The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie: The Golden Age Is Lovely Indeed
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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Transcript: The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Sarah Harrison 0:24
Welcome to Tea Tonic, and Toxin, a book club and podcast for anyone who wants to explore the best mysteries and thrillers ever written. I’m your host Sarah Harrison.
Carolyn Daughters 0:35
And I’m your host Carolyn Daughters. Pour yourself a cup of tea, a gin and tonic,
Sarah Harrison 0:40
… but not a toxin …
Carolyn Daughters 0:43
and join us on a journey through 19th and 20th century mysteries and thrillers, every one of them a game changer. Well, Sarah, we’re really excited about today’s episode on The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
Sarah Harrison 1:02
Carolyn Daughters 1:03
The very first Hercule Poirot mystery.
Sarah Harrison 1:09
I think I’m gonna have trouble saying that correctly the whole time.
Carolyn Daughters 1:12
We’re going to call him HP like everybody else.
Sarah Harrison 1:15
Good ol’ HP. I like it.
Carolyn Daughters 1:17
And we have an amazing special guest today, Jill Carstens.
Sarah Harrison 1:21
I’m super excited about our guest.
Carolyn Daughters 1:23
So we’re gonna introduce her in just a moment. But before we dive too deep, we want to make sure we mentioned our sponsor, Grace Sigma.
Sarah Harrison 1:32
Oh, I love that one.
Carolyn Daughters 1:34
I know. This is my favorite sponsor, too. We love Grace Sigma here. It’s a boutique process engineering consultancy run by our own Sarah Harrison. Grace Sigma works nationally in such industries as finance, telecom, and government. They use lean methods to assist in data dashboarding, storytelling, training, process visualization, and project management. Whether you’re a small business looking to scale or a large company whose processes have become tangled, Grace Sigma can help. You can learn more at gracesigma.com.
Sarah Harrison 2:07
Indeed, you can.
Carolyn Daughters 2:08
I recommend you go to the site, not during the podcast, because this is important stuff we’re doing here. But directly after. Just go to gracesigma.com and see what it’s all about. We also have a listener award this month. Maybe I should introduce our guest and then our listener award.
Sarah Harrison 2:30
She’s sitting here so nicely.
Carolyn Daughters 2:35
I’ve written her bio, literally while I’ve been talking, so it’s gonna be very good and probably 75-80% accurate. Today’s guest is Jill Carstens. Jill was a teacher for 30 years, and now she’s concentrating on her writing. She’s a journalist for multiple publications and a writer of narrative nonfiction. She’s also a painter and an avid outdoor enthusiast, and she’s a mountain biker. When she’s not hanging out with her husband and her son in Denver, you can find her in Salida, Colorado, which is I think your home away from home … or your preferred home.
Jill Carstens 3:13
We love it there for sure.
Carolyn Daughters 3:15
Sarah Harrison 3:16
Jill Carstens 3:17
I’m glad to be here.
Carolyn Daughters 3:18
And we have a listener award. The reason I wanted to introduce Jill before our listener award is that our listener is Jill’s mother.
Sarah Harrison 3:31
Jill Carstens 3:34
She’s an avid mystery reader as well.
Sarah Harrison 3:36
Carolyn Daughters 3:38
Her name is Judy Wonning.
Sarah Harrison 3:43
Jill Carstens 3:49
She lives in Lakewood, Colorado.
Carolyn Daughters 3:55
Well, Judy is an avid Agatha Christie reader, I think much of her life, and when she found out Jill was going to be on this podcast, she wanted to talk about The Mysterious Affair at Styles with Jill.
Jill Carstens 4:08
Correct? Yes. We had a little book talk together.
Sarah Harrison 4:13
I wish you recorded it. We could use it in the podcast.
Carolyn Daughters 4:17
We’ll be reading two other Agatha Christie books this year. We can keep having these conversations with your mom, perhaps. Very cool. So, Sarah, what’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles about?
Sarah Harrison 4:32
Well, Carolyn, The Mysterious Affair at Styles is Agatha Christie’s debut novel. It was published in 1920. And it’s the first featuring her famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The story begins when the narrator, Arthur Hastings, returns to England from the Great War due to an injury and is invited by his old friend John Cavendish to visit his home at Styles Court. Not long after Hastings arrives at the country estate, John’s wealthy stepmother Emily Inglethorp is found poisoned in her locked bedroom. Captain Hastings asks an old friend, Hercule Poirot, to investigate. Poirot is a retired detective and a refugee from Belgium, who lives nearby. Emily Inglethorp had been his benefactress, and he takes the case to avenge her death. Suspects are plentiful in this Golden Age detective story. Suspicion falls on everyone in residence, including John Cavendish, and his brother, Emily’s hired companion, Emily’s young ward, and a famous poison specialist. The greatest suspicion falls on Emily’s new husband, Alfred, who was 20 years her junior. Then the evidence seems to point to John Cavendish as the killer. The dramatic …
Carolyn Daughters 5:53
Sarah Harrison 5:54
takes place in the Styles Court salon. Poirot gathers the entire household to reveal the truth. So who killed Emily Inglethorp and why? Can you spot the red herrings and discover the truth of the killer’s identity? Probably not. Outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare — I didn’t know that — Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time. Hercule Poirot appears in 33 novels, 2 plays, and more than 50 short stories published between 1920 and 1975. Today, we’re excited to talk about Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It’s our fourth book selection of 2023. You can find all of our 2023 books selections on our website at teatonicandtoxin.com.
