the drug had been administered. Hastings suggests that the family bring in a friend of his, Hercule Poirot, who he has discovered is staying in the village as a refugee and the family agrees after being persuaded of his discretion.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie’s first published novel and so it also introduces one of mystery fiction’s most iconic characters: the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot with his egg-shaped head, military moustache and desire for neatness and order. While the character would become richer over the years and play a larger role in later adventures than he does in this narrative, it is striking just how well formed he already is at this point.

Rather than focus on the things that are already in place here, I was more interested in a couple of things that felt a little different from the character or the style of the later mysteries.

Firstly, it is immediately apparent that this is a book that evokes a sense of the period in which it was written in a way that few other Christie stories do. Here we see a family whose circumstances are actually being affected by the war and throughout the book there are references given that remind us of this. Economies are being made at Styles and we hear Emily Inglethorp complain that her stepchildren are not doing enough to help the cause. And, even more noticeable, a woman is working in a professional capacity.

Given Christie’s popular image as a stodgy, conservative voice, I was struck by how Christie writing in 1916 is a progressive voice for that time. Her women are strong and patriotic, whether they are working to put Styles on a war footing or serving in a pharmacy. Meanwhile the males are mostly coasting on financial handouts, not seeking to contribute while believing that they are owed a living. The contrast is striking and gives the lie to the notion that Christie was someone who deplored progress.

The question of Christie’s politics is, of course, contentious and I think more complex than it appears. Part of the problem is that her longevity meant that many of her later works were written when she was a much older figure, seemingly from a bygone age. Those novels seem to wistfully reflect on the past and while I think that there is some acceptance of the need for progress in those later books, that can often be overlooked by readers. While I do not think you can base an opinion on a single novel, I would argue that at the very least it illustrates that there was a period of her career where Christie was more forward-thinking and perhaps even a little disapproving of her supposedly beloved establishment.

Secondly, while Poirot’s later adventures usually put a primary importance on the analysis of the psychological factors of a case, here he seems almost entirely focused on the question of motive and opportunity. While Poirot may later berate Hastings for what he suggests is an obsessive focus on the clue, here we see him finding scraps of a will in a fire grate and some of those unlikely strands of fabric stuck on a door latch.

Thirdly, in this case we actually see a suspect being brought to trial. I am not entirely sure that trial writing was really a strength of Christie’s and the narrative does seem to slow quite significantly at this point yet its inclusion is important and does serve a real purpose in the story.

Finally, here we have a version of Poirot that is living in difficult circumstances as a refugee and yet is managing to retain his sense of pride. This is essentially the same character we will see later and yet he is not initially the master of the crime scene through reputation but because of his inherent competency.

So, the final question I want to consider is whether this book, were it not the first Poirot mystery, would be considered a particularly noteworthy one. I say that because I think it is one of those books that anyone with an interest in GAD should try for its significance to the genre but that is not necessarily a mark of quality.

I personally rather enjoy The Mysterious Affair at Styles but I do think the mystery itself is one of Poirot’s less interesting cases. Certainly there is an element of the resolution (the identity of the killer) that I think is quite clever and utilizes Christie’s soon-to-be iconic skills at misdirection well but the cast of suspects are not particularly interesting either in variety or motive.

Also there is also an element of the resolution (the means of death) that I think is too clever and technical for me to be entirely happy with it. Not so much because it isn’t fair play but because it isn’t ingenious enough to be interesting and the death could have been contrived in a simpler way.

Still, I would reiterate that I did enjoy revisiting the novel. It is fascinating to see how much of the Belgian detective’s character is already in place in his first appearance and there are some wonderful moments along the way, not least one of Hasting’s customary and misguided acts of chivalry.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At a country house (Where)

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Agatha Christie, Golden Age

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

SparklingCyanideLast month I took my first steps in a grand undertaking to read all of the crime stories by Agatha Christie other than those containing Poirot or Miss Marple by reading Ordeal By Innocence. This month I selected Sparkling Cyanide. Technically it is not entirely new to me as I had listened to a radio production a few years ago but it transpired I didn’t remember a thing about it…

Rosemary Barton died from cyanide poisoning at her birthday dinner in a restaurant surrounded by six friends and family. The inquest returned a verdict of suicide but a year later her husband, George, receives anonymous notes that suggest she was actually murdered leading him to suspect that the murderer must have been one of their party.

