The Occasional Christie, Vol.1

Title: The Mysterious Affair At Styles
Duh, We’re Americans: No alternate title. Which is kind of surprising; you’d think an edition of The Mysterious Thing That Happened In an English Country House Called Styles, Which is a Habit the English Have, of Naming Their Country Houses would be kicking around somewhere. (No, I’m not a fan of the common publishing practice of retitling overseas imports. If you don’t want to think about the title, what business have you reading the book anyway?)
Publication Date: 1920
Detective:
Poirot.
Hastings?
Yes. In a rare moment of actually being necessary to the plot.
Milestones: First novel Christie ever published; first appearance of Poirot
Trickiness level: Medium

Interesting thing, this concept of ‘stock’ characters. When you think about it in terms of human nature, how largely static it is to begin with, a certain whiff of off-the-shelf is bound to creep into even the most dedicatedly naturalistic novelist’s output. The more I think about the literary process, the more I wonder if real originality may not involve inventing new modes of behaviour so much as finding clever things to do with the existing ones.
Agatha Christie, a novelist if not strictly speaking a purveyor of literature, was clever like that. She knew very well she was using types; and she played their very familiarity for all she was worth, using reader assumptions for and against them with the calm subtlety of real intelligence.

This signature self-awareness kind of oozes out around the edges of The Mysterious Affair At Styles, the first step on the road to immortality. She’s not yet sure enough of her own power to deviate much from the Classic Mystery template, but boy is she raring to impress with it. Clues are scattered around the way an enthusiastic dog scatters his latest discovery from the garden around the living room, and frequently to similar effect. House-plans and maps of the murder scene and a hand-drawn fragment of a will…I still wonder off-and-on if the authors of these stories drew them themselves, or if it was left to some flunky in the publishers’ office. Then I have this whole series of related musings about what would happen if they accidentally got the plans mixed up, and am mildly entertained for a half-hour or so.

We open on an origin story of sorts for Hercule Poirot – at least, we learn what he’s doing in England. He’s one of many Belgian refugees given shelter by Emily Inglethorp, the first member of the Christie repertory company we meet and one of my personal favourites in any British media: the strong-willed matriarch – or patriarch – who’s been rendered just a wee bit dotty after generations of having people around to deal with reality for them (you’ll have to make your own inbreeding jokes here, dear, I’m busy sipping tea).

In Emily’s case, this twitch has led her up the altar, late in life with Alfred Inglethorp. Here’s the first trace of something a bit too sophisticated for the setting; Christie plays Alfred shamelessly for a smooth, plausible villain – even endowing him with a black beard. Enter Christie’s second archetype: the middle-aged woman who wears sensible shoes (the better to match her worldview) and takes no guff from anyone. You know the type. Over here, we call this cliche ‘gym teachers.’

This one is named Evelyn Howard, and she’s Mrs. Inglethorp’s devoted friend, thus Alfred’s sworn enemy. Of course, this being the genre is is, she’s not alone. The Styles menage – stepsons, wards, what-have-you – are horrified to varying (but uniformly believable, and at times surprisingly adult) degrees at Emily’s indiscretion not only because of the money, but because it’s just not done.

In another flicker of good things to come, Christie effortlessly sketches in a portrait of the era, her era, a supremely self-assured middle-class trying to deal with postwar insecurities. Everybody basically shuffling round, either excited or vaguely resenting the fact that their old spaces didn’t fit as well as they used. Styles is full of such awkward spaces, and Christie maneuvres her plot among them – a rather remarkable achievement, given that this particular genre above all other was founded on strict observance of convention.

So, Alfred’s the murderer; convention backed by good common sense says so. Besides, Mrs Inglethorp was overheard having an argument with somebody that afternoon, following which she sent for her lawyer. He was due in the morning…but late in the evening, somebody slipped strychnine in her cocoa. Clearly, the villain in the black beard has done the dastardly deed. Or is that what the author wants us to think? Or is that a cliche, too?
It’s interesting, how this story works both with the expectations of contemporary readers, taking it all so breathlessly seriously, and modern ones, cynically expecting to be amused. As Robert Barnard put it, “You think you’ve got it all figured out this time…then you turn the page and damnit, she’s done it again.”