Carolyn Daughters 7:40
This is not my first Agatha Christie. I’ve read most of them.
Sarah Harrison 7:47
Carolyn Daughters 7:47
Oh yeah. I grew up reading her books, including The Mysterious Affair at Styles. How about both of you? Have you read Agatha Christie before?
Sarah Harrison 7:54
I’ve read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which we will be reading later this year. I feel like I’ve read others when I was younger, but I don’t really remember.
Jill Carstens 8:07
I know I had not read them. And I don’t know why. My mother and grandmother had almost every one of her books. Like this older version of The Mysterious Affair at Styles you have here looks like something would have been my grandmother’s shelf. They just love them. I personally was never a huge mystery person. I occasionally read mysteries if they came up in front of me. And the age of it. I remember listening to Wendi, your last guest, talking about never having read such an old book. And I have read old literature like Tolstoy and Dickens. But I was really impressed that, even though it was so old, it was very engaging.
Sarah Harrison 8:52
I agree. I thought it was great. And I’ve read tons of old books, but like you I haven’t read that many mysteries. If it just landed in my lap, I would read it. I thought it was great. It was one of my favorites so far. I got through it really fast because it was so intriguing. I was just brushing by the pages. And I was like, no, no, you probably need to absorb this a little bit more, Sarah. Because I know this is going to come back on the plot.
Carolyn Daughters 9:22
It’s easy to do though, right? Because you’re you’re eating this story up. It just goes really fast. And that’s my experience with Agatha Christie overall. You finish one and you feel this momentary sadness. And then you realize there’s another Agatha Christie I could read. And you pick up another book.
Sarah Harrison 9:40
It’s super good.
Carolyn Daughters 9:41
I loved it. The Mysterious Affair at Styles is the first time we meet Hercule Poirot. And Hastings, who is his sidekick in many, though not all of the books.
Sarah Harrison 9:52
Oh, we see Hastings again?
Carolyn Daughters 9:53
Sarah Harrison 9:53
Oh, how lovely because I really liked Hastings. He was like the best kind of ding-dong.
Jill Carstens 10:04
He was sort of a ding dong.
Sarah Harrison 10:08
He’s super funny and so lacked introspection, but in a funny way that he didn’t get at all. And we hadn’t really seen a sidekick kind of get that treatment before either in the books we’ve read. He’s charming and sweet and stupid and obvious.
Jill Carstens 10:31
In many occasions there. My mother threw out the question: What was the purpose of Hastings? And clearly, he was obviously the yang to the yin of Hercule Poirot. I’ll say. And we discussed that he was almost like leading the reader in not knowing much.
Sarah Harrison 11:00
Yes. So that’s, I guess, clearly instrumental for the reader.
Carolyn Daughters 11:07
Many times, as the reader, I felt like I knew more than Hastings. I always knew less than Poirot. But I felt like I often knew more than Hastings. I was like, This guy is completely clueless.
Jill Carstens 11:16
Sarah Harrison 11:18
I don’t know if I felt like I knew more than Hastings. But I often questioned Hastings’ judgment. Like, you know that means that one of your friends did it, right? If Alfred’s not guilty, one of your friends did it. That didn’t occur to him.
Carolyn Daughters 11:34
I mean, at one point, he’s introducing this person he met in Belgium to the family at Styles Court. And he’s like, Oh, well, he was just a funny, strange little man, very famous. He was a marvelous little fellow. “He used to say that all good detective work was a mere matter of method. A great dandy, but wonderfully clever.” And then he says it but he’s like, Well, he had really an amazing method. But I’ve of course, advanced past his method.
Sarah Harrison 12:11
He says several things. Like, Hercule Poirot is like past his prime. He’s always questioning whether Hercule Poirot knows what’s going on.
Jill Carstens 12:26
Even though we were all correct in guessing who the murderer was. Because of the red herrings. I got frustrated with that. I mean, it being my first Agatha Christie, I thought I would be Colombo and solve it before.
Carolyn Daughters 12:45
Were you able to solve the murder in The Mysterious Affair at Styles?
Jill Carstens 12:49
No. Because there was that information that wasn’t revealed until the end.