The novel is divided into three distinct phases. The first introduces each of the suspects and their possible motive for being the killer. The second describes how those six characters end up at a dinner recreating Rosemary’s death. The third and final section features Colonel Race taking up the investigation and solving the mystery.

I really enjoyed the way Christie introduces us to the cast of characters while also outlining the facts of the case. They are an interesting assortment of likely killers and these chapters which vary considerably in length provide memorable introductions for each.

While all of the characters are strong, I was particularly struck by the character of Stephen Farraday, a rising politician. Christie presents him as an opportunist whose tendencies would suggest that he is a Liberal except that he can see no future with them because they have no chance of attaining power. Instead he makes overtures to the Labour party before deciding that his best chances for advancement would lie with the Conservative party. I encountered several Farradays in my time working as a political professional so this character rang particularly true to me.

The other characters are similarly strong however and I think that the quality of that characterization plays a big part in the success of this novel. Given that the formal murder investigation will not begin until two-thirds of the way into the novel, our attention is held because these characters are psychologically interesting and very well drawn. Christie balances the time she gives to the various suspects and utilizes the multiple perspectives approach well, taking care to

Discussion of the mystery itself is a little challenging because there are some key developments that take place late in the novel that I would hate to spoil. What I can say is that Christie devised a puzzle that is very neat and tidy in spite of its seeming impossibility. Eyewitness accounts make it clear that no one had the opportunity to tamper with the glasses of champagne while the party were away dancing and yet the poison was administered.

While I felt I knew who had done it and why, I could not understand how the murder was achieved. When the explanation is given it turns out to be quite devastatingly simple and very satisfying. In my opinion it ranks among Christie’s very best because it does not require elaborate plot explanations to work and it is very easily explained.

The man tasked with providing that explanation is Colonel Race, a name that may be familiar from a couple of Poirot novels. According to Goodreads I am supposed to consider Sparkling Cyanide the fourth book in the Colonel Race series but that feels like a bit of a stretch as in every other respect the book stands alone. Race is certainly a thoughtful and diligent sleuth and I think his plainness makes him an interesting contrast to Poirot in particular but his presence here neither requires or benefits from any prior knowledge. As it happens I had selected the earlier Colonel Race novel, The Man in the Brown Suit, to be my next non-series Christie selection for January so I will soon have another opportunity to reacquaint myself with him.

He is not a particularly flashy detective and his personality is rather dull. On several occasions he is presented in description as being something of a relic of British Imperialism. He does possess a keen mind however and I appreciated that Christie keeps her suspect interviews from dragging on, preferring to keep the narrative moving.

Overall, I think Sparkling Cyanide is a really entertaining Christie story. It is beautifully paced and the characterization is very strong. I thoroughly enjoyed the read, devouring it in a single sitting and would strongly recommend it to anyone curious to try Christie for the first time.

Agatha Christie, Movie Time

The Murder on the Orient Express (Movie)

MOTOEAfter a week of trying to make schedules align I was finally able to go and see the new Murder on the Orient Express movie. I had initially planned on writing this up as a more structured book and movie contrast or to compare different versions but there are plenty of good posts out there already doing that. Like this one from Brad which not only compares each of the filmed versions but also talks about the significance of the book to him.

Instead I am just sharing some thoughts about the movie. I’m not trying to cover or mention everything – just the things that struck me most during the film or which I ended up talking about with my wife as we left. And for those who are considering seeing this and don’t know the ending I am keeping this spoiler-free.

