Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Tuesday Night Club: A is for Agatha...(of course)

 
 
The Tuesday Night Bloggers are a group of crime fiction fans who choose a different topic each month, then write a weekly post on it. Our current theme is 'A is for April, A is for Anything'. We can take the A any way we want to. So look out for some varied blogposts.

A for April logo

And of course please join in if you would like to – one-offs and casuals always welcome.

This month I am collecting the links, so just let me know (in the comments below or on Facebook) if you have anything to add.

THIS WEEK'S LINKS:

Kate, over at cross-examining crime has done a post on Accidental and Amateur Sleuths.


And Brad, at his Ah Sweet Mystery blog, chose Acrimony! Agatha and Adaptations as his theme.

Bev at My Reader’s Block has actually read The April Robin Murders for her post - that's the book she (as ever) found and cleverly adapted for our logo. 

For my first post, I looked at Anna Where Are You?, which turned out to be one of Patricia Wentworth’s best books, as well as having a nice big A at the beginning of the title. Other contributions to the Tuesday Night Club are on the same page.


Given the A theme, there really wasn’t any chance that I wouldn’t do Agatha Christie in some form, as she is such a favourite of mine (and now with her own tab above so you can easily find all the many many entries on her). It occurred to me that I had never written about her first detective story – time to put that right.


 

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

published 1920


 
Styles 1


[Captain Hastings has gone to visit old family friends, while on convalescent leave from serving in the First World War]

We drew up in front of the fine old house. A lady in a stout tweed skirt, who was bending over a flower bed, straightened herself out at our approach.

“Hello, Evie, here’s our wounded hero! Mr Hastings – Miss Howard.”

Miss Howard shook hands with a hearty, almost painful grip. I had an impression of blue eyes in a sunburnt face. She was a pleasant-looking woman of about 40, with a deep voice, almost manly in its stentorian tones, and had a large sensible square body with feet to match – these feet encased in good thick boots.

 
commentary: So Captain Hastings arrives, narrating, and will shortly introduce us to his old friend Hercule Poirot. It is the  beginning of a trail that will continue for more than 50 years. If you’d read this book in 1920 I imagine it would have seemed a routine detective story, nothing to make it stand out from many others. It has clues, and red herrings, and a dramatic court case, and burnt documents (and so fragments of paper), and a lot about wills.

The relationship between Poirot and Hastings is already set:
“We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all… There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.” 

I was pleased with the compliment.
We see women grabbing the chances offered by the war – some freedom, and jobs on the land or in nursing or a dispensary. Christie herself worked in such a dispensary during the War, gaining her invaluable knowledge of poisons, shown off with clear emphasis in this book.

The life of the country house goes on – there are only 3 gardeners now instead of 5, including a woman gardener in breeches. The large, comfortable house is run by a team of servants – but there is no electric light upstairs, and remarkably few bathrooms. A woman coming by car from the next town arrives swathed in motoring veils.

As ever there is a lot of emphasis on impersonation and disguise – Christie is starting on her lifelong affirmation that one person can become another, or become unrecognizable, with a few simple changes. (Best just to accept this before moving on to the next 70 books.) The house dressing-up box comes into play here.

As in many of the later books, the main crime is at times obscured by the various other shenanigans in the vicinity, often unrelated to the main murder. There is an interesting exchange when someone is arrested as a spy:
“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.” 

But I could not look at it in Poirot’s philosophical way.

Surely most of Christie’s British readers would have agreed with Hastings, not Poirot.

The plot is intricate and clever, but not a standout. I think it would have taken a prescient reader to see exactly where this young woman author was going…

The clothes in the book are minimal and done in Christie’s straightforward and undetailed style. I liked the unpopular man who is a
“rotten little bounder… an absolute outsider… he wears patent leather boots in all weathers!”
Proper tweeds are a Christie banker throughout the oeuvre, for both men and women: men in a suit, women in what was then called a coat and skirt, but what we would now call a suit. She usually attached the words ‘well-cut’ or ‘shabby’ to the description, while particularly admirable down-on-their-luck toffs might be wearing tweed that was ‘well-cut but now shabby’. So a ‘stout tweed skirt’ is a nice change.

The picture is of silent movie star Dorothy Gish, and shows how very unflattering tweeds could be. Dorothy was famously beautiful, nearly as much so as her sister Lillian, but I don’t think you’d know that from this photo, which is from the Bain Collection at the Library of Congress.





