Carolyn Daughters 12:54
Yes, we’re told much of it. But we’re not told everything.
Sarah Harrison 12:58
It’s super tricky, too, because it’s obviously Alfred. And then it couldn’t be Alfred because that would have been way too obvious. And then they like get him off the hook. And then, man, if it isn’t Alfred.
Jill Carstens 13:11
Definitely a twist.
Carolyn Daughters 13:12
And then Evie seems like the only genuine person in the household. Let’s talk about her for a second. She’s really an interesting, unconventional character. Many times characters refer to her as unattractive. She’s very blunt, her conversational style would drive me nuts. How would you guys?
Sarah Harrison 13:38
I love that Agatha Christie called it telegraphic, which was really important for me to understand it. I was like, what? Oh, wait, think of it like a telegram. And then I could understand it.
Carolyn Daughters 13:53
I think she’d be a hard dinner party guest.
Jill Carstens 13:55
Carolyn Daughters 13:56
Just so brisk and so I don’t know if she felt largely unapproachable. But the way she argues it at the beginning, she’s the only real person in this household. “I don’t expect anything from Mrs. Inglethorp. I get my pay. I’m who I am. I get I get to be me. I don’t have to pander and simper and all the other stuff that these other people do.”
Sarah Harrison 14:21
I liked Evie. I wanted to totally had her as a dinner guest. But maybe I’m accustomed to people with brisk styles. She came across as like genuine, a hard worker. She’s one of the few ones that we see out there pulling weeds and working in the garden and doing this and doing that. She doesn’t appear to be after Emily Inglethorp’s money, but then we find out she’s just playing the long game.
Jill Carstens 14:51
Yeah, the long game. She was seem very loyal to her friend,.
Carolyn Daughters 14:56
She comes across as the most loyal. The way Agatha Christie sets it up in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we learn it can’t be Alfred Inglethorp. And then we don’t believe it could be Evie. So those are the two biggest red herrings. Agatha Christie really makes the strongest possible case that it can’t be these two people.
Sarah Harrison 15:22
They have the most solid alibis of everybody. He was witnessed by five people, and she was already gone. She wasn’t in the house anymore. But then they get around that, which was interesting.
Jill Carstens 15:35
When I was trying to narrow somebody down, I was writing a list of all the characters in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and there was some point when Evie came back to the house after Mrs. Inglethorp passed away. And she seemed to already know a lot of details. So I noted that. But then it seemed like later in The Mysterious Affair at Styles that those were dispelled, but I went back to that after I learned that she was part of it. A lot of going back.
Sarah Harrison 16:04
For me, it was like almost, I think, when I watched The Sixth Sense, for the first time, when you get that massive twist at the end, and you’re like, wait, I need to go back and reevaluate everything in the light of what I know now. I almost want to start rereading it again. So I can pick up on all those things that were interesting,
Carolyn Daughters 16:28
Those things woven into the story that we didn’t know to call out or pay special attention to. Do you think anybody has ever just watched The Sixth Sense one time? That would be crazy, right? So The Mysterious Affair at Styles takes place at Styles Court in Essex. And it’s during the war. I’m always interested in books set during wartime, because I like to see what what elements of the war are evident or visible in the story and the dialogue and the way people are living. Was it on your mind that World War I is taking place during the story?
Sarah Harrison 17:22
I didn’t really think about which war was taking place. But it was, I thought, really clear to me more than The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was prior to the start of the war, and I was less clear on. But clearly Hastings had been wounded and Cynthia was working in the dispensary. And they were saving up their scraps of paper and those sorts of things.
Jill Carstens 17:47
They were being cautious with how much sugar they used, I think I remember.
Carolyn Daughters 17:53
And so Cynthia works in a dispensary at a Red Cross hospital. And Mrs. Inglethorp is throwing party after party for all of the charitable causes she supports and promotes. Hastings, of course, was injured in the war. We don’t know exactly what happened to him. But it was in Belgium, where she initially met Poirot,
Sarah Harrison 18:17
Right. He was also there as a refugee.
Carolyn Daughters 18:22
One of the hugest disconnects for me is Lawrence, the younger brother. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Styles Court is this magical place. After Hastings arrives at Styles Court, he says “As one looked out over the flat Essex country line 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.” And then we get John and Lawrence Cavendish at Styles Court. It’s almost like the war doesn’t exist on this property. It’s this safe haven. Both of you are creative people, Sarah and Jill. Lawrence is really interesting to me because he has so much privilege. He has burned through whatever inheritance on his writing career. And he’s still just hanging out at the house writing, looking around, taking walks during wartime. This bothered me so much so
Sarah Harrison 19:44
You thought he should have joined the war?
Carolyn Daughters 19:46
I thought he should have done something. What do you guys think?
Sarah Harrison 19:55
That’s a tough question.
