I wrote and rewrote the beginning part of this article about four times, because as soon as I started getting into plot details, I ran into a wall I just couldn’t get around. See, here’s what we’ve got in this episode:
Manor house? Check. Family with their own secrets, jealousies, and squabbles? Check. An inheritance and will (or three) at the center of it all? Check. An elaborate series of rug-pulls and misdirections, alibis and overheard conversations? Check. A small English village serving as the background and setting for all sorts of local gossip and roads where suspects can have chance encounters on their way to or back from some nefarious misdeed? Check and double-check.
Here’s my attempt at getting around that wall I mentioned.
Of course, once Hastings’ old friend John Cavendish (David Rintoul) invites him to stay at his estate Styles Court for the weekend, the show settles into that comforting Christie groove; matriarch Ma Cavendish (Gillian Barge) has taken up with a shockingly-only-in-the-Edwardian-sense younger man Al Inglethorp (Michael Cronin), who dresses like Jack the Ripper, wears a real beard that looks fake, and speaks superciliously and with clear disdain for every other member of the family’s low opinion of him.
Obviously, there’s a will, with John getting the real estate and Al getting the money; rumors of an affair (or two!) with the lovely redheaded Mrs. Raikes, the village widow; an assistant and dear friend who quits in a huff (Evie, played by Joanna McCallum) early on in the proceedings; a quarrel between Ma and a man overheard by the help, in this case the maid Dorcas (Lala Lloyd).
It doesn’t take long for this stew to boil over in its pot, and for the family to come running to Ma’s cries for help early in the morning, just in time to break open her locked door and see her convulsing in the throes of a lethal dose of strychnine.
The village chemist swears that Al bought poison the other week (for the perfectly legitimate purpose of… let’s see… ah, yes, “poisoning a dog”? Yikes.) but Al denies it and the signature on the register doesn’t match his anyway. Al refuses to provide an alibi, however, and when the inquest returns basically a big shrug, attention – and evidence – starts to focus on John Cavendish instead.
Not to be reductionist, but let’s get this out of the way, because there are more important things to talk about:
[spoiler title=”Grey Cells:”] Al and Evie were in it together, because they were in love. Evie disguised herself as Al when buying the poison, then they slipped it into Ma’s last dose of medicinal tonic where it remained undetected as little white crystals afterwards. When Ma discovered Al’s treachery (he literally wrote a letter to Evie confessing that he was trying to kill Ma), she drew up a new will, but was killed before getting it to her lawyer. Al burned the will in the fireplace, then in a panic hid the torn strips of his confessional letter in one of those weird vases that have strips of paper in them.[/spoiler]
Writing it all up, I couldn’t get past a wall of two words that kept ringing in my head: typical Christie.
And there’s a very good reason for that.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Dame Agatha’s first published novel, introducing Poirot, Hastings, Japp, and a host of plot elements, settings, and tropes that would go on to be used and re-used not just by Mrs. Christie herself but by hundreds of imitators and followers in the decades to come.
So it’s not just typical Christie; in fact, it’s damn near the archetype altogether for much of what’s known as the English cozy genre, which is why so much of it feels so familiar, especially with this adaptation coming in at the beginning of Series 3 of the show. But it’s precisely that familiarity that allows us to focus on how the adaptation acts as a bit of prehistory, setting the table for those episodes we’ve already seen.
Taking place near the end of the First World War, we open on Lieutenant Hastings viewing newsreels from the front, unblinking and almost catatonic in his attention to the images playing out before him. He’s stuck in a war hospital back in England, recuperating from an injury, and it’s clear that the war has affected him deeply in these opening scenes. Previous appearances from Our Man hinted at his wartime experience, but nothing up until now has given us any indication of how it changed him, and though it won’t become a defining trait here, it’s enough to lend some weight to Hastings and sell us on someone who’s determined to conquer whatever horrors he saw with the strength of the traditional Stiff Upper Lip and an eye towards the future, not the past.
Similarly, we first see M. Poirot leading a group of fellow Belgian refugees on a walk through a forest, where the British army is conducting wargames, admiring and pointing out the native flora and fauna. He admonishes his little band to remember to speak in English, in order to better assimilate with their hosts, and leads them in a singalong of “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary” as they cross the bridge into the village. There’s a gratefulness and appreciation evident in Poirot that goes a long way towards explaining why, for instance, he never returned to his home country to live. He’s cordial, and polite, and cheerful, and honestly just sort of happy to be alive.
Too, the episode takes pains to mention the rationing and the shortages in the village. The war is very much present in the background here, and the juxtaposition of a small community making do with less yet still possessing the generosity of spirit to open their arms to refugees and conduct charity events for the soldiers makes you understand what Poirot sees in this country, and why he might want to call it his new home (and also, incidentally, why he’s inclined to be more tolerant than expected when confronted as a “foreigner” or written off as a “frog”).
