And here we go, launching the #1920club – a week where we read, enjoy and share our love of books from a year from the 20th century. This time we’ve chosen something special – a date that fell 100 years ago and yielded a wide and interesting range of books – 1920!

As is so often the case, I’m choosing to kick off the week with one of my most beloved authors – the wonderful Agatha Christie! As I’ve mentioned before, I read her books first in my teens and I’ve loved and collected them since. She was an astonishingly prolific writer, and 1920 is a special year in the Agatha Christie world; because it saw the publication of her first novel, and the debut of her iconic detective Hercule Poirot. The novel is “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” and though I’ve read it many times, I relished a revisit!

Agatha Christie Mysterious Affair at Styles 1920club tea flowers golden age crime

It’s well-known that Christie worked in Torquay’s hospital as a dispenser of medication during the First World War, and it was here she conceived her first crime novel. Poirot was apparently inspired by her encounters with Belgian refugees during her work, and it’s clear she drew from some elements of her life in the book. The story is narrated by Arthur Hastings, making his first appearance as Poirot’s somewhat hapless sidekick; on sick leave from the war, he travels down to Styles Court in Essex to stay with an old friend, John Cavendish. Styles is not a happy place at the moment; John’s wealthy stepmother Mrs. Inglethorp has married a man the family dislike intensely; John’s marriage is rocky and rumours abound; and Mrs. Inglethorp has just had a major quarrel with her loyal companion, Evelyn Howard. Also staying at the house are John’s brother Lawrence, and orphan Cynthia Murdoch, an informal ward of Mrs. Inglethorp. Emotions are obviously near the surface and not long after Hastings’ arrival Mrs. Inglethorp is poisoned in the night, but in a room which is apparently locked from the inside. Evidence points to her husband, although he may have an alibi; and it seems that several other characters may have perfectly good motives for the murder.

Poirot was an extraordinary-looking little man. He was hardly more than 5’4”, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little to one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.

Fortunately for all, Hastings has bumped into an old friend who happens to be living locally: one Hercule Poirot, a refugee from Belgium who has escaped and is settling in England with the help of Mrs. Inglethorp (who seems to have been aiding a number of Poirot’s fellow countrymen). Described as having been “one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police”, he’s ideally placed to investigate and fortunately the police will not object. Enter Inspector James Japp of Scotland Yard who also knows Poirot of old as they’ve worked together previously and he’s happy to have Poirot’s input. So the stage is set for the team’s first case, and it’s a wonderfully twisty and clever one.

Even though I know the book well, it was a real joy to return to, and to experience reading it with the focus on the fact it was Christie’s first book (as well as Poirot’s first outing). For a first novel it’s remarkably accomplished, eminently readable, fiendishly clever and very satisfying. So many elements stood out, and as I could remember whodunnit I could take pleasure in simply enjoying the story and seeing such well-loved characters take their place on Christie’s stage.

via Wikimedia Commons

Because Emily Inglethorp was poisoned it was hard not to think of Christie drawing on her experience as a dispenser (and poisons recurr again and again in Christie’s fiction). Interestingly, Cynthia Murdoch is also a dispenser and I did wonder if she was a little self-portrait? The characters are remarkably vivid and well-formed, and as I implied above, it’s hard to believe this is a first novel; those characters and relationships we take for granted now almost seem to have sprung ready formed from her pen. Already there’s a lovely relationship between Poirot and Hastings, with the latter playing the Watson-ish foil to the great detective, and Christie is not averse to poking fun at her characters.

“Yes, he is intelligent. But we must be more intelligent. We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.”
I acquiesced.
“There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”

Interestingly, the fledgling Poirot is less mannered in some ways than he eventually ends up; he has his moustaches and his quirks of behaviour, some of which are essential to the solution, but we are left in no doubt of his prestige in the Belgian force and the serious situation which has led him to this country. The two are very Holmes and Watson, as was the template in Golden Age crime of the time, with the wonderful Japp taking the Lestrade role. Nevertheless, these characters have an existence all of their own, proved I suppose by the fact they’ve become as embedded in our culture as has Sherlock Holmes.

But putting this aside, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” is a marvellously entertaining read with a twisty and ingenious solution. I think it’s hardly surprisingly that Christie and Poirot went on to be such a success; Hastings is a wonderful narrator (and I wish she’d used him more than she eventually did), Poirot brilliant and Japp the perfect foil for them both. It’s classic Christie, classic golden age crime and a wonderful start to my week of reading books from 1920! 😀