Jill Carstens 19:56
It seems to go with the times. Then, similar to now, where the the wealthy get to pick and choose what they’re going to do. And they were used to a life of leisure. And I think there are some indications that they were trying to be like with the charities and not using as much sugar. Those were their big sacrifices. No, it annoys me greatly.
Sarah Harrison 20:27
Here’s where I get a little bit stuck. I feel like I barely even know when wars are going on now. I can’t say I’ve ever rationed anything. We don’t do that anymore. We don’t rush in for war efforts.
Carolyn Daughters 20:43
Well, we did stock up on toilet paper.
Jill Carstens 20:45
During COVID, yeah.
Sarah Harrison 20:47
For pandemic efforts. I call it the great toilet paper shortage of 2020. It was insane. But we don’t we don’t ration anything. We do hoard. We don’t ration we don’t. It’s very easy for anyone now to be untouched by a war. And so to say, well, should Lawrence have joined in the effort? I’m an anti-military person. And it’s not like I’d sign my son up to join in a war. Not that I think Lawrence should have blown all of his inheritance on what feels like is a bit of flippancy.
Carolyn Daughters 21:32
He’s gone through every penny he’s ever had publishing rotten verses and fancy bindings.
Sarah Harrison 21:37
That’s coming from John, who we also are told lacks complete imagination. Maybe Lawrence was just a fantastic unknown. I don’t know, he’s not portrayed that way.
Carolyn Daughters 21:48
There’s incredible privilege to be able to live in an estate like this and say, well, I like to write poetry. Your family is funding you. It’s not necessarily that I wanted him to join the war. Though this was a serious war with incredible repercussions. Sometimes I have trouble when, in the golden age of detective fiction, as we’re in now. We’re in the 20s and going into the 30s. This idea that this family has so much wealth, and then there’s a murder on the estate, and we, the readers, are supposed to care about these people. They’re interesting, in many cases, by virtue of their wealth, and not really much else. This is not a gritty streets of New York kind of mystery. This is an “eight people in an estate” kind of murder. And I love the stories, and I whip through them. And yet, there’s this part of me that rebels.
Sarah Harrison 23:05
When I look back at the stories we’ve read, I would say very few of them, with the exception of maybe Bleak House, are character driven. They are to me very intellectually driven, where I’m trying to solve a puzzle. They’re puzzle-solving stories. And so I guess I don’t get mad at them for living this life either because that’s not what I’m really thinking about. I’m thinking about the puzzle solving. What do you think, Jill?
Jill Carstens 23:39
That probably was perhaps Agatha’s Christie’s intention. I don’t know. She grew up, I think, if I recall, with a bit of privilege herself. So perhaps that’s more a reflection of where she comes from? And I don’t know, because The Mysterious Affair at Styles is my first Agatha Christie book. I know a little bit because of some of her books being made in movies. Some are very similarly characterized with these types of high level characters.
Sarah Harrison 23:39
Almost all the books we’ve read have this set of characters, right? These are the characters, these are the characters that are written about during this period.
Carolyn Daughters 24:16
There are some American stories, as we get further into this century, where we’re going to start seeing a shift. Or at least they’re going to mix it up. It’s going to be grittier. It’s going to be more of a mix of wealthy people and poor people and middle-class people. It’s going to move off of the estate to some degree. I mean, in the US, of course, we don’t have that same sort of estate, though there are obviously wealthy people who are the subject of stories.
Sarah Harrison 24:51
You bring up a good point, Jill, about Agatha Christie’s background. You I mentioned being an artist and starting as an artist, and I have to say, I was completely naive when I went to art school when I was like 20. I thought I will just be really good at art, and then I’ll make a living or something. Shortly thereafter, like living in the depths of poverty, I was like, what, nobody is an artist like this without some kind of backup.
Jill Carstens 25:25
Trust fund babies.
Sarah Harrison 25:26
You’ve got to have some funding for a while, whether it’s your spouse or your parents or something. I dropped out of art school and went into science. I could make a living but if you think about it, that even today to do these pursuits, you need some source of funding. It makes sense that given a source of funding, Lawrence didn’t necessarily have to mature into a paying the rent type practicality.
Carolyn Daughters 26:03
But his stepmother headed up all of these charitable foundations. So she seemed to have charity in her. Weirdly, she seemed to have charity in her but didn’t evoke a lot of feeling amongst her family. They all seemed shocked she died, but they didn’t seem collapsed with grief.
Sarah Harrison 26:23
That honestly is what bugged me a lot more than the privilege of Lawrence. When he thought Cynthia was guilty of killing his mom and was trying to shield her. I was like, Okay, you’re terrible.
Jill Carstens 26:36
His stepmom. That was mentioned in the The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
Sarah Harrison 26:40
They make a big deal out of the stepmom, but it was since they were babies.
Jill Carstens 26:44
Oh, I missed that.
