Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie


When the rich Emily Inglethorpe drops dead from strychnine poisoning, everyone suspects her new (and significantly younger) husband, Alfred. But Alfred's not the only one who benefits from her death--or the only one who had the opportunity to commit the heinous act. Was it one of her sons, who stood to inherit the manor at Styles? Or perhaps her daughter-in-law, Mary Cavendish, who was overheard quarreling with the victim shortly before her death? Then there's Dr. Bauerstein, who seems awfully friendly with Mary Cavendish, and has an expert knowledge of poisons ... and Cynthia, the poor relative staying with the family and working at a pharmaceutical dispensary in the next town ... and, of course, the various staff members, chief among whom is the redoubtable Ms. Evelyn Howard, the murdered woman's companion and factotum. The local police are at a bit of a loss, and Lt. Arthur Hastings, who is staying with the family while he recovers from his war wounds, can't make heads or tails of it all. Fortunately, an old friend of Lt. Hastings just happens to be staying nearby ... the inimitable (and ingenious) Hercule Poirot!

I freely confess that I graded this one rather generously for two reasons: 1) It is the first Hercule Poirot story, and as such deserves credit for kicking off a very successful series; and 2) the audiobook is narrated by David Suchet himself. For those of you who are not familiar with BBC's mystery offering, Suchet has played Poirot since 1989 and, after this next series, will have filmed adaptations of every Poirot novel and all but one of the Poirot short stories. A handful of other actors have played the role, including such notables as Albert Finney (Murder on the Orient Express, 1974), Alfred Molina (Murder on the Orient Express, 2001), Ian Holm (Murder by the Book, 1986), and Peter Ustinov, who played the role no fewer than six times. But it is Suchet who defined the role for my generation. It is a delight to hear the Poirot I know and love from television speaking to me in audiobook format--even if it's a bit jarring to hear Suchet speak in other accents. I've really only ever seen him as Poirot, so I forget that's not how he talks all the time. Turns out, he's pretty good at the other voices, too.

The story itself is serviceable enough, especially for a first try at Poirot--and, indeed, Christie's first novel! That she was able to produce such a solid story right out of the gate is impressive indeed. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Christie assigns to Hastings the duties of narrator, but unlike Dr. Watson, Hastings is frequently convinced that he's figured the whole mystery out (he is always mistaken). More than than, he often doubts Poirot's own abilities, observing that the Belgian detective is getting old and is not as sharp as he once was. This naive (and misguided) arrogance is quite amusing, though I would imagine it could grate after a while. But then, Hastings is by no means a constant figure in Poirot's world, so we needn't worry that his imbecility waits around every turn. Many novels don't include him at all. But for this first foray into Poirot's world, his skepticism about the great detective is less offensive and may echo the reader's own uncertainty about just how clever this eccentric little man could be.

If you're a fan of Poirot--in book or television form--or of Christie's writing in general, you owe it to yourself to check out this novel that started it all. And you can't do much better than Suchet's narration.

No comments: