Monday, 22 March 2010

Agathe Christie-- The Mysterious Affair at Styles

I love Poirot. And by that I mean, I love the entirity of the ITV Poirot films, and the complete short story collection that I read last summer. But I've never read any of the novels. This is the first step along the long, long road to getting through the whole bally lot.

Like Shades Of Grey, this book is clever. And though it's a very different sort of clever, it comes from the same source: having lots of stuff.
In Styles, the crime is complicated by having separate events (from separate motives) coinciding, and effecting each other.
And like Shades Of Grey, a lot of stuff is included throughout which isn't 'important', but is justified by being what the characters think are important.
I'm happy to say I guessed various parts of the solution before it was revealed. But as I had whole-heartedly accused every single character of the murder at some point in the course of the book, that's less impressive.
The solution when it comes is complex and simple at the same time. If anything, it suffers from being too clever: too much is upturned, reversed and revealed, in Poirot's explanation.

All this complex web of events and clues and people and facts has made me realise something: I admire this sort of cleverness, but I admire it from afar. It's not me,and it's not how I write. That doesn't even slightly mean I can't learn from it, but it does mean I have to adapt it's lessons to my own writing, and evaluate them with reference to my own goals.

There is something amidst all the cleverness that I think is an invaluable and universal observation. The 'point' of this book is that we are presented with all the evidence that Poirot is, but we don't guess the solution like he does. The reason is, we aren't presented Poirot's reasoning, or even much of his actions. We get Hastings.
The whole story is told through his eyes, with his own romantic imaginations and extrapolations. No, we don't go along with what he thinks necessarily, but still the whole emphasis is changed. Only rarely do we get the slightest glimpse of which clues, among the many possible ones, Poirot feels are important; and we never see why.
Here's the observation, and once again it seems a bit too obvious to count:

Who is telling us the story (in first person narratives) defines how the reader sees the story. There's the obvious interpretation, which is important, but also an interestingly backwards truth: what the narrator can tell us is how we see the narrative (rather than how he sees it), but what the narrator cannot tell is how we see himself (but only how he sees himself).

Interesting, I think. But more interesting is how Christie uses this with Hastings. The basic fact is that Hastings isn't too bright--not in the world of Poirot, anyway. He's good-natured, a good friend, and has a good imagination, but Poirot is right: he has no method.
Christie shows us this, and it's important, as well as useful to her: it's what gives the story it's flair and humour. But somhow, she shows us it alongside showing us what is really going on. So we have Hasting's misunderstandings, and the reader's actual understandings, told in the very same narrative. Sorry for the italics, but I'm very impressed.

What also impresses me, on a complete aside, is how marvellous David Suchet is. Because he was playing Poirot in my head for the entirity of this book, and nothing on the page was incongruous with his version of the character.
To play such a vibrant interpretation of a character without ever losing sight of the spirit--and the detail--of the written version is great. And it's not just because Poirot is so well-written. Other great actors have played him, and played him very differently.


  1. I know what you mean. I keep trying to not read Poirot as Suchet. It's impossible, the man just IS Poirot.

  2. I've never seen Poirot or read an Agathe Christie... but now I think I probably should.