Sarah Harrison 26:46
She was in every sense their mom like if they were adopted.
Carolyn Daughters 26:50
So Poirot then makes the extension of that and talks about biology.
Sarah Harrison 26:55
I thought that was unfair.
Carolyn Daughters 26:59
Things like that always get me, too, and that gets my brain racing. A woman who raised these children from a very young age into the men of I don’t know what age 30s, 40s, …
Sarah Harrison 27:13
Yeah, if John was 15 years older than Hastings.
Carolyn Daughters 27:16
Hastings is around 30, 35?
Sarah Harrison 27:18
Jill Carstens 27:19
I was I was assuming younger.
Sarah Harrison 27:21
I was assuming it was like 20 or something.
Carolyn Daughters 27:23
I think they say at one point that he’s like, 30 or 35. So John, probably like 40. So I was thinking, maybe around maybe 45. And then Lawrence’s his younger brother, but they’ve been with this woman who has been a mother to them all these years. And when she dies, they’re like, Okay, well, I wonder if someone murdered her. There was no drama, seemingly about a sense of absence or loss.
Jill Carstens 27:56
Not a whole lot of sadness or expressing of mourning.
Sarah Harrison 28:02
It reminded me a little bit again of Bleak House. In Bleak House, these charitable lady characters are almost two-dimensional in terms of how they run their charities and think about their benevolence. Whereas Emily Inglethorp is a little bit more three-dimensional, but she does seem to have this personality of “charity is my job.” But it’s not evoking empathy.
Jill Carstens 28:32
Right? I mean, it might be the case of, they were so comfortable, and she took care of everything. And that’s more who she was, rather than a loving figure. More of someone they took for granted.
Carolyn Daughters 28:51
She’s also the brick wall between John and Lawrence getting all the cash that they’d ever want, right? John Cavendish says to Hastings at one point, “It’s a fine property. It’ll be mine one day. It should be mine now by rights if my father had only made a decent will. Then I shouldn’t be so damned hard up as I am now.” Hastings says, “Hard up are you?” John says, “I don’t mind telling you. I’m at my wit’s end for money. Hastings asks if Lawrence can help him. John says no because Lawrence has “gone through every penny he’s ever had publishing rotten verses and fancy bindings. No, we’re in impecunious lot.” It’s like she’s not a human being.
Sarah Harrison 29:37
She’s a barrier to what they’re owed.
Carolyn Daughters 29:41
She’s this thing impeding their way to more frivolous spending.
Sarah Harrison 29:55
That was interesting and a bummer to me that they resented her. Well, what did you want your dad to do? He didn’t give her all the money. He just seems to have given her life rights to managing the property. And her money went to, I believe, Alfred, because it was supposed to automatically go to the husband once she was married. But the father’s money goes to the kids. It doesn’t ever go to Alfred, because she was also wealthy, I believe.
Carolyn Daughters 30:31
It’s hard to feel sorry for the rich kids who aren’t quite as rich as they wish they were. And I say “kids.”
Sarah Harrison 30:40
Rich, middle-aged men.
Jill Carstens 30:41
Carolyn Daughters 30:46
Who seem to hang out all day and wait for the servants to bring them their next meal or cocktail. Poirot seems to care about Mrs. Inglethorp because she was his patron. She made it possible for him and several other refugees from Belgium to come to Essex.
Sarah Harrison 31:10
Here’s an idea. Do you think if Poirot had gotten to know Emily Inglethorp better, he wouldn’t feel that way? Evie said one of the most insightful things. “Emily was a very selfish old woman in her way. She was very generous, but she always wanted to return. She never let people forget what she had done for them. And that way, she missed love.”
Jill Carstens 31:47
There you go.
Sarah Harrison 31:49
I thought that, to me, rang really true. She was generous, but then you owed her something. And while she seemed kind, she also had a steely center. So I wonder if Poirot had gotten to know her, how would she have acted with the Belgians that she helped? Would she have had expectations for how they behave to her? But we never got that far. She got murdered pretty soon.
Carolyn Daughters 32:20
At the beginning, we see her with Cynthia, and Cynthia is working all day at the dispensary at this Red Cross Hospital and she comes home. And she’s supposed to run some errands or other for Mrs. Inglethorp while the rest of the family sits there at the table. And I thought, this is an example of never letting somebody forget their place.
Sarah Harrison 32:39
I wondered about that, too. So I read the biography of Annie Oakley several years ago, and she was an orphan. And at that time as an orphan it was a weird situation like you would get adopted. But what that meant was a family would take you in and you work for them as like a little child servant.
Carolyn Daughters 33:05
Sarah Harrison 33:06
So it was her job to do the laundry and watch the kids because she was the little child servant. You’re not adopted as a co-child.
Carolyn Daughters 33:06
You’re like an indentured servant.
