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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Friday (11/21/14) 2:36am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Movies:  <none>
TV:  <none>

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie [audiobook]
This was Agatha Christie's first published novel.  It's also the first appearance of Hercule Poirot, who carefully puzzles out a complicated homicide at an English country house.

Sadly, I was baffled by this book from start to finish.  Audiobooks can be awfully challenging for me, and books from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction -- for which Styles set the template -- are full of fiddly bits of detail and logic that seem to go in one ear and out the other.  I can process such things really well if I'm writing them down, less well if I'm just reading them, and if I'm merely hearing them, I don't seem to grasp them at all.

Honestly, the audiobook presentation didn't do this book any favors.  David Thorn does an adequate job of the narration, distinguishing most of the characters from each other (though he's nowhere near David Suchet's masterful Belgian voice for Poirot) and acting the parts well enough.  But the print edition features a map of the house and a small picture of a damaged document, both of which the audiobook has to skip entirely, and both of which figure crucially into even being able to follow the action of the book. 

That said, the story was still fun.  The Mysterious Affair at Styles is pretty much the dictionary definition of "British detective novel".  Everyone assembles at a country house.  A quirky detective just happens to be there.  And then the crime happens.

It's especially fun to compare how Christie plays out the investigation to how the Sherlock Holmes stories work.  Conan Doyle was wonderfully inventing with his plots, but his stories don't, to my mind, have a sense of 'fair play'.  The clues are laid out for you, sure, but when the solution is presented, there's no sense that you could have figured it out with enough effort.  It's more like, oh, Holmes happened to have written a monograph about obscure snakes, so he recognized the cryptic phrase was about a snake, so the killer must be doctor so-and-so.[1]

With Agatha Christie, there's a sense that you *could* have figured it out.  There wasn't a "trick" to the story that required some arbitrary erudite piece of information.  It's more that the whole thing is just too bloody complicated, like one of those LSAT logic puzzles on steroids.  The crime is committed in some bizarre, counterintuitive way to start with, and then after that, seemingly every single person in the house has a strong motive to lie, to conceal evidence, or to withhold crucial information.

It's not that there are red herrings so much as there is so much evidence -- so many unaccountable factors, so many contradictions, so many puzzling behaviors -- that you don't even know where to start.  It's not that a seemingly irrelevant thing winds up being important, it's that one of the fifty things you've been presented with is actually crucial to the puzzle.

But even then, the puzzle never seems unfair.  When Poirot explains how it all happened, and (more importantly) how he figured *out* how it all happened, it all seems reasonable and logical.  Yes, if an old woman asks for a fire in her fireplace on the hottest day of the year, it's probably because she wants to burn something.  No, if the bearded, bespectacled guy can't recall ever going to the druggist's, then somebody probably impersonated him.  It's only ever small and reasonable leaps of reasoning, but there are so many of them, and in such a byzantine mess of concealment and misbehavior, that it still winds up feeling like a magic trick all the same.

That said, I wish we got to see more of Poirot's thought process as it was happening.  The 'magic trick' reveal at the end of a novel makes it feel like the detective was just gifted with the solution from the storyteller instead of figuring it out on his own.  There's nothing on the level of, say, Admiral Thrawn slowly and patiently rejecting every wrong answer for "where are the Rebels going?" in Heir to the Empire.  There's no sense of a clever and indefatigable mind patiently slogging through all the chaos to find the solution.

Regardless, this was still a fun novel to listen to.  It was delightful to see all clichés -- or I suppose "the tropes that would later *become* clichés" -- deployed here.  The characterization is simple but fun (although John and Lawrence feel kind of interchangeable, perhaps by design).  The estate has a feeling of Downton Abbey-like escapism, and the same engaging, end-of-an-era uneasiness.[2]  And it's just fun watching Hastings (widely regarded as the dumbest of the detective-sidekicks) fumble into one wildly wrong conclusion after another. 

And Poirot is fascinating, feeling like a willful contrast to the likes of Holmes.  Instead of being Romantically intense, he's just quietly attentive.  Instead of being brusque and weary of the world and its stupid, boring people, he's courteous and pleasant and curious.  Instead of being dashing, successful, and ready to do all sorts of manly fighting if necessary, he's fussy and prissy and suspected of being an old has-been, even in his first appearance.  It's like Christie is just tossing aside every possible signifier of "this man is smart" because she's so intent on *proving* Poirot is smart via his deductions.  Poirot is just a fun character to spend time with, as he's so specifically drawn, and so hilariously not a classic detective.

So, it was a good, albeit mystifying, book.  If I read any more mystery novels, they will be in print, not audio.

For next week: I'm watching that meteorology course again (and taking notes this time) to see if I can follow it properly the second time through.  I've switched over to a rewatch of The Tick for my "watch while exercising" show.  I'm still reading that Meteor book, and Lindsey and I have started listening to Welcome to Night Vale.

[1] Of course, there are several parts of Styles where I was effectively in the same position of "it was a snake I didn't know about," just because there are so many things about WWI-England that I don't know.  ("What the hell is a '
spill vase?'")
[2] It's weird to realize that the first Poirot story and the second Downton Abbey series are set at the same time.

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