It was a meeting (a reunion, actually) that rivals, in the history of crime fiction, the first meeting between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson:
As I came out again, I cannoned into a little man who was just entering. I drew aside and apologized, when suddenly, with a loud exclamation, he clasped me in his arms and kissed me warmly.
"Mon ami Hastings" he cried. "It is indeed mon ami Hastings!"
"Poirot" I exclaimed.
And so, for the first time, Captain Arthur Hastings introduces the reader to his "old friend," Monsieur Hercule Poirot, war refugee and retired Belgian police detective. And it proves to be a good thing that he did, for without M. Poirot's intervention (and without Captain Hastings to record the results!), the poisoning of a disagreeable old woman at the country manor known as Styles might well have gone unsolved - or pinned on the wrong person. It all happens in Agatha Christie's very first mystery novel, published in 1920, "The Mysterious Affair at Styles," which is the subject of today's review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
"The Mysterious Affair at Styles" contains a great many of what would become Christie's trademarks: it is set in a country house; the victim is a particularly unpleasant family tyrant; there are a lot of people around who might well have had sufficient motive for murder; the police are headed in the wrong direction and need help from Poirot; and the mystery is solved and explained at a confrontation in a drawing room where Poirot has gathered all the suspects.
The story of the creation of Hercule Poirot is fairly well known. He sprang, more-or-less fully formed, into Agatha Christie's head, an already-elderly retired foreign police detective who came to England as a war refugee from his native Belgium. That "already-elderly" designation would come to haunt Christie, who acknowledged in her autobiography that Poirot must have been well over a hundred years old before his career finally ended.
All the same, Poirot's first case, in "The Mysterious Affair at Styles," is a delight, made all the more astonishing by the fact that the story was written by a young woman with next to no real writing experience, dared by her sister to try her hand at writing a detective story. The book is full of Christie's marvelous tricks, as she uses misdirection artfully to throw readers off the right track. The poisoning is quite brilliantly handled; Christie used her extensive knowledge of poisons (acquired as a hospital dispenser during the Great War) to provide a novel and ingenious solution to the problem of "howdunit." If the characters are less than perfectly drawn, the plot is more than sufficient to carry the book along.
After "The Mysterious Affair at Styles," Christie went on to write novels, short stories and plays, eighty books in all; I think that no other author quite embodies the heart of the Golden Age of Detection as Agatha Christie does. If you've never read the book that started it all, what are you waiting for? There are inexpensive paperbacks available (see the link above); for that matter there are inexpensive Amazon Kindle versions including one for 99 cents which also includes Christie's second novel, the Tommy-and-Tuppence thriller "The Secret Adversary," another fun read.
"The Mysterious Affair at Styles" is my entry for the 1920s in the "Deadly Decades" division of the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge under way at Bev's My Reader's Block blog. Check there for some of the other wonderful classic mysteries being read by other bloggers - books which you might enjoy reading.