The Occasional Book Review: The Mysterious Affair At Styles

It isn’t as though I don’t read books; I do. I read a lot of books, too many to keep track of without some help.

That’s why I like Goodreads, because Goodreads’ existence reminds me to write reviews of books I’ve read while the story and plot are still fresh in my mind. I don’t do this very often, because I find review-writing to be hard work, but I nonetheless recommend Goodreads, for a lot of reasons.

I can keep track of my reading; I can be prodded to finish something I said I was reading, and then forgot all about; I can join book-reading clubs. All in all, I wish Goodreads had been around a long time ago. It’s almost like a diary for readers, helping you see what you’ve read and what you’d like to read, and then talking about it with other like-minded readers. As such, it seems like a valuable service, from my perspective.

Young Agatha Christie, during the years she wrote "The Mysterious Affair at Styles." Her first murder mystery was written as early as 1916, but not published until 1920 in the U.S. and 1921 in the U.K.

Young Agatha Christie, during the years she wrote “The Mysterious Affair at Styles.” Her first murder mystery was written as early as 1916, but not published until 1920 in the U.S. and 1921 in the U.K.

Below is a review I wrote of Agatha Christie’s first mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, also the first book in which her famous detective Hercules Poirot appears.

I love Agatha Christie mysteries, in spite of all the flaws in her writing. I don’t care. I love her plots. When it comes to characterization, Christie never really developed an interior monologue for any character she created.

She herself, in her autobiography, said that she started writing in a simpler time, when one didn’t psychologize as much as we do now. This is why we never really get to know Hercules Poirot, we just watch him solve cases, from afar.

That’s all right. Her plotting is undeniably some of the most intricate, even if she does often break the rules, keeping vital clues from her reader, almost as though she forgets we’re there. She misleads, she throws in red herrings, she writes blind alleys that lead nowhere, and only at the very end do you learn that the one crucial piece of information she never let you in on is the incriminating evidence Poirot needed to prove whodunit. Frustrating, n’est-çe-pas?

The fact that Agatha Christie experienced writer’s block while writing The Mysterious Affair at Styles, then received rejections, and had to wait almost two years before her eventual publisher accepted it, is one of those tales-of-woe that exists to give not-yet-published writers hope, it seems to me. Christie did not lose hope, and she didn’t give in to a feeling of despair that she would never be published. She just kept at it. Good for her. It’s one more story to remind us that we all start somewhere.

Early dust jacket, all creepy and mysterious like a mystery is supposed to be

The first time I read The Mysterious Affair at Styles I was too young to appreciate most of it. This time, coming back to it, there are certain details about it that I really like, much more than when I read it the first time. For one thing, it takes place at a time that is now seeing a resurgence of interest, post World War I.

The world has changed in so many ways, yet Christie’s writing, the structure, pace and plot, could have been written recently, it seems that new and fresh. Of great interest to me is the period itself, which writers seemed to overlook for a long, long time.

Currently, the only writer I can think of who uses this period in which to set his stories is Charles Todd, the mother/son pair who write the Inspector Ian Rutledge murder mystery series.

Rereading Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first featuring Poirot, reminds me that Christie was always a writer who skimmed the surface of characterisation, never focusing deeply on the psychology of any of her characters. In that way, she was very much like other women writers of her time (Margery Allingham, my favorite mystery writer) who wrote during the Golden era of crime and mystery. It’s a minor complaint I have about Christie mysteries, that they aren’t terribly deep, that she sacrifices characters to her plot to some extent, but then, that was the fashion of their era.

Christie relies on what her characters say, to themselves and one another, to convey their integrity, or lack of same. Beyond that, we know who’s wearing the white hat, who the black, through their actions, and through the moralising responses of other characters. We never really see deeply into Poirot’s soul. His compatriot, Hastings, also introduced in this book, seems a pompous ass, although a well-meaning one. I find it interesting that over time, Christie ended up detesting Poirot.

So much less dramatic without its dust jacket!

So much less dramatic without its dust jacket!