OrientExpressKenneth Branagh’s Moustache Isn’t Distracting

The most surprising thing about the film was how little I noticed the moustache once the film began. I have slightly mixed feelings about the content of the first ten minutes which is a little like a Bond-style pre-credits adventure. It’s there to establish Poirot as the greatest detective in the world and set up the principle themes of the movie. While I felt the film tried too hard to be funny and it was a little too frantic, it does allow the viewer time to adjust to this new Poirot before he sets foot on the train. By the time we see Poirot sniffing breads in Istanbul I wasn’t concentrating on the moustache or his more streamlined physique – I was becoming immersed in the story.

 

Bouc Actually Makes An Impression

When I read the novel I remember the character of Bouc feeling like a significant figure because of his established friendship with Poirot yet I often feel that the character becomes forgotten. Tom Bateman does a great job here though, portraying Bouc as an irresponsible bon vivant. More importantly, through his character we witness the emotional toll the case takes on those involved as we see how grave and serious he has become by its conclusion.

Branagh Has A Great Eye… But Overthinks Some Shots

Why did we need a new version of Murder on the Orient Express? I certainly was wondering this but sequences such as the train pulling through the city of Istanbul or the avalanche give the film a sense of scale that differentiates it from previous filmed versions. The train looks truly fantastic and so glamorous that you almost wouldn’t mind being trapped in it with a killer on the loose if you could enjoy the seemingly endless supply of Godiva chocolates that are on hand.

While much of the film is very well directed, I do think Branagh goes a little overboard at moments trying to inject some visual flair into the movie. At several times he indulges in long tracking shots, an overhead shot of a conversation in a corridor and films scenes through textured glass and it’s a little distracting. And then there’s the scene near the end where the cast are positioned like they are in a very famous painting…

GadJosh Gad Stands Out In An All-Star Cast

Like the previous movie version that starred Albert Finney, Branagh has assembled an all-star cast. In a film that features Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and Olivia Coleman, the standout performance came from Josh Gad who surprised us by playing the part absolutely straight. He is much more than Olaf and LeFou!

Johnny Depp Is A Good Ratchett

Last year my wife and I went to a film where Johnny Depp made a ‘surprise’ appearance in the final few scenes of the movie. When he appeared the full audience audibly groaned, disappointed in the reveal and with a hint of Depp-fatigue.

There was a little of that yesterday but for my money (an outrageous $15 for a matinee!), Depp fit the part very well and makes a strong impression in relatively little screen time.

The Ending Isn’t Exactly Bungled But…

When the early reviews came out, several suggested that the solution was impossible to follow if you don’t already know the story. I asked Brad his opinion before seeing it and I essentially agree with him that there are a few clues left on the table but that the solution is there.

I will say though that the film does rush through the conclusion. My wife, who has seen previous film versions but not in a long time, did not struggle to understand what the solution to the murder had been but did wonder what Poirot decided to do about what he learned in the end. She had guessed correctly but we don’t get to hear the conversation take place.

We Would Be Excited To See Another

At the end of the film there is a little moment which is meant as a little nod to the fans and possibly sets up a sequel. If that happens, and it looks likely now that it will, I would be excited to see it.

Agatha Christie, Golden Age

Ordeal By Innocence by Agatha Christie

OrdealbyInnocenceWhen I first began blogging about crime fiction I had a number of goals in mind. One of the biggest reasons I started this blog was to broaden my literary horizons. Part of that goal meant finding brand new writers and trying books from crime fiction sub-genres I would otherwise never have tried, but the other part of my thinking was that I wanted to learn more about some of the seminal figures in the genre through exploring their work.

I was, of course, already quite familiar with the works of Agatha Christie long before I began blogging. I grew up watching the ITV adaptations of the Poirot stories and I loved to listen to the June Whitfield radio versions of the Marple stories as a teen and was inspired to explore the novels themselves. Yet though I have read most of Dame Agatha’s novels featuring her two greatest creations, Miss Marple and Poirot, I have to confess that I have not dipped into much of her other work beyond And Then There Were None.

I plan to rectify that.

