While I’ve read and enjoyed many other of the Golden Age detective story writers, I’ve always had a problem with Agatha Christie. Not a huge problem, just that I don’t find myself drawn to her books with anywhere near the delight that some authors (Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Edmund Crispin, et cetera) provoke in me. However, after recently rewatching a 2008 episode of Doctor Who, which featured a mystery surrounding a house, a thief, a giant alien wasp and Agatha Christie, and being amused by the high accolades which author Gareth Roberts paid her, I had the thought that I should give Christie’s work another try.
To be honest, after reading The Mysterious Affair at Styles, I’m not sure that I’m any closer to understanding why I’m quite so indifferent, nor why others are so devoted. It could be the fact that, having seen many of Christie’s characters adapted for television, (Poirot, Miss Marple, the Beresfords, et cetera), the books themselves do not seem as richly painted as some of the excellent adapations. Affair is no exception: set during the First World War, it introduces both Poirot and his unflagging – if occasionally annoyed – foil, Lieutenant (later Captain) Hastings, attempting to solve the case of the murder of the rich remarried widow, Mrs Inglethorp. A cast of unlikely potential murderers, all with their own secrets, populate the country house of Styles, and Poirot, a refugee from the fighting but formerly a renowned Belgian police detective, is set among them to try to detect the murderer. Yet on reading, both the setting and the characters seemed rather flat. I kept hearing David Suchet’s excellent rendering of Poirot’s voice in the lines, but apart from that, the story seemed to be missing some vital spark, some little extra something to elevate it above, say, an Edgar Wallace. Admittedly, I’m not from an audience in the 1920s, who obviously reacted very differently to Christie.
To me, Christie’s first book is good, but not great. It bears many of the hallmarks of a first book – what felt like weak characterisation and a plot that, while clever, left me feeling as though I’d missed something over the course of most of the book. And, to be fair, as I was reading in chunks in between other books, maybe I did miss something. But if I did, there wasn’t anything so compelling that I wanted to go back and see what it was.
First published in Britain in 1921, it predates Dorothy L. Sayers’ Whose Body? by one year, and Margery Allingham’s first Campion mystery, The Crime at Black Dudley by eight years. There can be no doubt that Christie was first in many ways, but I will have to read more of her books – and even re-read some – to determine whether or not the high accolades of “The Unicorn and the Wasp” are, to my mind, deserved. Two-and-a-half stars.
Originally reviewed 3 October 2011.
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