Yes, yes she has. Literally every few pages, somebody’s doing something suspicious at Styles. (We even get a random German spy thrown in, though not any explanation of what he’s doing in the English countryside beyond conforming to reader paranoia. Christie’s grasp of international intrigue, from first to last, can best be described as charmingly naiive.)  For all his later contempt of Hastings’ need for him to ‘run around measuring the footprints and collecting the cigarette ash,” Poirot is kept on the hop in this first appearance, muttering over cocoa mugs and examining broken locks and just generally hilighting an aspect of these stories that has always bugged me mightily.

The relationship between Poirot and Hastings is obviously supposed to be Holmes/Watson – right down to Hastings’ moving in with Poirot when invalided out of the service. Then in the second book, Hastings falls for a woman involved in the case. I keep expecting the bull pup to show up…hopefully to clamp onto Inspector Japp’s leg. But that’s an aggravation for another day. The point at issue is that – er, Morbo?

HOLMES AND WATSON DO NOT WORK THAT WAY!

Thank you, Morbo.

Seriously. It’s obvious to a generation raised on the Granada adaptations, but back in the day it was apparently a fine point to grasp: Watson wasn’t stupid. He was a capable, intelligent man of the world, who just happened to constantly hang out with someone who was a lot more observant and a genius re: deduction. He humanised Holmes, made him accessible.

Christie picked up on this to a certain extent; Captain Arthur Hastings is the natural stolid British foil for Poirot’s ‘comic foreigner’ act, pointing up just how much of an act it is. Here he provides a convenient – and sypically Christie-esque – means for the little Belgian’s entree into English society: They met overseas, they chatted about crime and deduction, Hastings felt the sort of satisfying condescension one feels in chatting with the elderly – the foreign elderly are even better value, what with the hand gestures and everything. Now, properly appalled at the prospect of murder and attendant urgencies, he’s more than happy to give Poirot a recommendation that develops into an ongoing tour through the niceties of English manners and mores.

Thing is, this keeps up way past the sell-by date, until it’s like the most counter-productive authorial gambit ever. I think, in creating him, she actually outsmarted herself. If Hastings is his creator’s idea of ‘the perfectly normal mind’, as Poirot would later imply, she was a shocking cynic from a very early age. Put bluntly, Hastings is really, really stupid. Also small-minded, smug, unimaginative, unwilling to learn from experience, and did I mention stupid? He not only can’t follow Poirot through the maze of clues, if you shunted him into a laboratory I kind of doubt whether he’d find the cheese before the rat.

Watson, bless him for all the guff it brought on his head, recognised he was in the presence of genius, and appreciated the opportunity, just as would happen in real life (because, frankly, it’s difficult to imagine the genius bothering under any other circs). And the reader loves him for it. Hastings is confronted with a more charming, more accessible, more fun genius than Holmes the moody drug-addict ever was…and he just keeps on keepin’ on, being stolid and smug and British middle-class, until the reader – quoting his creator again, about somebody else unfortunately – ‘long[s] earnestly and fervently to kick him.”

Compounding the problem is that since this is a Classic Mystery novel, Poirot can’t actually discuss the clues with Hastings, or work with him to develop a theory, or anything else that might interfere with the reader’s study of those house-plans. He can only chide him for not using his ‘little grey cells’ enough, and move on to the next maddeningly vague reference to cocoa mugs and obscure medical terms.

Christie entirely never entirely cured herself of this habit – even the classic Poirot stories tend to contain murder plots of a complexity that would leave Bond villains gasping – but she would, eventually, learn to make it work for her, rather than against, by shifting Poirot’s, and Jane Marple’s, focus to the ‘psychology of the individual’. Why her suspects did things, not how.

This is why, when I’m making my roughly annual rounds of the Christie canon, I leave Styles till last, when I’m sated with subtlety and just barely hungry for a morsel more Poirot. It’s fun to realise what was just around the corner…

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