Agatha Christie Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis
By 1980 Agatha Christie’s books had sold more than four hundred million copies in 102 countries and 103 languages. Only the Bible and William Shakespeare have sold more, and they have had a few centuries’ head start. If all the American editions of Peril at End House (1932) were placed end to end, they would reach from Chicago to the moon. The Mousetrap, which has earned millions of dollars, has exceeded all previous record runs by several decades, and Christie is the only playwright to have had three plays being performed simultaneously in London’s West End while another was being produced on Broadway. To what do her works owe the popularity that has earned for her the title “Queen of Crime”?
The solution to this mystery lies in Christie’s combination of originality and convention, a fusion evident already in her first published novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The detective she introduces here, Hercule Poirot, resembles not only Sherlock Holmes but also Marie Belloc Lowndes’s Hercule Popeau, who had worked for the Sûreté in Paris, and Hercule Flambeau, the creation of G. K. Chesterton. Gaston Leroux’s hero of Le Mystère de la chambre jaune (1907; The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1908), Joseph Rouletabille, as well as Rouletabille’s rival, Frederick Larson, also contributed to Poirot, as did Christie’s observations of Belgian refugees in Torquay. Similarly, Captain Arthur Hastings derives from Holmes’s chronicler, Dr. Watson: Both have been wounded in war, both are unable to dissemble and hence cannot always be trusted with the truth, both are highly susceptible to female beauty, both see what their more astute friends observe, yet neither can correctly interpret the evidence before him.
However conventional these characters are, though, they emerge as distinct figures. One cannot imagine Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s cerebral detective referring to himself as “Papa” Holmes the way Christie’s calls himself “Papa Poirot.” To Holmes’s intellect Christie has added a heart, one that has been captured by Countess Vera Rossakoff. Poirot refers to her much as Holmes speaks of Irene Adler, but one would not suspect Holmes of harboring any of the matrimonial or sexual interest toward Adler that Poirot seems to have for his “remarkable woman.”
The differences between Hastings and Watson are equally noticeable, Christie’s narrator being less perceptive and more comic. Watson is not “of an imbecility to make one afraid,” nor would Watson propose to a woman he hardly knows. Christie’s modifications made Poirot an enduring figure—Nicaragua put him on a postage stamp—but she quickly realized that Hastings lacked substance. He appears in only eight of the thirty-four Poirot novels, and as early as 1926 she sent him to Argentina, allowing another character to recount The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Like this detecting duo, the plot of The Mysterious Affair at Styles draws on the tradition of detective fiction but bears Christie’s individual stamp. There is the murder in the locked room, a device popularized by John Dickson Carr. The wrong man is arrested and tried for the crime. Abiding by the rules of mysteries, Christie sets before the reader all the clues that Poirot discovers, often going so far as to number them. Yet the work exhibits a subtlety and misdirection characteristic of Christie’s work. For example, she reproduces a letter that the victim supposedly wrote on the night she was murdered. The reader naturally tries to find some hidden meaning in the words, when in fact the clue lies in the spacing within the date. Early in the book one learns that Evelyn Howard has a low voice and mannish figure; still, when someone impersonates Arthur Inglethorp, the reader assumes that the impostor is a male.
The reader is not likely to make much of the fact that Evelyn Howard’s father was a doctor or pay attention when Mary Cavendish says that her mother died of accidental poisoning from a medicine she was taking, even though Mrs. Inglethorp has been using a tonic containing strychnine. When Evelyn Howard finds the brown paper used to wrap a parcel containing a false beard, one assumes that she has fulfilled Poirot’s expectations of her abilities. Since Poirot has taken her into his confidence, one hardly suspects that she is involved in the murder. Moreover, she seems too straightforward and blunt, too likable and reliable to be guilty.
Her cousin Arthur Inglethorp, on the other hand, seems too obviously the killer; even the dull-witted Hastings suspects him, and Hastings’s suspicion should be enough to exonerate anyone. Inglethorp has an obvious motive—money—and is supposedly having an affair with another woman. Before leaving Styles early in the novel, Evelyn Howard further implicates him by telling Hastings to be especially wary of Mr. Inglethorp. Given all these clues, no one familiar with the conventions of the genre would regard him as the criminal. Any lingering doubt, moreover, seems removed when Poirot remarks that considering Mrs. Inglethorp’s kindness to the Belgian refugees, he would not allow her husband, whom she clearly loved, to be arrested now. One presumes that Poirot means that he...
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