Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Poirot's First Case

Poirot at work: Actor David Suchet as /Hercule Poirot
in the Chanel 4 TV series.
I sat and enjoyed a Poirot-fest over the weekend, thanks to ITV3, which screened enough back to back episodes to satisfy the most die-hard addict. So having immersed myself in the television version and watched the ever-wonderful David Suchet, I decided it was time to go back to basics, and I dug out a copy of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the very first Poirot story, published in 1916. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction, and I’d forgotten how good Agatha Christie can be – she’s not called the Queen of Crime for nothing.

Here we meet Hercule Poirot for the first time, and I realised that David Suchet’s interpretation of the little Belgian detective really is quite extraordinary. I suppose it helps that the two men are not too dissimilar physically - I never could believe wholeheartedly in Peter Ustinov’s Poirot, because he was too big and looked all wrong. But it’s not just appearances. David Suchet has acquired all Poirot’s mannerisms, his fussiness, his precision, his intelligence, the way he walks and everything, without ever tipping over into caricature. He makes Poirot seem very human because he brings warmth and humour to the character, and he inhabits the role rather than merely acting it.

First edition of Agatha Christie's
first Poirot novel.
Now normally I read a book first, then watch the film or TV programme (and if I really like something I rarely watch it on screen, because I’m scared it will spoil my enjoyment of the book). But with Agatha Christie it’s the other way round. I honestly cannot remember which books I’ve read in the past, and my view of the stories and characters has been shaped by movies, television shows and radio versions of her work. So I found it interesting to read Christie’s own description of her creation, and I was surprised that he and Hastings both appear here fully shaped: they are as they are, and I don’t think either of them changed or evolved in the years that followed. 

In The Mysterious Affair at Styles Poirot is a Belgian refugee, living with a group of his countrymen in the village of St Mary Styles, thanks to a helping hand from elderly Emily Inglethorp, who lives in nearby Styles Court.  And staying at Styles Court while he recovers from a war wound is Lt Arthur Hastings (not yet a captain), a friend of the family, who also knows Poirot.

So when wealthy Mrs Inglethorp (formerly Mrs Cavendish) dies from strychnine poisoning Hastings calls upon Poitrot for help. Prime suspect is Emily’s new husband, Alfred Inglethorp, who is 20 years her junior, has a strange bushy black beard and wears patent shoes every day (so we know he’s a bounder!). But he has a cast iron alibi, so it can’t be him… Or can it? And why does everyone else’s behaviour seem so odd?

Take Hastings’ friend John for instance, the stepson of the murdered woman from her previous marriage (she was widowed). He is strapped for cash and is having some kind of liaison with a neighbouring farmer’s wife; his beautiful wife Mary is extremely friendly with a German doctor who is the world’s top toxicologist. John’s younger brother Lawrence studied medicine and knows about drugs and poisons, and so does orphaned Cynthia, who lives with the family and works in a pharmacy.

Then there is Emily’s companion Evie, who fell out with her mistress after warning her against Mr Inglethorp… but can her intense hatred of the man be genuine? No-one, it seems, is telling the whole truth, and everyone has hidden secrets.

A modern edition of the book.
Mystery surrounds the dead woman’s will, a locked room and a document case which is broken open. And there’s a fragment of burnt paper among the ashes in the fireplace, a strange strand of green thread, a broken coffee cup, hot chocolate dregs and a damp patch on the carpet, which all have to be considered. Are any of these things important? ~Or none of them? Two officers from Scotland Yard arrive to lliok for answers, and we get our first glimpse of Inspector Japp, looking smaller, thinner and much less important than I visualised, but it is Poirot, of course, who manages to unravel the various strands of the mystery and unmask the killer.

We learn from Hastings, who narrates the tale, that Poirot is a world-famous Belgian detective, now retired (so how old is he meant to be, I wonder?).  And we are told:

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

Throughout the novel we see evidence of his fussiness and neatness, as he straightens ornaments and rearranges things. But his obsessive attention to detail is what makes him such a good detective, for it enables him to look for patterns, and to pick out the blips, the small things that don’t quite fit the picture and are overlooked by everyone else, but make him think, and think again. He’s very logical, and believes in reasoning things out, so looks at the clues, and draws conclusions from what he sees, but he also uses psychology to try and work out who could be a killer, and why they would commit murder. I think his need to see justice done is part of that urge he has for everything to be neat and tidy: he wants to put the world to rights. And he has a very strong sense of right and wrong.

I was rather shocked that in his efforts to bring criminals to justice he can be very manipulative, and quite cruel, especially in the denouement, when he plays with the characters as a cat plays with a mouse, before revealing what has happened. He even lets a man he knows is innocent stand trial for the murder, partly to lull the real culprit into a false sense of security, and partly to effect a reconciliation between husband and wife. It may be a cruel trick to play, and Poirot makes an unlikely Cupid, but he is a great believer in love, which is rather endearing.

As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the twists and turns of the plot kept me turning the pages to find out what happens. I have to say I thought the TV version was pretty true to the book. There were some differences, but nothing which materially alters Christie’s creation. 
Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime.


  1. I'm also very fond of Suchet's Poirot. I'm looking forward to watching some of the early episodes again when my new DVD player is sorted out (hopefully before the weekend). Did you know that Suchet has written a memoir about his work in the series called Poirot & Me? I'm looking forward to reading it. There's a lovely preview on Amazon where he describes the final days of shooting the last story, Curtain (which has just been shown in the UK). Just lovely.

  2. Lyn, I watched the TV programme about Suchet being Poirot, and found it fascinating - before any filming was done he read every book, and kept notes about Poirot's behaviour, likes, dislikes, mannerisms etc.But I hadn't heard about the book, and would love to read it, so thank you for mentioning it.

    1. And I didn't know about the TV show! Must investigate...

    2. Lyn, it was ITV 3 on Sunday, called 'Being Poirot. I think it was repeat, originally shown on Channel 4 last year.