Sunday, 11 August 2013

Penguin no. 61/no. 6: The Mysterious Affair at Styles
by Agatha Christie

Poirot was an extraordinary looking little man. 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. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused hom 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. As a detective his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published twice by Penguin during its early years, the first time as the original no. 6, and then later as Penguin no. 61. It was one of two titles originally provided to the fledgling company by Bodley Head for inclusion in their first ten books, but contractual problems led to its withdrawal a few months later and its replacement with the alternative Agatha Christie title The Murder on the Links, numbered initially as Penguin no. 6A.

But in later reissues, to confuse matters, The Murder on the Links was renumbered as Penguin no. 6, so that Penguin's first ten actually comprises eleven titles. This variability is captured in the photo below which Eifion posted on Flickr a few years ago. It shows two different titles published as Penguin no. 6, and The Mysterious Affair at Styles published with two different Penguin numbers, though he also notes that the first no. 6 came in two forms so that determined first issue collectors must find five different vintage Penguin books if they wish to cover all of the no.6/6A/61 possibilities.

The Mysterious Case of Penguin Number 6

The copy I read was a reprint of no. 61 which arrived in the mail a few weeks ago as a much appreciated gift from Terry in Melbourne, accompanied by another five old Penguins and an old Pelican.  That it is from the ninth reissue, yet still published before the war, and at a time when the company was only a few years old, gives some indication of just how popular the Penguin enterprise must have been from the start, or perhaps it shows how well they had selected their initial titles.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie's first attempt at detective fiction, and it is the book in which she introduces Hercule Poirot. We learn that he is one of a number of Belgian refugees being accommodated in a small house in the village of Styles St. Mary and Hastings, who narrates the story, records some dismay that the renown of the man being sheltered is not more widely appreciated by his fellow villagers. Yet while Hastings is full of admiration for Poirot's earlier achievements, he has his doubts about his continuing effectiveness. Undeterred by his own deficiency of experience in solving cases, Hastings has plans for a career as a private detective, and as events unfold he can only see in the divergence between Poirot's conclusions and his own evidence in support of his hypothesis that the great man's faculties must be diminishing with age.

The mysterious affair concerns the sudden death of Mrs Inglethorpe, owner of Styles Court. From early in the story it is clear that she cannot be destined to live much longer, as her recent marriage to a much younger man has not gone down well with her step-children or her other dependants, all of whom seem to have problems with money and to be quietly awaiting her demise. It seems that she is a generous woman, devoting her time to philanthropic pursuits, and willingly providing a home to these various dependants, but her charity tends to come at a price: she uses it to control the lives of others, and she enjoys their awareness of their dependency. But enforced dependence inevitably encourages feelings of resentment, and these feelings are intensified by the belief that the money should never have been hers to disburse: the estate and the income she was left by her husband should really have gone to his children.

She dies one morning, just before dawn, with most of the members of the household gathered around her bedside. They had been summoned from their own beds by her cries, and then broken into her locked bedroom and watched as she was racked by contorting pains indicative of strychnine poisoning, and then as she succumbed to asphyxiation. The principal mystery lies in just how the poison had been administered, for strychnine is a fast-acting poison, and her bedroom had been locked and bolted from within. Her husband's absence is noted, and as the most disliked member of the household, he immediately becomes the principal suspect. Later that day Hastings suggests that Poirot should be brought in to investigate.

With his extreme fussiness, his idiosyncratic way of talking, and his propensity to gambol when excited, Poirot is portrayed here as a comic character, and a figure of amusement to his fellow villagers. I found the most entertaining aspect of this story to be the interplay between Hastings and Poirot, with Hastings consistently overestimating his own abilities, jumping to all the obvious conclusions, and ignoring all details which cannot find a place in support of his conjectures, while remaining dubious of Poirot's efforts. Yet Poirot cannot solve the crime without him; in the end it is Hasting's rambling reflections which alert Poirot to the detail he has overlooked, so in a way they find the solution together.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles has at least one further Penguin link, in that it was first accepted for publication in 1920 by (Penguin founder) Allen Lane's relation and benefactor John Lane, for Bodley Head, subject to an altered ending. And when the alternative ending was later found, it showed that Agatha Christie had initially planned that Poirot should reveal the murderer's identity from the witness box during a court case. Prompted to change it, she had altered it to the type of scene which then became the convention, with the answer revealed at a gathering of all the potential suspects.

First published 1920; published in Penguin Books 1935.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 684: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Penguin no. 686: The Murder at the Vicarage

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