The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Mysterious Affair at StylesMy second Agatha Christie.  I had a yen to read her again, because the books are quick and easy, like junk food.  Being written in the ’20s means they have a bit more sophistication than your average Stephen King novel, but in truth they are the same level of book.  Enjoyable, quick, but not life-changing.

This book was no exception.  It was engaging, unpretentious, and a pleasure to read.  That being said, I must start out my review by pointing out that Mr. Hastings, the narrator of this story, is the dumbest character I have ever had to read about.  What a clueless bland bag of flour.  And this guy apparently appears in 8 other Poirot stories?  I could barely deal with him once.  Agatha, I know you’re dead, and have no reason to change your books now, but I need to give you some advice.  You do not need to make a dunce accompany Poirot in order for us to see that he is intelligent. I know Watson isn’t as brilliant as Holmes, but he’s (in the books anyway) of average, if not slightly above average, intelligence).  Hastings, on the other hand, is one step above lake algae.

Hastings is like the fat friend who makes the other girls look thinner and prettier. I am not exaggerating; I think he has an IQ below 80.  Not only is he dumb compared to Poirot, he is dumb compared to every other character in the book. If Hastings is supposed to represent the ‘reader’ as we bumble along through the mystery, then Christie thought her readers were utter imbeciles.  I recently found a website titled ‘Shut the Fuck Up, Hastings!’ so I know I’m not alone in my irritation. But I’ve now said my piece, and can move on.

This book was Christie’s first published novel, and is also the first glance her readers got of Poirot, the odd Belgian detective who would feature in some of her biggest hits, like Murder on the Orient Express.  Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings, and DI Japp (apparently) all make many appearances in later novels.  Christie admitted that she based this trio on the Holmes-Watson-Lestrade relationship, and it shows.  Poirot is no Holmes, though.  He’s a short, older foppy gentleman with slight OCD and a paunchy belly. No girl is going to have a crush on Poirot, that’s for sure.

The book opens with the dimwitted Hastings home from WWI and visiting friends at Styles.  There’s his old friend John Cavendish, and his aloof and beautiful wife Mary.  The matriarch, Emily Inglethorp and her (new) second husband, Alfred. The younger brother Lawrence, the ‘ward’ Cynthia, and the secretary Evelyn. The poison expert, Dr. Bauerstein.

Within a few days, the matriarch of the household has been poisoned, and everyone suspects her new second husband.  This being a murder mystery, the action obviously does not end there. Poirot gets involved to help determine who committed the murder and how.  Was she murdered via the coffee? Her nightly cocoa?  The sleeping powders?  Who burned her newly-written will?

I thought it was a good mystery, and though not as smart as Poirot, I’m nowhere near as dumb as Hastings.  So I saw some of the twists coming beforehand, but didn’t anticipate the denouement.  I think that’s about the perfect experience for a murder mystery.  You feel smart enough since you saw some of the clues and drew correct conclusions, but you’re still surprised in the end.

I found this book, despite the lovely mystery, to be lacking in characterization.  I could see glimmerings of the truth about Mary Cavendish (who looked like Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary in my imagination) and Cynthia. I could picture the moody Lawrence or the no-nonsense Evelyn.  I could see a love story brewing here and there, but it was like looking through the haze. Hastings was stupid and dull, but as the narrator we see most of the action through his eyes.  It’s a bit like swimming through jello, trying to glean any information from his incompetent retelling. As such, I felt a bit impatient for the plot to zoom along, since characters alone were not sufficient to make this book worthwhile.

So I didn’t love it–characters are really important.  But I still enjoyed it, because Christie is really good at this murder mystery stuff.  I think next time, I just need to go for one of the stories without Hastings in it.

My previous foray into the works of Christie was soured by a lot of antisemitism.  I’m pleased that this book had…less.  A few unsavory mentions of so and so being ‘a Jew’, as if it were an insult.  A really and truly unfortunate tale of one of the people dressing up in blackface, using burned corks to color her hair dark, in order to put on what must have been an incredibly appalling skit. It’s a thin line when you read old fiction.  Shakespeare has a lot of mentions about jewish people, about black people (more than you would think anyway, given that it was the 16th century in England) and they can make a reasonable 21st century person feel a bit uncomfortable.  On the other hand, Shakespeare wrote Othello and The Merchant of Venice.  Christie’s tidbits of casual and horrifying racism/antisemitism are far more disturbing in their thoughtless inclusion where they are not needed.  They come from a place of undeniable privilege and ignorance, and betray a nonchalance that makes me a little sick.  A Telegraph article about Christie’s antisemitism had this quote: The stereotyping made me squirm. But would I erase it? Never: to see antisemitism so endemic in the works of a highly-respected and best-selling author is to understand a period of history – and its horrific consequences.

Like taking medicine, it’s important to look back and to be horrified. That’s the only way to avoid doing horrifying things again.  And judging by the comments from incensed Christie fans claiming there’s nothing antisemitic about her works, I’m guessing this sentiment is warranted.

But that article also compares Christie’s casual antisemitism to Mark Twain’s very purposeful discussion of the black experience in America during a time of slavery and abject destitution.  They are not the same.  Christie is not interested in examining these prejudices, any more than Jane Austen was interested in the plight of the lady’s maid. Her prejudices are just there, making it obvious that she thought them nothing to be ashamed of.  So my feelings of guilt at reading and enjoying Christie’s books continue.  But she seemed so nice in that Doctor Who episode…and there’s that picture of her surfing!  Disappointing.

agathachristiesurfing

 

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