Emily Inglethorp is a wealthy women living with her much younger second husband at Styles Court, her large, isolated, manor house in Styles St.Mary. There are seven people living at Styles: Emily’s step-sons from her first husbands first marriage, John and Lawrence Cavendish; John’s wife Mary, Emily’s companion Evelyn and a young friend of the family Cynthia Murdoch. A group of people all with some connection to each other and all with their own assortment of secrets.
Arthur Hastings has been invalided from the Front and after a spell in a convalescent home has been given a months sick leave. Wondering what to do he runs into his old friend John Cavendish who invites him to spend his leave at Styles, with the family. The house and Emily, Hastings remembers well although he hasn’t been there for years. Tea is spread in the shade of a sycamore tree and Hastings tells them of his hope to be a detective after the war. Indeed, while in Belgium he came across a very famous detective ‘he quite inflamed me. . . He was a funny little man, a great dandy, but wonderfully clever.’ And then on a trip into Tadminster who should Hastings bump into when buying some stamps, but his old friend:
‘”Mon ami Hastings”!’ he cried. “It is indeed mon ami Hastings”!
“Poirot!” I exclaimed.’
With much gratitude, Poirot explains that through the charitable works of Mrs Inglethorp, he is one of a group of Belgium refugees who are living together in Tadminster. So the scene is set and everyone is quickly in place for a good dose of poisoning by strychnine.
Written in 1916 and published in instalments in The Times Weekly Review, (before being published as a novel in 1921) this is Christie’s first novel and I find her confidence just amazing. The country house setting, a small group of connected suspects and the red herrings are all here right from the beginning but it’s the characters that really astound me. Poirot, Inspector Japp and in particular Hastings were exactly as I expected them. The story is narrated by Hastings at the request of Poirot and the family and straight away it was a familiar voice:
‘I was trying to make up my mind what to do, when I ran across John Cavendish. I had seen very little of him for some years. Indeed, I had never known him particularly well. He was a good fifteen years my senioir, for one thing, though he hardly looked his forty-five years.’
And he’s off. With his clipped diction and that lovely languid charm that rises so delightfully to Poirot’s bait and is always smitten by a beautiful women:
‘I shall never forget my first sight of Mary Cavendish. Her tall, slender form, outlined against the bright light; the vivid sense of slumbering fire that seemed to find expression only in those wonderfully tawny eyes of hers, remarkable eyes, different from any other women’s that I have ever known; the intense power of stillness she possessed, which nevertheless conveyed the impression of a wild untamed spirit in an exquisitely civilized body – all these things are burnt into my memory. I shall never forget them.’
What a romantic, I think that’s a positive swoon and worthy of a Classics Club Valentine swoon badge!
The edition I read contains the original ending in a supplementary chapter with Poirot giving evidence from the witness box. On her publishers advice Christie rewrote this chapter and replaced the courtroom with the drawing room and created a scene that is now so familiar for the Big Revelation. Poirot is able to hold forth before his captive audience and bask in their stunned adulation!