Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Many Styles of “Styles”


Published by Avon Books, 1951. Art by Barye Phillips.


October marks 100 years since the original publication of Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the intricate whodunit that introduced the famous, fastidious fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. It wasn’t the first novel Christie wrote—that was, instead, a comedy of manners tale, set in Egypt and titled Snow Upon the Desert—but it was her first book to actually see print.

To commemorate this month’s anniversary, I put together, for CrimeReads, a diverse collection of 25 covers from Styles, published over the last century. Many of those come from English-language editions, but others originated in Sweden, France, Israel, and elsewhere. I couldn’t have reasonably remarked on all of the options available (there were simply too many), but I believe this sampling represents some of the best and worst examples of Styles fronts.

Of the novel’s plot, I explain in CrimeReads:
Styles was an early and influential contribution to what’s now called the Golden Age of detective fiction, a period that stretched arguably from the 1920s through the 1940s. The book tosses us into the company of Captain Arthur Hastings, a soldier who’s been invalided home from World War I’s Western Front and has accepted an invitation to spend part of his sick leave at Styles Court, the Essex country estate of his boyhood acquaintance John Cavendish. However, his peace there is soon upset by the slaying of Cavendish’s elderly, widowed, and wealthy stepmother, Emily Inglethorp—an incident that awakened the household near the close of a summer night. Afterward, Hastings seeks help with the investigation from Hercule Poirot, a retired but once illustrious Belgian police detective Hastings had met before the war, and who has recently been living as a refugee in a cottage near Styles.

In short order, Poirot confirms his suspicions that the deceased was done in by strychnine, “one of the most deadly poisons known to mankind,” though precisely how she was dosed with that bitter neurotoxin is unknown. As is the identity of her killer. The suspects, however, are plentiful, among them John Cavendish and his younger brother, Lawrence, whose claim on their stepmother’s fortune is in doubt; Emily’s most recent and significantly more junior husband, Alfred Inglethorp, described as “a rotten little bounder”; Evelyn Howard, the late grandame’s hired companion, who exhibits singular animus toward Alfred; Mary Cavendish, whose love for husband John has suffered severely amid his dalliances and her own drab flirtations; and Cynthia Murdoch, Emily’s protégée, who happens to work in a dispensary. It’s up to Poirot, with aid from Hastings and Scotland Yard Inspector James Japp, to weigh motives and opportunities and finally suss out who among the Styles Court habitués was responsible for Mrs. Inglethorp’s premature dispatching.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ popularity is now so great, and the book’s prominence in Christie’s oeuvre so significant, that it’s hard to believe that as many as half a dozen publishers rejected that yarn before it finally reached the public in October 1920.

When you get a chance, enjoy that CrimeReads piece here.

READ MORE: “Strychnine at the Savoy: Was Agatha Christie’s Mysterious Affair at Styles Inspired by an Indian Murder?” by Arup K. Chatterjee (The Conversation); “True Crime Parallels to the Mysteries of Agatha Christie (2020) by Anne Powers,” by Kate Jackson (Cross-Examining Crime).

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