27 comments:

  1. Actually I'd say that what's more unflattering than the tweeds is the lousy quality of the photograph where her face is concerned. Blur/damage/fuzz over the face would make even Vivien Leigh look a bit humdrum, probably.

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    1. You are so right. I saw the picture before the caption, and thought it must be some dowdy governess, it really isn't high-quality. But I love it - it's quite hard to find pictures of women in tweeds.

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    2. Poor Dorothy also has rather a pear shape -- which doesn't help. Her shoulders are SO narrow.

      I read Lillian's autobiography (The Movies, Mr. Griffiths and Me) years ago, and one detail that stood out to me was that a very small mouth (bee sting?) was the standard for beauty in the early years of movies. The goal to shoot for was a mouth not larger than one of your eyes. Yikes! Nothing like today when Julia Roberts is considered a beauty.

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    3. That is so interesting - I suppose there are fashions in looks and beauty as well as in clothes - and the key element is that the new favoured look be as different as possible from the previous one. The Gish sisters are so interesting...

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  2. All the same that suit is awfully frumpy.
    I am never too worried by the disguises in AC. Haven't psychological experiments shown that it is surprisingly easy to substitute one person for another without anyone noticing? People see what they expect to see and don't really look.

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    1. Like a white coat, or a nun's habit....

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    2. Exactly! Are we thinking about the teashop book?

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    3. The teashop book is indeed one of them...

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    4. She sometimes goes too far, but I think she has a point that people don't recognize others. And I'm the last person to criticize - I'm very bad at facial recognition. Ideal character in an AC book. Marry the same man twice? Easy!

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    5. ... not of course saying that I did that...

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    6. Actually I think I'd draw the line there!

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    7. Ha! I thought you were making a confession at first, Moira. :-)

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    8. Like I'd tell you all if I'd done any such thing!

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  3. You raise a very interesting point about Christie, Moira. I wonder if people reading this book when it was first published had any idea where she was headed. This one isn't a standout Christie. But it was her first, and you do see some of the seeds of what was to come, I think.

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    1. I agree with you Margot, the clues (see what I did there?) to her future greatness are there if you look for them!

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  4. She couldn't expose her brilliance all at once, Moira! Things got even better, but we still see all the makings of a genius in their infancy here. Great authors, unlike strychnine evidently, tend to rise to the top!

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    1. Nice touch Brad. (Not taking any medicine from you.) And of course you are right - she set out to write a detective story like the others that were current, and in order to win her bet. Why would she waste her brilliance straightaway?

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  5. The central gimmick is pretty good, but there's also some subtlety in the way that the book is written. Hastings is an unreliable narrator. Before Poirot appears he is convinced that he has become a much better detective than the Belgian, but by the end of the book we realise that he has misunderstood just about everything that was going on, and this does give that aspect of the book a slight comic edge.
    Like everyone says, it's not a great Christie, but it's a pretty effort for a first time author.

    ggary

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    1. Yes it is, and the relationship with Hastings is amusing - I suppose he is the original unreliable narrator. And there are some clever touches.

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    1. We're never going to convert you to Agatha are we?

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  7. Moira, I like the Poirot-Hastings relationship, more than I like Perry Mason-Lt. Tragg association, which at best is cordial and at worst strictly businesslike.

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    1. I'm not as up on Perry Mason as I know you are Prashant. I really enjoy a good relationship between two sleuths, so perhaps I will stick with Agatha for now.

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  8. "The picture is of silent movie star Dorothy Gish, and shows how very unflattering tweeds could be. "

    But don't have to be! https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/12/9c/25/129c25b03ffbdb57dc0d516a898ba919.jpg

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    1. Oh my goodness that's fabulous! I'm always looking for good pictures of women in tweeds, as they are hard to find - this is a real winner. I'm sure all those 'well-cut tweeds' from books did exist, but the women were rarely photographed in them. This is an excellent exception.

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  9. This was the first Christie I read when I was getting back into reading her books. I was so disappointed, I waited several more years before I tried another. I have wondered if I should go back and try again, because I do love the Poirot / Hastings relationship.

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    1. That must've been disappointing- I had the opposite reaction, I had low expectations and it was better than I thought.

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