Sarah Harrison 33:06
Yes. Hopefully they’re kind toward you. But you are working for them.
Jill Carstens 33:06
You’re so lucky they’ve taken you in.
Sarah Harrison 33:06
That was sort of the situation with Cynthia. She wasn’t actually adopted, but she was taken in and taken care of.
Jill Carstens 32:43
She was expected to kind of work it off in a way.
Carolyn Daughters 32:59
In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, it it bothered me that Cynthia came from a full day of work to the household where she had to work. The rest of the family Lawrence for example. I keep harping on Lawrence. Lawrence, I barely know you, man. I picture him kicking his feet up and doing very little. I mean, Jill, you’re a writer like I picture him in the corner with a notebook scribbling away.
Jill Carstens 34:13
He was always kind of in the background, observing.
Carolyn Daughters 34:19
I’m a writer also.
Sarah Harrison 34:22
Carolyn’s life of leisure. It’s crazy.
Jill Carstens 34:26
My life of leisure. To make a living at it is a lot of work. I haven’t quite gotten there. I get a little bit here and there,
Carolyn Daughters 34:35
Most writers haven’t though. To have the luxury of 365 days a year on the estate, where you’re sitting in the lovely chair out back in the shade with your notebook.
Sarah Harrison 34:48
Do you feel like you would write well under those conditions, or do you kind of need a constraint to make you productive?
Jill Carstens 34:58
If I knew somebody was paying my way, that would feel awkward to me. I would feel that owing something. But otherwise, having some kind of retreat to go write at. I could do that.
Sarah Harrison 35:11
All year, every year?
Jill Carstens 35:14
Oh, well, as long as I could interact and get out every once in a while. I wouldn’t want to be stuck there the whole time.
Sarah Harrison 35:21
I probably would like that. But I probably also need some constraints as well.
Jill Carstens 35:28
So you don’t just have this vague amount of right.
Sarah Harrison 35:30
Some kind of structured reason to hurry up and do something.
Jill Carstens 35:35
I just finished having some convalescence time and lots of time to write. I did finish a lot of writing, but that’s why I ended up doing more art also, because I needed other things. I can’t just write all day every day. I might have a couple of days where I write all day. So I wondered how productive Lawrence was. Sure seemed like he wandered around a lot. He had such a vague character. I wanted to know him better.
Sarah Harrison 36:03
It sounds like he’s probably entirely self-published, too. So that’s the other thing. You’re not working with a publisher. Nobody’s going to buy this.
Jill Carstens 36:09
It doesn’t have to good.
Sarah Harrison 36:12
Let’s edit it a little bit more. Because Lawrence spent his money publishing his verses. So how healthy is that to put out your writing without the external pushback of sellability?
Carolyn Daughters 36:24
Well, I mean, that’s very common, though.
Jill Carstens 36:26
Carolyn Daughters 36:28
Everybody has a book in them at least in theory. And Jill more than I do. I know, a lot of memoir, writers, everybody’s writing their memoir, and whatever that number is about Jill knows ten more because you write narrative nonfiction, you’re you’re around people who are writing narrative nonfiction. It’s an incredible number of people, and most memoirs are not published. If the novel is tough, and I’m going to tell you what — the novel is tough — memoir is harder, especially if you’re not famous. If you’re writing a memoir, and you’re not a famous person, and you’re trying to find a publisher, you better have one heck of a story.
Jill Carstens 37:10
It’s harder to make it good, interesting, or sellable.
Sarah Harrison 37:14
Like who’s gonna read that?
Carolyn Daughters 37:16
Self-publishing is common, and I don’t think self-publishing on its face is problematic. Especially if somebody’s put their heart and soul in something, and they think they have an audience and just can’t find an agent for it. Sure, go, do whatever you need to do. And in some cases, they’re vanity projects. I had a client, and I edited her book. And she wanted it published for her family. And she had only maybe six months to live. And she finished the book and wanted to share it with her family. So she published it. But there are also vanity presses. A lot of the memoir writers I’ve met over the years were family funded or came from money, many of them very young. And I thought, I wonder what story you’re telling.
Jill Carstens 38:33
Yes. With your cushy life. Yes, I’ve met a few of those. And I did not seek out their book to read it because I didn’t think the person was that interesting. I was curious, well, what what did you write about? Maybe I should give that a chance because maybe there’s some good writing out there by vain people. I mean, you have to be a little vain — I don’t know if vain is the right word. But I think about this a lot, but maybe you have to be a little vain to write about yourself.
Sarah Harrison 39:03
I always remember this comment from my uncle. I was telling him some funny stories about what I was doing at the time. And he was like, Sarah, you should write a book. And I was like “write a book, who on earth is gonna write a book about a woman in her thirties who has failed to do anything to distinguish herself? Nobody’s reading that book.
Jill Carstens 39:26
That’s how you view yourself.