Ordeal by Innocence is the first book I have selected as part of that quest to educate myself about her other works. My goal is to read every one of her detective and mystery novels, beginning with the standalone works and then tackling Inspector Battle as well as Tommy and Tuppence.

Why did I select this book to be my first? The honest answer is that I know it is one of Christie’s two personal favorite works and so I hoped that I’d be starting off on a high note.

The novel begins with a man, Arthur Calgary, taking a journey to deliver a piece of information to the family of Jacko Argyle. Jacko had died in prison after being found guilty of killing his adoptive mother. He had protested his innocence, saying that he had an alibi as he was being given a lift by a stranger but no one had ever come forward to confirm Jacko’s story.

Arthur had been the man that gave Jacko that lift but, after getting hit in an accident, he was badly injured and only recently recovered his memory of what had happened when he learned of Jacko’s fate. Blaming himself, he hoped to provide comfort to the Argyle family by proving his innocence but his news has the unintended consequence of alerting the family that the real murderer must be one of them. Realizing he has only added to their troubles, Arthur determines he will protect the innocent by finding the real killer.

This is an interesting starting point for the novel and it allows Christie to define her theme of discussing the nature of innocence and justice early and clearly. It is chiefly concerned with the question of whose innocence is more important: Jacko’s or the remaining family members who were not guilty of committing the murder. I felt that this was an interesting question and that the most successful parts of the novel were those exploring the complicated reactions of the family to Arthur’s news and the ways that information alters how family members interact with one another.

By presenting her story from the various perspectives of each of the family members, Christie enables us to feel closer to her characters, to hear their worries and to understand their decision making. This is very helpful in terms of addressing her central theme and in conveying the paranoia that Arthur’s revelation brings but it also brings a problem with it. We know that at least one of the family must be the killer yet we are also privy to their thoughts. It is hard to believe that the guilty party would not be constantly worrying about their own safety as the case reopens which would present problems if we are hearing their thoughts. Christie attempts to avoid this by having that character be absorbed in a situation whenever we have to hear from them.

This compromise is a little inelegant but it exists to make sure that the novel still works as a traditional whodunit mystery building to an identification of the killer at the conclusion. I think this approach essentially works but some will find it draws attention to the killer’s identity. I do wonder if, freed from the structure of the traditional whodunit and perhaps presented in an inverted form, the novel might have been able to develop its themes even more effectively.

Christie’s decision to retain aspects of the traditional whodunit also impacts the development of the character of Arthur who assumes the mantle of detective but does not assert himself much within the narrative until the ending. Once again this feels like an awkward compromise designed to have events explained to an outsider for the reader’s benefit but, because Christie wants us to hear the family members’ thoughts first hand he is largely absent from much of what follows and so feels ill-defined and like he doesn’t really fit with the rest of the narrative. There is an attempt, near the end, to tie him more directly to the fates of one of the characters but in a novel that seeks to explore human psychology, this feels like a highly artificial development.

The Argyle family generally fares better and Christie spends considerable time exploring how this family was constructed and why each of the family members had come to resent Rachel Argyle in spite, and perhaps because, of her financial generosity with them. Some, such as the characters of Micky and Leo are particularly well drawn and possess interesting contradictions that Christie takes time to develop and illustrate.

There is one family member that didn’t sit particularly well with me and that was Tina. While the novel explores the other adoptive children’s struggles in adjusting to life in the Argyle family, Tina is more typically just defined by her mixed racial status. Where the other children’s complex feelings about their mother are explored, Tina is ‘docile’ and this is attributed to her mixed parentage. Generally I think that books have to be judged within the social context of the time they were written but it is frustrating that while her adoptive siblings’ complex feelings are explored in detail, Tina is not afforded the same depth of characterization within the novel.

While I had some issues with characterization and the development of the mystery itself, I have to say that I still found the book to be quite enjoyable and appreciated that it feels different from much of her other work. I would not agree with Christie’s own assessment that it is one of her very best works but I did find its central theme interesting and provocative.

