What Are the 39 Steps? The Book Holds the Key …
This detective novel introduces readers to a British mining engineer – Richard Hannay – who has just returned to London
The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) is the first Hercule Poirot mystery! Can Belgian detective Hercule Poirot solve an unsolvable crime? From the Times Literary Supplement (1921): “[The story] is said to be the result of a bet about the possibility of writing a detective story in which the reader would not be able to spot the criminal. Every reader must admit that the bet was won.”
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Reflect: Check out the conversation starters below.
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Tell us what you think about the first Hercule Poirot mystery, and we may share your thoughts in our next episode and send you a fabulous sticker! (It really is a pretty awesome sticker.)
Here are some questions about the first Hercule Poirot mystery to get you started. Read, reflect, weigh in above, and listen to the podcast!
Period and Setting: The first Hercule Poirot mystery is set during the Great War. We learn that Hastings was injured in the Great War. Mrs. Inglethorp runs dozens (hundreds?) of charitable societies, many of them war related, and she recites a war poem at an evening bazaar. Cynthia works in a dispensary at a Red Cross Hospital. Belgian refugees are in the area, including Poirot. War economies dictate that scrap paper is saved and sent away in sacks for recycling. In the second half of the book, Hastings takes a job at the War Office.
When Hastings first arrives at Styles Court, he writes, “As one looked out over the flat Essex country, lying so green and peaceful under the afternoon sun, it seemed almost impossible to believe that, not so very far away, a great war was running its appointed course. I felt I had suddenly strayed into another world.”
Hastings later notes, “The war was momentarily inactive, and the newspapers seized with avidity on this crime in fashionable life: ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ was the topic of the moment.”
What do you find intriguing, surprising, or unsettling about the period in which the book is set and the book’s Styles Court setting?
Poe’s Narrator vs. Watson vs. Hastings: In what ways do these narrators differ? In what ways are they variations on a theme?
And start with Hastings’ lack of self-awareness. He notes, “I flatter myself that my first judgments are usually fairly shrewd.” He also notes, “The idea crossed my mind … that poor old Poirot was growing old. Privately I thought it lucky that he had associated with him someone of a more receptive type of mind.” And at one point he says, “My system is based on [Poirot’s]—though of course I have progressed rather further.”
And Hastings’ reason for writing: “[In] view of the world-wide notoriety which attended [the case], I have been asked, both by my friend Poirot and the family themselves, to write an account of the whole story. This, we trust, will effectually silence the sensational rumors which still persist.”
Scotland Yard or Sherlock Holmes?
“I’ve always had a secret hankering to be a detective!”
“The real thing—Scotland Yard? Or Sherlock Holmes?”
“Oh, Sherlock Holmes by all means. …”
“Like a good detective story myself,” remarked Miss Howard. “Lots of nonsense written, though. Criminal discovered in last chapter. Everyone dumbfounded. Real crime—you’d know at once.”
A Funny Little Man with a Matter of Method: Hastings notes he “came across a man in Belgium once, a very famous detective …. He was a marvellous little fellow. He used to say that all good detective work was a mere matter of method. … He was a funny little man, a great dandy, but wonderfully clever.”
Later, Poirot says to Hastings, “Beware! Peril to the detective who says: ‘It is so small—it does not matter. It will not agree. I will forget it.’ That way lies confusion! Everything matters.”
Poirot also tells Hastings, “You gave too much rein to your imagination. Imagination is a good servant, and a bad master. The simplest explanation is always the most likely.”
Let’s talk about Hercule Poirot and his method.
So Many Clues
Visual Aids: It’s not common to include floorplans, images of scraps of paper (“I am possessed”), and other visual aids in novels, including mysteries and detective stories. How do you feel about the inclusion of such visual aids?
Poison! Mary says, “[O]wing to the general ignorance of the more uncommon poisons among the medical profession, there were probably countless cases of poisoning quite unsuspected.” It makes Carolyn wonder how many people who died “natural deaths” were actually poisoned …
Order: Poirot “walked slowly across to the mantelpiece, where he stood abstractedly fingering the ornaments, and straightening them—a trick of his when he was agitated.” What do we learn about Poirot by watching him in action? What do you do to calm yourself or see the world more clearly?
Everyone Is a Suspect: Poirot says, “It is always wise to suspect everybody until you can prove logically, and to your own satisfaction, that they are innocent.” This makes sense in practice, but in reality it’s difficult to do.
The Worst Proposal Ever?
“Mr. Hastings—you are always so kind, and you know such a lot.”
“It struck me at this moment that Cynthia was really a very charming girl! Much more charming than Mary, who never said things of that kind.”
Hastings proposes. Cynthia laughs and walks away. And Carolyn is confounded by both Hastings and Cynthia. How about you?
