“The Mysterious Affair At Styles” by Agatha Christie (1921)

1 Comment

“The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at the time as ‘The Styles Case’ has now somewhat subsided.”

Ninety-eight years ago this January, a book was published that changed everything. It wasn’t the first murder mystery, and it wasn’t the first bit of detective fiction, but it would revolutionise the genre, introduce one of the most compelling and loved characters in fiction, and lead to its author staking her claim as the bestselling author in history. The Mysterious Affair at Styles is not just a great book because of its content, but what it stands for and what it led to. I begin my re-read of Agatha Christie the only place that is good and proper – at the beginning.

We find ourselves in England at some point during the Great War. Arthur Hastings has been invalided out of the army and is back home, at a loss, until he bumps into his old friend John Cavendish. Hastings takes up the offer of going to stay at his family’s country house, Styles, but when he arrives, things aren’t particularly rosy. Tensions are high as John’s mother, Emily, has recently remarried and her new husband, Alfred Inglethorp, isn’t particularly popular with everyone else, not lead Emily’s sons or her companion Evelyn Howard.

Things reach a head, however, when Mrs Inglethorp dies one evening, apparently having been poisoned. It seems now that several of the residents would happily have seen her dead, and no one knows who they can trust. Hastings calls in Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective of his acquaintance who happens to be living nearby with some fellow Belgian refugees. Poirot is regarded as one of the sharpest detective minds in the world, and with his fastidiousness and gentle touch, he begins investigating the murder, taking into account far too much strychnine, a suspicious doctor, a burnt will, a broken coffee cup and a smear of candle grease. Can he bring the villain to justice before it’s too late?

As the very first time we meet Poirot, this book does have a little bit of early weirdness, such as when we see Poirot run and gambol across a garden, something he’d never do in later books – particularly without his hat on. He is already an old man here, which Christie would come to regret when she then continued writing about him for fifty years. It gives a little of his backstory though and explains what he is doing in England, although none of this detracts from the plot, which, as ever with Christie, is king. I hadn’t read this one for many years, so I couldn’t remember the entire solution, but I could pick out half of it, and when you know, you can see the clues more obviously. Everything you need to know to solve it is there, but emphasis isn’t necessarily placed on the most important clues. When you get to Poirot explaining his solution at the end, he ties up absolutely every clue, be them major or throwaway lines that you didn’t take notice of, into a neat answer.

Christie worked as a pharmacy dispenser during both world wars, and the influence of that is very clear here, as a hospital dispensary and a young pharmacist both feature somewhat prominently in the story. She naturally uses poison as her weapon of choice for her first murder, as she knows a lot about them, and would continue to do so through much of her career. The book also manages to tie in the Great War well, with even the setting providing more clues about the solution, and giving us an explanation as to why Hastings – who inexplicably is only thirty here, far younger than I recalled or the TV show suggested – isn’t currently on the front lines.

It feels neatly cyclical to be here again, as the last one I read was Curtain, which is Poirot’s final case and also takes place at Styles, with Hastings. It is a brilliant book, and the beginning of an unrivalled career. I’m so happy to be diving back into this world again. One down, seventy-nine to go…

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

Advertisements

“A Is For Arsenic” by Kathryn Harkup (2015)

1 Comment

“The name ‘arsenic’ has become almost synonymous with poison – it could be argued that it represents the gold-standard of criminal poisoning.”

Do you ever find yourself reading a book or watching a film and there’s a character in it with an unusual job and you go, “I could do that”? It happens to me with alarming regularity, but it really kicked into effect with this book. I found myself wishing I could redo everything and have studied science for longer at school and gone on to be a toxicologist. Of course, I’m sure this desire will last only as long as it takes for this book to fade a little from my memory, but suffice to say at this moment, there’s a part of me that wants to dive back into education and switch from artistic pursuits to scientific ones.

My Agatha Christie obsession remained forefront as I delved into A is for Arsenic, which takes a look at a bunch of poisons and both describes how they work and how Christie used them in her stories. Not everyone knows that Christie worked as a pharmacy dispenser during both wars, and it was here that she picked up all of her detailed knowledge on the world of poisons. The most common cause of death among her characters was poison, and she always did her best to ensure the science was correct. As Kathryn Harkup recounts here, it seems that most of the time she was spot on.