 

Readers' Advisory

Suggested Reads: Murder on the Orient Express

I am unlikely to have time to go and see Murder on the Orient Express this weekend due to a busy work and childcare schedule but I couldn’t resist posting something that might tie in with its release. An added bonus would be that this will be my first post about Dame Agatha – it’s fairly amazing that I managed to go fifteen posts without so much as mentioning her name!

I initially toyed with doing a top five listing of my favorite Christie stories but it has been such a long time since I read many of them that I am not sure my memory would be entirely reliable. Another option was to write something about Christie’s legacy but that wouldn’t be particularly personal.

Instead I decided to do some suggestions of other Christie stories that I would recommend to those who loved this movie and want to investigate some of her other works. Below are a number of reasons you may have liked the movie with a suggestion or two to match. I am confident that if you do try them you will find a great read!

You Liked MOTOE Because… Of The Exotic Setting

DeathontheNileChristie’s work doesn’t always feature settings as magnificent or appealing to the imagination as the Orient Express but when Poirot or Marple do travel they often do so in style.

Death On the Nile is a great example of this. Here Poirot is approached by a beautiful woman while traveling in Cairo who has recently married but now finds that she is being stalked by her husband’s lover. While Poirot initially declines to assist believing there to be no crime, events take a murderous turn.

While much of the novel is spent aboard a steam ship on the great river itself, we get a sense both of the country and of the experience of travelling before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Also consider Murder in Mesopotamia, another Poirot story which is set against the backdrop of an archaeological dig.

You Liked MOTOE Because… Of Its Ingenious Solution

ABC MurdersChristie’s plotting is one of her greatest strengths and she pulled off some wonderful surprises throughout her career. Some are famous such as the solution to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but I’d rather focus on two stories that don’t get quite the same press but which I think are quite brilliant.

The ABC Murders is, to my mind, Christie’s best book that people just don’t know about. Perhaps that reflects its title or the lack of a major modern movie adaptation. In short, Poirot is challenged by a serial killer to anticipate his moves and stop him before he kills again. The serial killer is working alphabetically and leaves an ABC Railway guide near the body as a calling card. The solution is wonderfully simple and just as cunning and memorable as that of MOTOE.

A Murder Is Announced is a Miss Marple novel which has a wonderful hook: someone has placed an advert letting people know when and where a murder will take place. Inevitably the whole village seems to gather at the indicated date and time expecting a game and are shocked when a murder really is committed. Once again, the genius of this story lies in its cunning simplicity.

You Liked MOTOE Because… Trains

DeathintheCloudsWell, once again Dame Agatha provides and if trains are your thing, consider The Mystery of the Blue Train or The 4:50 From Paddington.

I’d prefer to switch gears though and suggest Death in the Clouds. Sure, the murder takes place in the skies instead of on tracks but some of the elements of this story are quite memorable and the solution to how a murder is conducted mid-flight is really quite clever.

If you are planning to watch rather than read my suggestions, I seem to remember that the David Suchet adaptation is not one of the better ones though so you may want to chase it down with a viewing of the quite wonderful (and not particularly faithful) adaptation of The 4:50 From Paddington, Murder She Said!

You Liked MOTOE Because… Of Its Star-Studded Cast

NoneWell, books aren’t really star-studded so let’s shift formats and switch to films. The good news is that there were a heap of film adaptations made in the seventies and eighties featuring some really big name stars. The Albert Finney Murder On The Orient Express is a great example – it features Sean Connery and the wonderful Ingrid Bergman among its cast.

Though I think some parts of the adaptation stretch a little too far from Christie’s original (especially the bacchanal sequence), the recent 2015 adaptation of And Then There Were None is quite chilling and features a superb cast that includes Charles Dance, Sam Neill, Aidan Turner and Toby Stephens. It also comes closer than most adaptations to using the actual ending of the novel.

So, there are some of my suggestions for some literary (and movie) chasers to wash down your viewing of Murder on the Orient Express with. Hopefully you loved the movie and I hope it won’t be too long before I get to go see it myself. If you have any comments or suggestions of your own, please do share – I’d love to read them.