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Review: "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" by Agatha Christie

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Mysterious Affair at StylesAnyone who reads even a little about literature and probably everyone who is a fan of mysteries is familiar with the name Hercule Poirot. Outside of Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe, he is the best-known detective in the history of the genre.

In this first novel by Agatha Christie, published in 1920, she introduces the inimitable Poirot, who would go on to appear in 33 Christie novels and 54 short stories. In fact, Christie spent so much time with Poirot that she began to think of him as "insufferable" and "an ego-centric creep."

At first read, Poirot appears to have more in common with Inspector Clouseau than Holmes or Marlowe notwithstanding the fact that Poirot has gained the trust and the ear of Scotland Yard. However, as his longtime friend and fellow investigator, Arthur Hastings, confides, "there is method to his madness," perhaps indicating that Poirot's bumbling could be a clever act.

Poirot tells Hastings, "We must be so intelligent that he [the killer] does not suspect us of being intelligent at all." In a clever passage where Hastings attempts to analyze this advice, Christie paints Hastings as the one who does not realize that Poirot thinks Hastings is the ideal one to impress others with his lack of intelligence.

The plot of The Mysterious Affair at Styles deals with a straightforward case of an old woman poisoned with strychnine for the obvious reason: her money. Nothing is obvious, however, in the way Christie handles a plot. The story spirals round and round, leading the reader in one direction, then another, convincing the reader that first one character, then another is the guilty party. By Christie's own admission, while writing a novel, even she doesn't know who is the guilty party. She waits till the end to decide. And a clever ending it is, as she explains convincingly why the guilty party would go to the trouble to frame himself.

Think of this novel as a page-turner but not a beach read. The reader has to pay attention and backtrack often to keep up with the clues, Poirot's analysis of those clues, and Hastings' analysis of Poirot. Backtracking, however, is not laborious, but rather fun, and the ending, satisfying.

Poirot's most famous adventure, Murder on the Orient Express would appear in 1934. It was made into an immensely successful 1974 movie starring Albert Finney. Poirot appears on the small screen in a Hugo Award winning series, aptly named "Agatha Christie's Poirot." The series has been running on British television since 1989. Thus far, 11 seasons have been released on DVD.

Christie killed Poirot in Curtain written in 1935. Hoowever, Christie had the good sense not to publish the novel until 1975, when she realized that she could not keep up with her writing the way she once did. Upon publication of the novel, Poirot became the only fictional character to have been given an obituary in The New York Times.

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