Spoilers! Visit the book or episode first, tout suite!
Following on from Peril At End House, The Mysterious Affair At Styles is a mysterious affair in itself.
Newcomers fresh to the Poirot series working through these stories in order may be a tad puzzled by the fact that we're going all the way back to the beginning. The usual regulars don't seem to know each other so well – or at all, in the case of Hastings and Japp. Whereas last time, I left them giggling at an end-of-episode joke on a sunny Cornish beach.
In context though, let's revisit 1990. In between the step haircuts, sobbing Gazzas and baggy indie music domination, it was time to celebrate the centenary of Agatha Christie's birth. To mark the occasion, ITV commissioned the adaptation of Christie's first book, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. Intended as a celebratory happy birthday, the feature-length episode went out 100 years and one day after Christie was born.
In this sense, if you're watching each and every one of the Poirot stories, it's a good idea to start with this one. It functions more as a pilot than, say, Peril At End House. Hastings meets Japp for the first time. While Poirot and Hastings clearly know each other (the two had previously met in a shooting case), there's not quite the same sense of two old friends. Choosing to start with Styles also gives the Poirot series a nice sense of bookending symmetry in that the final adventure, Curtain, returns to the old house.
Of course, if you're not bothered by the chronology of the Poirot books, you can regard The Mysterious Affair At Styles as a prequel. It worked for Indiana Jones (The Temple Of Doom) and Star Wars (The Phantom Menace). Actually, in the case of the latter, maybe scrub that. But the point still stands. Many TV and movie franchises like to revisit the early days a bit later on, so in that respect, The Mysterious Affair At Styles does the same kind of thing. It travels back to the later days of the First World War, where a convalescing Hastings is invited to spend a few days at the house of his chum, John Cavendish.
Styles Court isn't some poky old dive though. We're talking massive country manor here. It's so big that even the visiting birds get their own rooms in between flights. Styles Court is big enough to house plenty of John's relatives and friends. His wife, Mary. His brother, Lawrence. His stepmother, Emily Inglethorp and her newly married husband, Alfred. Cynthia Murdoch, a late family friend's daughter. Evelyn Howard, a friend, confidante and nursemaid to Emily. On top of this, there are the servants and maids including a little old lady called Dorcas. That gives you an idea of the scale of Styles Court, given that there's enough room for Hastings to kip over.
Either that or he sleeps in the broom cupboard.
Naturally, this being a Christie story, this long list of characters is one woman down about 20 minutes into the story. Alas, poor old Emily is having a rough night of it, moaning and groaning in pain. This isn't just your run-of-the-mill reaction to one of Dorcas' culinary creations though, someone's poisoned the poor woman with strychnine. Luckily, Hastings can call upon Poirot, who – as luck would have it – is in the neighbourhood, along with a group of fellow Belgian refugees.
Already, in her first written Poirot novel, Christie establishes her familiar set of tropes. Death by poisoning. Big country houses. Changing wills. A long list of motives for all of the characters. That's also why this one would work well as a pilot or the first story to watch in order. It's got all the enjoyable Poirot trappings which, in some ways, were missing from the previous Peril At End House.
Visually, Styles is a whole different ball game from Peril. If Peril was all blues and yellows and sunny skies and Cornish beaches, Styles is all browns and greens and wooden panels and well-tended gardens. You can't go wrong with a country house setting for a murder mystery. It's the ideal setting for a shifty murderer to be lurking in the shadows or a secret passage. As well as a perfect base for a killer, it's also a good chance to show off how well the production teams do period drama. Great attention to detail with the paintings and the furniture and those evocative four poster beds. Who needs a TARDIS when you can go back in time with a classic piece of period telly?
The setting of the First World War is a notable one for Hastings, and one that gives Hugh Fraser the chance to do a bit more with the character than just charm the ladies and ask Poirot lots of questions. When Hastings is shown film of war propaganda, the look on his face says it all. We don't get to see the serious side of Hastings that often, but Hugh Fraser brilliantly conveys the character's recent trauma in the trenches with subtly tortured facial expressions alone. Alas, the mystery of the futility of war would be too much even for Poirot's little grey cells. Hastings is also a bit down on his luck when it comes to lurve. Despite his proposal to Cynthia Murdoch, she turns the poor chap down (she's got a thing for Lawrence Cavendish instead), leaving Hugh Fraser to provide some great crestfallen face acting.
Poirot's reunion with Hastings sees him as an ideal choice of detective into the murder. Good thing that he and his fellow Belgians are staying at one of Mrs Inglethorp's properties close by, isn't it? Although many of the usual Poirot tics and personality traits are present and correct (attention to detail, precision etc), I thought that there was a bit more levity than usual. How often does Poirot break into song, for example? He leads his countrymen in a terrible version of It's A Long Way To Tipperary at one point – I can understand why Poirot: The Musical was never touted (mercifully). There's also one shot which I understand David Suchet regretted, which was when Poirot leaned out of a window first thing in the morning, looking slightly dishevelled. I think the complaint here was that Poirot would attend to his appearance first before speaking to anyone.
But who knows? Maybe Poirot had had one jar too many with the refugees. Even acclaimed detectives have to cut loose some time.
The production of The Mysterious Affair At Styles is, overall, very good. Cast-wise, you can spot familiar faces including a young Anthony Calf (who's best known as by-the-book head honcho Strickland in New Tricks) and Beatie Edney.
The only glitch isn't to do with the ability of acting, but matching up with what's in the original book. Emily and Alfred Inglethorp are supposedly a fair few years apart in age, but this never comes across on screen, since the chosen actors look around the same age. According to the wonders of the web, there's only two years in it between Gillian Barge and Michael Cronin. Either Emily should be old enough to look like the Tetley Tea Bag man's bit on the side or Alfred should look young enough to be in New Kids On The Block. What's on screen doesn't really tally. It's a minor niggle, and one that I'll come back to in the next review, The ABC Murders.
That's not a slight on the performances of Barge or Cronin though, since they are both very good. In fact, Cronin steals the show – despite me mentally shouting “It's Mr Baxter from Grange Hill!” at the screen. He plays Alfred with an eerie, still precision. Even something ordinary such as eating supper is made to look like the most sinister thing in the world. It's a fine performance, and one that benefits greatly from Cronin skilfully underplaying the character. You're never quite sure whether Alfred's on the level or whether he really is a bad 'un.
Maintenant! Remember that spoiler warning? Go and see the TV adaptation or read the book, pronto!
Maybe it's glasses that give the game away in this one. Basically, anyone with a pair of glasses is either a staggeringly pompous bureaucratic fool (Japp's boss) or a killer. Both Alfred and his secret lover, Evelyn are encumbered with bins (in Evie's case, she's borrowed Harry Potter's specs by the look of things). Mind you, Alfred and Evie do let themselves down as evil criminal masterminds in that their apparent hatred of each other is a blindingly obvious smokescreen for passionate love. Alfred's blundering is only made more laughable by two crucially important elements: One – the fact that he's written a love letter to Evie, which is easily and conveniently discovered by Emily. And two – the fact that instead of either burning or throwing the letter away, he chooses to hide it in Emily's room. Even if Poirot hadn't found the ripped up bits of letter, someone else would probably have made the discovery. Dorcas, while doing a bit of spring cleaning for example.
Still, if you can overlook this lack of criminal brainpower, then The Mysterious Affair At Styles is still a fine example of the ITV Poirot dramatisations. It never gets boring, boasts some strong performances, and also some excellent production values.
A Styles-ish example of Poirot at its best.