poirot early“Pure chance led my friend Hercule Poirot, formerly chief of the Belgian force, to be connected with the Styles Case.”

It’s been a given since the first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, that he is a world-renowned detective, admired and revered by much of society, with a reputation that has cemented him as the smartest detective in the world. But how did he get to this position? Assuming it wasn’t an overnight success, although the Styles Case did a lot for him, there must have been a time before he was so well known.

In this collection of eighteen short stories, we see, as the title helpfully suggests, some of the earlier cases that Poirot dealt with that helped secure his position. Mostly narrated by Captain Hastings, and featuring Inspector Japp, Miss Lemon and Countess Vera Rossakoff in early appearances, these stories were all written and published between 1923 and 1935, but weren’t collected until the 1970s. Like Poirot Investigates, the stories are very brief and show Christie’s mastery at setting up a crime, the suspects and still pulling off an ingenious twist in a matter of twenty or so pages. Personally, I feel that this collection holds up better than Poirot Investigates, which makes it all the stranger that those ones were published at the time and these were not.

The quality of the stories is fairly consistent, and each one sets up a whole new scenario for Poirot to get his teeth into. Most of them revolve around murder, but he also deals with kidnappings, thefts and missing persons, solving each with his usual flair and reliance on the little grey cells. My favourite stories in the collection are probably “The Lemesurier Inheritance”, in which an old family curse rears its head once more and threatens the life of a child, and “The Adventure of the Clapham Cook”, a case that Poirot nearly doesn’t take, believing himself to be above the hunt for missing domestics, but turns out to be far more interesting than he first envisioned.

One notable character introduction is that of Countess Vera Rossakoff, a Russian criminal aristocrat whom Poirot admires for her charm and beauty. It’s said that this is perhaps the only woman that Poirot could ever love, and indeed he thinks of her often and comes up against her in a couple of other stories. Their relationship is similar to that of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, in that they seem to respect one another but are on different sides of the law.

All in all, the book is a fascinating study into how to write short mysteries, giving the reader a full story in a very short space of time. There are fewer suspects in each case, of course, but the twists are just as brilliant as they are in any of her novels, and each tale is a new treat showing that Christie seemed to have a limitless supply of crimes at the ready for Poirot to solve, with just as many red herrings and plot twists. A marvellous collection.

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