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Book Review: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

During World War One, Captain Hastings is visiting friends in the British countryside when the matriarch of the family suddenly dies. Suspicion immediately falls upon the husband whom everyone dislikes but there’s a mystery to this. Thankfully, the great detective, Hercule Poirot, Is living nearby. At the request of the family and his dear Hastings, Poirot is on the case.

I’ve always loved the Hercule Poirot books. I find the little Belgian detective absolutely delightful especially in his kindness and childlike joy in making people happy. He’s got all of the intelligence of Sherlock Holmes but possesses the kindness of Dr. Watson. Yes, he’s a bit peculiar. He’s got his foibles and prejudices. But oh my, is seeing him in his first appearance is fun. This is a classic Agatha Christie novel in every sense. It’s set in the British countryside. At the manor house. With a small cast of characters all of whom have the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime. The foreshadowing is there and it is on point.

And then there’s the typical Agatha Christie twist. And it’s a twist because the clues are in there, but the way that they presented the reader can end up discounting them. Much like the characters in the book discount the clues when they are presented them. This is what makes the twist effective. The reader has all of the information. The reader knows everything that Poirot knows. And still Christie can surprise you. It’s lovely.

As stated before, this is the first published Hercule Poirot mystery. It was written in 1916 at the height of World War I. Which means that cultural and societal conventions of the time are in play. This includes things like casual racism and use of racist language regarding people of color including those of Roma and African descent. It also includes massive amounts of xenophobia which Britain is still well known for. And there’s also casual antisemitism because again this is the 1910s, there’s a reason Hitler was allowed to rise to power and why countries refused Jewish refugees and that reason is called Antisemitism. It’s important to know this going in. The words and the sentiments expressed in this novel are wrong, and they were wrong then. But they are still products of their time. And erasing them or refusing to allow people to read them is trying to erase that history. And our present is built upon this very real history. At the same time it’s important to have this context.

As a historian, this book is a fascinating trip into the mindset of someone who lived through World War I and was writing about it contemporaneously. Yes, there is problematic language used, there always is in primary resources. And this can be considered a primary resource of life in the 1910s. Even though it is fiction. The book is also a fun mystery with some really great characters. Which is why I’m going to give this five stars with the caveat that readers understand that they are reading a novel that is a product of its time. Five stars.

If this is your jam, you can get it here.

It’s also in the public domain, which means IT’S FREE. (Project Gutenberg Link)

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