Christie’s first murder mystery, written in 1916 but not published until 1920 (she had trouble finding a publisher and received a list of rejections) had an energy and enthusiasm I had forgotten she possessed early on in her career.

Her later works are so much more detailed, with complicated plotting; this story is simple, but contains many of the elements she relied on—a devious family, various wills, lots of money to inherit, difficult marriages, extramarital affairs. The themes she would use over and over, in different ways, with varying emphasis, all exist in this first book.

Considering it was her first murder mystery (she also wrote romances under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott) it is developed and mature, especially when compared to her later efforts, such as the apotheosis effort Murder on the Orient Express (which is arguably her tightest plot construction, with its powerful plot and devious twists and turns). Mysterious Affair at Styles shines as an early signal of what would become her ability to create later, stronger works.

Midnight in the garden of good and evil writing styles

My favorite genre is not true-crime, it is mystery—specifically historical mysteries. However, I read across all different genres, and I just finished Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil last night.

I have found an online source, Goodreads, where I write all my reviews (mostly to myself, to help remind me which books I’ve read, since I read too many and time flies by too fast to remember what they are, let alone what I thought of them).

Ultimately, this could save money, since I have a terrible tendency to completely forget which books I’ve read, and then I buy them again, only to find as I’m reading them that the plot sounds awfully familiar….

Here’s my review, pasted in from Goodreads. It’s a pretty unhappy review, since I expected to love this book, and didn’t, and was therefore left rather disappointed.  Also, I have to say that this book was shortlisted for a Pulitzer, but the writing style didn’t seem extraordinary enough to warrant that kind of high praise. This leaves me wondering what are the criteria for Pulitzer-quality writing?

Berendt is a journalist who hasn’t mastered the art of translating reporter’s notes into flowing narrative fiction, an admittedly difficult skill, and one hard to live up to after Truman Capote created the genre of true-fictional-crime with his seminal In Cold Blood. I’ve discovered that, once again, my perceptions about what constitutes good writing, and what other people consider good writing, are very different; a fact I find rather dispiriting, actually.

Here’s my review. I’m not happy with it, largely because I’m not happy criticizing someone’s writing when they did a really excellent job, but you find it’s missing that crucial element you need, as a reader, to make it highly memorable:

The stiltedness of Berendt’s reportage-style detracts from the story he was trying to tell. I wish someone would do a rewrite and turn this into narrative fiction, because then it would have the potential to be absolutely fascinating, but the story, as it is, reads too much like a lengthy newspaper column.

Given Berendt’s background as a journalist, that isn’t surprising, but if he was able to turn as much of it into fiction as he must have, to reorder events and change character’s names to protect their innocence, (not that anyone sounds particularly innocent in Savannah, Georgia) then it ought to be possible to turn this into proper fiction.

Unfortunately, I was hoping for an unputdownable story of compelling characters and scenes, complete with a murder mystery and whodunit in a unique and unforgettable location, but what it felt like was following around behind Berendt as he took notes and tried to shape those notes into a coherent story.

So what is it that made this book so readable that it was a finalist for a Pulitzer? I get the impression that Berendt walked into a writer’s gold-mine the day he decided to get to know Savannah and its highly eccentric residents. He has an ability to recreate dialogue from some very interesting (and funny) people, and he had a ready-made plot evolve right in front of him as he got to know Jim Williams, accused of shooting his male lover/companion/sadist.

But there was so much more Berendt could have done with this wonderful material, that it leaves me disappointed. I have to say that the effect of this book was probably dissipated for me by the evil of watching the movie first. That’s one of those realities of modern living that corrupts the author’s abilities and vision, because it gives the reader the impression that the book and the movie are mirror images, when they clearly are not.

This is subject matter that obviously comes along only once in a lifetime, if you pursue it, as Berendt was wise enough to do. Yet in my imagination, much, much more could have been done with the material, and in my editor’s eye, if I’d had Berendt as a client, I would have tried to get him to write more elegant transitional statements. Too much writing today needs better editing, though, if you ask me. As part of the ‘true crime’ genre, this works, but it doesn’t dazzle, and it should.