Corpses and Etiquette: Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
A few weeks ago, I found myself watching Masterpiece Mystery on PBS. On purpose. It was just one of those little moments in life where I came to the realization “oh man, I’m a grown up now.” It really boils down to the fact that watching boring English mystery shows was something my parents did, at which point grade-school-me would wander off and play Super Nintendo or something in the basement instead, with the tacit assumption that I’d never be that dull.
Fast forward a bunch of years, and guess what I’ve been watching (and reading) lately?
I’ve developed a bit of an interest in Agatha Christie over the last year or two. It’s actually kind of fun, digging into the work of an author I ignored in my youth. The sheer amount of Christie available is enough to keep me busy for awhile- some 66 novels, plus a bajillion short stories, plus about a dozen plays or so. These in turn have been adapted numerous times, including the aforementioned PBS Mystery series starring David Suchet (which is now in my Netflix queue). The Mysterious Affair at Styles is Christie’s first novel, and also the first appearance of Hercule Poirot.
Poirot himself is an interesting character- I’m sure there’s a lot of academic writing detailing the detective’s role as an outsider in this sort of thing. Hercule Poirot is brilliant- but also moody and arguably obsessive compulsive. In modern-day mysteries, this would be written as a mental disorder of some kind, but in Christie’s time, she just said “he’s Belgian” and had it at that. One of the reasons Poirot appeals to me is because it’s a role I could see myself playing, if I had a theatrical career. The proper term is “character actor.” Then again, I don’t know how to do a good French (well, Belgian) accent, so that might make it a bit more difficult.
I’ll not go into the intricate details of The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ plot, because really that would be beside the point (also, spoilers). Even if you’re not familiar with Christie’s work first-hand, you probably know a lot of the tropes already; inheritances, secret assignations, a big English manor house, a detective, the detective’s slightly dim sidekick, and, of course, a corpse. Between the cast of stock characters, the pastoral English setting, and the twisty mess of a plot, I can’t help but compare Agatha Christie to P.G. Wodehouse– it’s just that Jeeves doesn’t have to deal with dead bodies. Or if he does, I haven’t read it yet. (But now I kind of want to).
Sure, Christie relies on tropes- but at the same time, she mastered the use of them. I’ve not read enough of Agatha Christie’s work to say if The Mysterious Affair at Styles is her best book- and given that it’s her first novel, I dare say it probably isn’t. This said, it still has that Christie touch, in that the crime itself progressed in an entertainingly convoluted manner. And that’s the thing I admire most about Christie’s work- her plots are intricately planned, like the gears of a finely-tuned watch (that kills people). As a would-be writer myself, I can only aspire to her level of craft.
Really, Christie mysteries are basically Law & Order reruns in period dress. They’re a great sense of ‘fall back’ entertainment, for when there’s not much else on TV (or eye-catching at the bookstore). Christie’s ubiquitous, but that’s because she’s just that good to endure for all these years. Still, I enjoyed reading The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and I’ll look forward to reading more Christie in the future.
Not sure how entertaining subsequent Christie reviews might be, however. That’s the problem with reading quality literature- just posting “This is a classic of English literature, and thusly so!” makes for a rather short blog post. Maybe next time I’ll get all lit-theory and do a queer reading of it, or something.
Either way, at least it was better than The Wizard of 4th Street.