Marriage as Escape: “[It] was a very good match for me. … [John] was simply a way of escape from the insufferable monotony of my life. … Don’t misunderstand me. I was quite honest with him. I told him, what was true, that I liked him very much, that I hoped to come to like him more, but that I was not in any way what the world calls ‘in love’ with him. He declared that that satisfied him, and so—we were married.”
Hastings’ Obsession with Mary Cavendish: “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 wonderful tawny eyes of hers, remarkable eyes, different from any other woman’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 civilised body—all these things are burnt into my memory. I shall never forget them.”
Later, he writes, “I dreamed that night of that enigmatical woman, Mary Cavendish.” Lusting after your buddy’s wife seems sketchy to Carolyn. And he put it in writing no less!
So Much Privilege: We learn that Lawrence Cavendish “had qualified as a doctor but early relinquished the profession of medicine, and lived at home while pursuing literary ambitions; though his verses never had any marked success.” To recap, he lives lavishly and spends his time writing poetry. During wartime, no less.
John Cavendish also tells Hastings about Styles Court:
“[I]t’s a fine property. It’ll be mine some day—should be mine now by rights, if my father had only made a decent will. And then I shouldn’t be so damned hard up as I am now.”
“Hard up, are you?”
“… I don’t mind telling you that I’m at my wits’ end for money.”
“Couldn’t your brother help you?”
“Lawrence? He’s gone through every penny he ever had, publishing rotten verses in fancy bindings. No, we’re an impecunious lot.”
A Good Flare Up: Mary says, “I should like to see a good flare up. It would clear the air. At present we are all thinking so much, and saying so little.” Carolyn couldn’t agree more. How about you?
Public Quarreling: Hastings notes, “At once I realized that I was in a very awkward predicament. For, about twelve feet away from me, John and Mary Cavendish were standing facing each other, and they were evidently quarreling. And, quite as evidently, they were unaware of my vicinity.” Public squabbles are the absolute worst. So uncomfortable. Do you agree?
Anti-Semitism: There’s plenty in the book. Here’s a sample:
John: “I’ve had enough of the fellow hanging about. He’s a Polish Jew, anyway.”
Mary: “A tinge of Jewish blood is not a bad thing. It leavens the”—she looked at him—“stolid stupidity of the ordinary Englishman.”
Surrounded by Family and Yet Unloved: It’s initially surmised that someone must have gained admission to Mrs. Inglethorp’s room even though the doors had all been bolted on the inside. In the end, of course, we learn that her death had nothing to do with someone entering her room. Nonetheless, as she lays dying, no one can figure out how to get into her room. Think about it – Mrs. Inglethorp is loudly gasping her last breaths, and there’s all this rigmarole over how to get into her room. But wait! The door between Cynthia’s room and Mrs. Inglethorp’s room was unbolted the entire time! Instead of trying to save Mrs. Inglethorp, Mary Cavendish pretends to try to awaken Cynthia to cover her own tracks. Lawrence, in turn, claims the door was bolted to cover for Cynthia, who he thinks is the murderer.
In working so hard to cover tracks, neither Mary nor Lawrence seem to care about saving Mrs. Inglethorp. Hastings at one point asks, “Was the family prostrated by grief? Was the sorrow at Mrs. Inglethorp’s death so great? … The dead woman had not the gift of commanding love. Her death was a shock and a distress, but she would not be passionately regretted.” Mrs. Inglethorp thus dies with no one to truly mourn her.
Evie says, “Emily was a selfish old woman in her way. She was very generous, but she always wanted a return. She never let people forget what she had done for them—and, that way she missed love. … I was on a different footing. I took my stand from the first. ‘So many pounds a year I’m worth to you. Well and good. … I kept my self-respect. And so, out of the whole bunch, I was the only one who could allow myself to be fond of her.”
Was the lack of love due to Emily’s selfishness, or was it due to an absence of blood ties? Poirot says, “It is not as though there was a blood tie. She has been kind and generous to these Cavendishes, but she was not their own mother. Blood tells—always remember that—blood tells.”
A Woman’s Happiness:
In this first Hercule Poirot mystery, we are introduced to Poirot’s romantic side. Here’s a conversation between Hastings and Poirot:
“Do you mean that you could have saved John Cavendish from being brought to trial?”
“Yes, my friend. But I eventually decided in favour of ‘a woman’s happiness’. Nothing but the great danger through which they have passed could have brought these two proud souls together again.”
I looked at Poirot in silent amazement. The colossal cheek of the little man! Who on earth but Poirot would have thought of a trial for murder as a restorer of conjugal happiness!
“I perceive your thoughts, mon ami,” said Poirot, smiling at me. “No one but Hercule Poirot would have attempted such a thing! And you are wrong in condemning it. The happiness of one man and one woman is the greatest thing in all the world.”
Inspirational? Heartwarming? Overly sentimental? Confounding? Out and out ridiculous? What’s your take on Poirot’s strategy for bringing conjugal happiness to John and Mary Cavendish?
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Teasers & Tidbits
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