THE BOOK PAN,1967 pp 190
This is a typical Pan cover from the 1960s. It features a couple of possible clues to the mystery – a crushed mug of coffee and a set of keys. The lead designer for Pan at the time, David Larkin, was responsible for introducing photographic images to replace the somewhat garish artwork from the previous decade (look at the difference!).
The lettering is beautiful, and the image of Agatha Christie that he chose is perfect. It used to frighten me: Oh, Grandma, what big eyes you’ve got… she looks like she is watching someone about to drink some tea that she had previously poisoned.
The story was written in 1916, at the height of the Great War. Captain Arthur Hastings has been invalided home from the Western Front and invited by his friend John Cavendish to stay at Styles, the Cavendish family home. By chance, Hastings meets an old friend, the retired police detective Hercule Poirot, in the local village. When the owner of the house, the recently re-married Emily Inglethorpe, is poisoned, Hastings persuades Cavendish to call Poirot in to investigate.
This is a classic Christie / “Golden Age” setting: murder in a country house, with plenty of suspects staying in it! Except, of course, that it was the first one she wrote.
As she was often to do, Christie makes full use of what she knows to build her plot: in this case, the attributes of various poisons (she was working in a dispensary at the time she wrote it).
In this book we are introduced to Poirot, Hastings and Inspector Japp – Christie’s take on Conan Doyle’s Holmes, Watson and Lestrade. In time, these characters would become as well-, if not better-, known than those that inspired their creation. In comparison, the rest of the cast of characters are somewhat pallid, although Mrs Inglethorpe makes for an unusually sympathetic victim (by Agatha Christie standards).
Poirot is a Belgian refugee from the Great War (there were plenty of them around Torquay, where the author lived). Maybe his refugee status made Poirot, unlike just about everyone else with whom he comes into contact during his long career, sympathise with the down-on-their-luck and the dispossessed, and evince absolutely no trace of prejudice or racism.
Agatha Christie is sometimes berated for her racial ‘incorrectness’; certainly, many of her characters carelessly make what we now, 100 years later, would deem to be racist or offensive comments, but never Poirot. Far from it. Here, Poirot discusses Dr Bauerstein (who has just been revealed to be a German spy) with Hastings:
“He is, of course, German by birth,” said Poirot thoughtfully, “though he has practised so long in this country that nobody thinks of him as anything but an Englishman. He was naturalised about fifteen years ago. A very clever man – a Jew, of course”.
“The blackguard!” I cried indignantly.
“Not at all. He is, on the contrary, a patriot. Think what he stands to lose. I admire the man myself.”
Hastings’ reaction may be explained by the fact that he had been invalided out of the War; Poirot, who has lost everything as a refugee from the invading German Army, still manages an even-minded assessment of the doctor, whose cleverness is explained by his Jewish origins.
The irony is that the Jews, whether they had fought for their country or not, were blamed by the Nazis after the war for its failure and branded as collaborators with the enemy. Bauerstein had even more to lose than Poirot could have imagined.
SWIGATHA RATING An essay in the craft – 5/10
It is quite amusing in places, and as ever very easy to read, but Poirot jumps about like a scalded cat, the incriminating evidence plotline is unconvincing, and unless you understand the properties of the various drugs you would struggle to unravel it. ‘Styles’ was the fore-runner of, and standard-bearer for, the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction but, even so, it is not a book that lingers with me.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
‘Styles’ was rejected by some publishers. It first appeared in the UK in serial form in The Times, and in book form in the US, in 1920. It was eventually published in the UK in 1921.
Within a couple of years, thanks in part to the income from the book, Agatha and her then husband Archie had bought a house, which they named Styles. It was, according to her, ‘an unlucky house – everyone who lived there always came to grief in some way…’1 She and Archie were to be no exception.
In the meantime, Agatha Christie expanded her repertoire, with adventure mysteries featuring ‘bright young things’ and short stories featuring Poirot and Hastings. The next novel to feature the pair was The Murder on the Links, published in 1923.
The ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot had for its first two two seasons almost exclusively been concentrating on adapting her short stories when in 1990 (in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth) it produced Styles. It was very faithful to the original, apart from the omission of the German-Doctor-Spy Bauerstein.
I find that many of the better film or TV adaptations of Agatha Christie are based on the less admirable stories (“Nemesis” being the classic example), and that is also the case here.
Poirot, Hastings and Japp (David Suchet, Hugh Fraser and the brilliant Philip Jackson) had already made their mark in a series of one-hour programmes based on the short stories.
Christopher Gunning’s theme for the shorter programmes was a huge popular success. His incidental music for this film adds to its lustre. Much of it was recorded and issued, along with other themes from the early programmes, by Discovery Music.2
The only other adaptations I have heard of were on BBC Radio, the most recent of which also featured Philip Jackson in the role of Japp.
1 Agatha Christie, The Autobiography
2 Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Music from the Television Series (Discovery DMV103)