For his part, Japp is introduced (simply an Inspector here, not yet having attained the rank of Chief Inspector) halfway through the episode, and although his role is fairly minor – he’s there to arrest someone, provide a character reference for Poirot, and generally do police stuff – we do get a bit of his chafing against superiors, as he’s accompanied by his Superintendent that Japp makes clear he’d just as soon not have around. (In a bit of vindication, it turns out that Japp actually does try to arrest the right suspect, [spoiler]but is stopped by Poirot before the suspect’s plan to get acquitted by using double-jeopardy can succeed[/spoiler]). Japp’s smart, but he also knows that Poirot’s usually on to something, and he’s perfectly prepared to defend Our Belgian to his betters if it means catching the right man or woman.
It’s that sort of stuff that both reinforces what we’ve already seen and renews our appreciation for these characters going forward, in the way that the best after-the-fact origin stories do. And make no mistake, this is an origin story, the tale of Poirot and Hastings’ first real case together.
What’s interesting is that this isn’t the first meeting between Our Man and Poirot; it’s mentioned that they first met over in Belgium, where Hastings was a suspect in a case, but that’s about all we get on that front. Japp, too, has already met Hercule, while he was working on a case in Belgium. So the inevitable reunion in this episode has a lot less heavy lifting to do than you’d expect, as we get to skip over what would normally have been initial antagonism, no doubt leading into begrudging respect and thence into amiable cooperation. Here, everyone’s just delighted to chance upon their old acquaintance here in the village of Styles-On-St.-Mary.
I was also pleasantly surprised to find this episode avoiding some of the pitfalls of the earlier seasons. For instance, there’s a disguise that I’m absolutely positive we would have seen unconvincingly used if this had been a S1 ep. Here, it’s discovered and remarked upon, but its use is only mentioned in passing as part of the explanation of the case.
Here we get to see an extended scene of Poirot and Hastings combing the victim’s room looking for clues, with Poirot’s eye for order and method neatly cataloguing the points of interest for the viewer; no doubt the two hour format of the episode allowed for this rather than having him just handwaving his discoveries into thin air at the end of the episode like we’ve seen previously, but it doesn’t make it any less satisfying to watch the great detective(s) actually detect, especially in a room absolutely lousy with clues.
There’s also plenty of attention paid to Poirot’s near-OCD levels of attention to order, and it’s fun watching him take the time to explain to a shopkeeper why she should sort her dry goods according to the country of origin, correct his cab driver’s hand positions on the steering wheel, or furiously rearrange things on the mantelpiece. He also remarks about his preference for the urbane over the natural, citing the orderliness of cities laid out in grids and numbered against the untamed chaos of nature.
The bottom line here is that “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” works wonderfully, even if you know the story by heart. It’s a faithful adaptation that doesn’t ignore its own history on the screen or on the page, and serves up a big ol’ slice of Christie. Typical Christie? Maybe, but I think it’s more appropriate to call it classic Christie instead.
Now, That’s Just Good Sidekickin’!: Our Man Hastings in this episode not only displays his famous weakness for redheads, but shows off everything you need to know about him in one hilarious marriage proposal scene. Not only does he jump straight to “Marry me!” as a solution to a crying woman of three days’ acquaintance relationship issues, even after getting shot down (and he goes down in flames, folks) he just bounces right back recounting the event to Poirot with, “Perhaps I just don’t understand women or something… just joking, of course!” Hastings might actually be half golden retriever.
Hey! It’s Not That Guy!: I didn’t recognize any familiar faces in this one, although a few nagged at me.
Write What You Know!: Mrs. Christie worked as a nurse during the war, and based a lot of this on her experience ministering to Belgian soldiers and knowing the Belgian refugees hosted in her hometown of Torquay. The character of Cynthia in the story (the target of Hastings’ aforementioned proposal) is based on herself.
Hastings (referring to the false beard found in a trunk): “Who put it there?”
Poirot: “Someone with a great deal of intelligence, Hastings. He chose to hide it in the one place where its presence would not be remarked. But we must be even more intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.”
Poirot: “And there you will be invaluable, mon ami.”
John Cavendish: “I’m afraid you’ll find it very quiet down here, Hastings. ”
Hastings: “My dear fellow, after the ‘joys’ of France, that’s just what I want.”
Hastings: “What a wonderful girl. I shall never understand women.”
Poirot: “Perhaps one day when this terrible war is ended, we shall work again together, huh? And Poirot will explain all to you.”
Next Week, on Poirot: A trip to Surrey proves Our Belgian has a green thumb when it comes to murder. Flower shows! Seed packets! More poisoned little old ladies! It’s… “How Does Your Garden Grow?”