Sarah Harrison 39:28
Yeah, back then when I was in my thirties. But, even so, why would I write a book about myself. Who’s wanting to read that? It’s a bunch of day-to-day nonsense.
Jill Carstens 39:39
They always say to put it out there and somebody will connect with it. It will resonate with someone.
Sarah Harrison 39:44
My mom will read it for sure.
Jill Carstens 39:48
Carolyn Daughters 39:55
People who write bestselling novels, with some exceptions, have a day job. It’s not the money-making venture one might think from the outside. “Oh, I just published a book, and now I’m on Easy Street and traveling the world and bought a second house.” There are a handful of writers to whom that applies.
Jill Carstens 40:17
Absolutely. I mean, if you really genuinely have your heart in it, it’s more about that. You’re sharing struggles and transformations.
Carolyn Daughters 40:32
I think memoir is one of the bravest forms for sure, putting your truth on the page, assuming you’re going whole hog, you’re putting real words on his page and doing everything you can to eliminate the BS and just put your truth on the page. That to me is incredibly brave.
Jill Carstens 40:55
It’s also brave when you add your family members or your friends. That’s a little scary.
Sarah Harrison 41:01
That sounds terrifying. Honestly. I could never everyone in my life would have to die before I could publish a book.
Jill Carstens 41:10
Sarah Harrison 41:12
Is that what you’re writing? Are you writing a memoir, Jill?
Jill Carstens 41:14
It’s basically a memoir. Basing in a lot on a more timely topic, which is our changing surroundings in Colorado. I grew up here, and it’s not the same place it used to be. I’m trying to adjust to that, because I still love it. So that’s kind of an overarching theme, a bigger theme than just me.
Carolyn Daughters 41:40
I like that there’s the two elements to it.
Jill Carstens 41:43
Hopefully, that’ll come through. I’m still constantly editing and going over it.
Carolyn Daughters 41:49
When you do it right, most of us don’t get The Sun Also Rises written in six weeks, like Hemingway supposedly did. Most of us spend a crazy amount of time writing. And then the first draft is just to figure out what you wanted to write about in the first place. And then the second draft is where you start putting the real meat on on the page. And then the 140th, 150th draft … I’m joking, but in weird way, I’m not.
Jill Carstens 42:19
Not totally. It’s in a way, like art, not always done. I could see if I were so lucky to have somebody want to publish it. I’d be like, Hang on. Let me go over it one more time.
Carolyn Daughters 42:33
A few more things.
Jill Carstens 42:34
There’s always something right.
Carolyn Daughters 42:36
At some point, you have to just draw a line and say, okay, this is it. But figuring out where that line is, that’s hard.
Jill Carstens 42:46
I keep thinking I get to it. And then I reread it just the other day, and I’m like, Oh, no. I’ve got some things I gotta fix.
Carolyn Daughters 43:00
Sarah, I know, you’ve noticed that in these books I recoil a little bit when it comes to the familial wealth. And I’ve been thinking a lot about that. That’s not a revelation to me, per se. But the fact that I keep coming back to it, I think I have unresolved issues.
Sarah Harrison 43:18
My curiosity is more about Carolyn and why this strikes a chord with you, given that it feels like it’s in 100% of the books. So I’m wondering, is there’s some sort of nexus between something perspective about a certain book, and where Carolyn’s psyche is at that on certain books it just really ignites.
Carolyn Daughters 43:41
I think on some level it hits me hard. Sometimes I identify with characters, except when it comes to how they treat various other people depending on their class, their place in society, their place in the family, their role. And it throws me that I can sync up or align with an author or a character so far on this journey, and then I skid to a halt when I see how they treat somebody else or believe somebody else should be treated because fill in the blank. Because I’m aligning with them so far, I’m thinking okay, we’re in sync. And then wait a minute, whoa, put the brakes on. It throws me for a loop when that character or an author goes a direction that I didn’t expect because we had been skipping along together.
Jill Carstens 45:00
We’ve been friends. I mean, I always look for somebody to identify with. And I feel like in this kind of writing, that’s almost not possible. In the end, I didn’t really like or identify with any of the characters. And I kept looking for that. It was frustrating. But I think the point of especially Agatha Christie’s novels is to point out that wealthy people can be a little selfish. I don’t know. Orr I also wonder, historically, is that who published books. Wealthy people, and only all the people. That was the audience perhaps, or considered the audience. It is interesting that so many of the early ones are based on a wealthy group of people having dinner or being on a train or …
Sarah Harrison 46:15
Well, I don’t think Agatha Christie is in any way deluded. She’s not thinking like these are great people. She’s even within The Mysterious Affair at Styles, they’re like, oh, this rich people scandal really took the headlines since it was a slow moment in the war. But even though likes that happens constantly, even more, because you have whatever your little algorithm on your phone that’s always telling me what a given celebrity wore on a particular day to a place. It’s just like, what are rich and famous people doing. It’s inescapable.