The fourteen poisons covered in the book are arsenic, belladonna, cyanide, digitalis, eserine, hemlock, monkshood, nicotine, opium, phosphorus, ricin, strychnine, thallium and Veronal. They form a blend of very well known killers, and some that are downright obscure. For example, ricin and thallium were both unheard of as methods of murder before Christie wrote about them. However, it seems that sometimes her stories gave rise to ideas in the real world, and there’s been more than one killer caught because he had one of her books stashed away in his study. Conversely, on a few occasions people have been saved by recognising the symptoms of poisoning from reading a Christie novel. While there are some people who consider her detailed use of science to be damaging, her books are generally highly praised for their accuracy.

Each chapter studies a particular poison, giving details of where it can be obtained, how it was discovered, how exactly it kills, and whether there is an antidote. Among these, we also learn about real life cases involving the poison, and it all gets related back to one of Christie’s plots and how accurate she was. There are some surprising facts here, not only about the poisons, but about Christie herself, and we learn a little more about her scientific mind. The poisons are the real stars though, and it’s fascinating to learn about the very close relationship between morphine and heroin, quite how poisonous pure nicotine is, how best to mask the bitter taste of cyanide, and which poisons are still used today. Hemlock, for example, while being quite famous for its toxic qualities, hasn’t been recorded as being used to intentionally kill someone since the days of Socrates. Christie made use of it in Five Little Pigs, one of my favourites.

Although for the most part Harkup avoids sharing spoilers, there are a few present, but always headed with a warning to skip ahead if you don’t want to see “whodunnit”. Generally we aren’t told, but sometimes the solutions need to be explained to give an extra detail on how the poison is used within the story. For anyone with an interest in Christie’s work or toxicology (or ideally, like myself, both), this is a startlingly good read. If not inspiring me quite fully to become a toxicologist, I am at least inspired to return to the murder mystery I started writing. I believe there is some cyanide in a cocktail I need to sort out…

“After The Funeral” by Agatha Christie (1953)

2 Comments

Let's put this year to rest.

Let’s put this year to rest.

“Old Lanscombe moved totteringly from room to room, pulling up the blinds.”

The year is almost at an end  – thank goodness – but there was still time to squeeze in one more book before it ended. Given the slew of high profile deaths this year – with George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds all joining the list in the last few days – it seemed that there was only one book suitable to sum up the year. This is Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral.

The remaining members of the Abernethie family have gathered at the family pile of Enderby Hall after the funeral of the eldest brother, Richard. Everyone seems far more eager to have lunch and get the will read, rather than do much mourning. After solicitor Mr Entwhistle goes over the basics of the will, Richard’s younger sister, the slightly scatty and simple Cora Lansquenet comments that it’s all been rather hushed up and when everyone stares at her in confusion, she adds, “He was murdered, wasn’t he?”

The family think that Cora may just be trying to wind them up or has entirely got hold of the wrong end of the stick, but the next day, Cora is found mudered in her bed, a hatchet taken to her sleeping body several times. Suspicion abounds immediately, as it seems the Abernethie family have a killer in their midst, and it will surely only be a matter of time before they strike again. Entwhistle calls in the assistance of Hercule Poirot, who sets about infiltrating the family to find out the truth behind these deaths.

It’s hard to often know what to keep saying about Christie novels. They are all so clever and interesting that they generally garner a lot of praise from me immediately. This one is definitely very smart, and while I’d brushed up against the solution a couple of times, I had chased myself away from it too with other ideas. The red herrings are deftly placed, and truly right up until the reveal just a few pages before the end, it could plausibly have been any of the suspects. In many ways, this is peak Christie – a big house, a dysfunctional, wealthy family, a string of murders. Perhaps the most striking elements are the fact that all the murders are very different, whereas most murderers seem to have a particular method, and that, as Sophie Hannah says in her introduction to the book, the motive is non-transferable. That is, it’s a motive that could not belong to any other character, making the solution all the tighter.

Christie wasn’t fussed about how likely things were to happen. As long as they could happen, no matter how unlikely, then that was good enough for her to use. This allows her to write books like this, where the ending feels unique, and her style is so good that you don’t find yourself questioning any of the methods. This is, dare I say it, one of her best books, with a collection of selfish characters and speedy pacing that serves as a great delight to see out the year.

So, let’s put this year to rest. Early in the new year, I shall present a list of my ten favourite books of 2016, but until then, I wish you all the best for 2017. X