There are so many things that fascinate me about Agatha Christie and her books. First, there are the books themselves. I started to read her books as a teenager because I loved mysteries, and I was quickly hooked. There was a time when I had a list of which of her books I’d read – before the Internet, we had to scour “Also by the Author” lists in the front matter of print books to look for titles we might have missed. I admire how prolific she was, how consistent she was with each book (in terms of delivering to reader expectation over and over again, yet also mixing it up a bit) and how she obviously thought about the marketing of her books. I have a hard time thinking about my own books as products – even though I know they are – so am impressed that she clearly did as much, and did it before there were blog articles everywhere explaining why it was imperative for authors to do so. I read a few years ago that her literary estate sold 6 million copies of her books each year. That’s an incredible number, especially since she passed away in 1976 – that’s a lot of years without new content to drive visibility in stores.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles was her first published book and also the title that introduced her sleuth Hercule Poirot – as well as Captain Hastings and Inspector Japp. She wrote the book in her late twenties and it was published before she was thirty, which is impressive in itself. The mystery is fun – with Hastings missing the point a lot of the time – and has a strong sense of place. It’s set in England at a country house, near the end of the first World War. People’s finances and situations are changing and that’s reflected in the situations of the characters in the book. (This series of blog posts about favorite books is making me realize how much I enjoy complicated households and stories that explore the relationships between different characters.) It’s not my favorite Christie book, or even my favorite Poirot mystery, but it’s the beginning and an excellent place to start.
What’s my favorite of her books? Hmm. I don’t think I can pick just one. I like Peril at End House, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The ABC Murders, Death on the Nile, and Cards on the Table. (These links will take you to the book’s page on the Agatha Christie website.) I quite like the books with Ariadne Oliver and have often wondered whether Christie was writing a send-up of herself. Ariadne is a mystery author. She appears in Cards on the Table and – another favorite of mine – The Pale Horse.
By the time of the second World War, Poirot was established as a popular character in fiction. Here’s an example of that marketing savvy: Agatha Christie wrote the end of Poirot’s story in advance of her own death. She wrote the first version of Curtain during the war, when England was being bombed, in case she didn’t survive. The story is that she continued to update it over the years. It was published in 1975, right around the time of her own death, as Poirot’s last case. As a result, her long-running series has both a beginning and an end, which is very clever in terms of marketing. Poirot’s cases can also be read out of order, which addressed the potential issue of a bookstore not having a particular backlist title available in print when a reader was ready for it.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles was originally published in 1920 which means it is out of copyright. There are many versions available now which aren’t really great editions—I bought a print one by mistake and the typesetting was terrible. I ended up buying this older version (top right) published by Harper Collins in 2004, because I found a new copy. I like the editions with her signature and it’s cool that the design came full circle with the edition of Curtain at left. If you’re shopping at Amazon, read the reviews. The original edition of The Mysterious Affair at Styles included a layout of the house, which is often left out of these editions. You can also use the Look Inside feature to see what you’ll be getting. (There’s one, for example, with the cover top right on the product page, but the description is really long and different from the original copy. Look Inside shows a different cover and the reviews complain of the lack of a map.)