Jill Carstens 46:55
And these days that’s ridiculous. But back then perhaps that gave people a well-deserved break from hearing about the war.
Carolyn Daughters 47:04
That’s true. You get something else to divert your attention for a little bit.
Sarah Harrison 47:10
For me, the characters I didn’t feel, I don’t like it when they feel like I’m supposed to like a character, and I don’t. I didn’t feel obligated to like any of the characters. I felt like what I was doing was really following the Poirot/Hastings dyad and their intellectual and humorous escapades. I was really struck, not so much by the privilege, but just the lack of empathy. How sad it all was. And then at the end, the person who was the only one that cried, the person who was the only one that didn’t take extra money, that’s the one that killed her. Then you’re stuck with all of the unsympathetic relatives are like, Okay, well, everything’s fine. We got what we needed. Thank you.
Carolyn Daughters 48:04
I identify and sympathize with Poirot. And maybe that’s from The Mysterious Affair at Styles, or maybe it’s because I’ve read this body of literature. I like his moral compass. I do understand he gets arrogant at times.
Sarah Harrison 48:19
In a funny way, though.
Carolyn Daughters 48:21
I think he’s a good man. He’s a legitimately good person is the sense I get from the books. But did you connect with him? Or did you feel like The Mysterious Affair at Styles is super fun and interesting, but I don’t really connect with anyone. How did you guys feel?
Jill Carstens 48:38
Absolutely Hercule Poirot more than anybody because he was clearly not involved in what happened and he was just this objective observer who kept the peace and usually kept his temper and dressed like a dandy the whole time. And he was very likable.
Sarah Harrison 48:58
I loved Poirot. He’s a great little character. Hastings, I loved and was alternately horrified by throughout The Mysterious Affair at Styles. I was like, this is funny. What is the matter with you? But Poirot was solid. It’s hard not to like him.
Carolyn Daughters 49:17
There’s a channel on Amazon Prime called Brit Box. And they have all the Agatha Christie’s. and David Suchet plays Poirot. And he is genius. He’s in all of them. He’s amazing. He was born to play this role. It’s worth watching. He also puts the heart and soul into that character. Even if there’s this cast of people with whom you’re not identifying, I feel like I always identify with Poirot on the page and also on the screen. Hastings, I could take him or leave him. He just always comes across as sort of daffy to me.
Sarah Harrison 50:18
Definitely daffy, intentionally. Very funny. I know we’re getting close to time. Jill, where can people find you if they want to look up some of your work and the internets?
Jill Carstens 50:31
Thanks for asking. Actually, I’ve tried a couple times to put my writing in one place. And I just started a different Instagram. I have an Instagram of my art, and that’s @graphittirainbow. I created that during the pandemic. But my column in The Denver North Star is called @lettersfrommissjill.
Sarah Harrison 50:52
Oh, you have a column? That’s cool.
Jill Carstens 50:53
I enjoy it. I offer whatever wisdom I feel like I have from a parenting standpoint.
Carolyn Daughters 51:04
You also have paid journalist pieces.
Jill Carstens 51:05
Absolutely. I freelance around Colorado. And I very much enjoy that because I can write I can pitch stories that I think need to get out there that might be about human rights or about the environment. So I’m starting to put links on this @lettersfrommissjill Instagram page. So thank you for that.
Carolyn Daughters 51:28
Very cool. Thank you for being with us.
Jill Carstens 51:29
It’s a pleasure.
Sarah Harrison 51:32
It has been fantastic to have you as a guest and your perspective and your mom’s perspective about that, too.
Carolyn Daughters 51:38
We do have a second episode on The Mysterious Affair at Styles coming up. Because we have so much to say, and we have, I don’t know, a million pages of notes. We made it through two pages. We’re gonna be right back. Sarah, take us out.
Sarah Harrison 51:53
All right. Stay mysterious.
September 11, 2023
Sarah, Carolyn, and Mike Nugent keep the Maltese Falcon conversation flowing with LOADS more thoughts about Sam Spade, Effie Perine, Casper Gutman, Joel Cairo, and, of course, the ever-elusive Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Folks, we have a lot of ground to cover. Join us, won’t you?Listen →
August 4, 2023
Author Mike Nugent joins Sarah and Carolyn to talk about noir, crime fiction, and all things Sam Spade (who’s described as resembling a blond satan). The Maltese Falcon changed the way crime fiction was written. You’ll want to read it in one sitting and then give our podcast a listen.Listen →
July 30, 2023
Hey, Continental Op, what’s your deal? Are you a hero? Anti-hero? Something else altogether? Hear our thoughts about the Op, Dinah Brand, Whisper, and all the gang – and let us know your tally of how many people wind up dead in the book. It’s hard to keep track.Listen →