The Genesis of Styles


The following is an essay excerpted from The Complete, Annotated Mysterious Affair at Styles.

On a brisk winter’s day in January of 1921, a debut novel by an unknown writer appeared in the windows of London’s bookstores. The dust jacket depicted a dramatic scene in a bedroom. A man holds a candle, a stunned expression on his face. With him are two women, while a second man behind them bends over something on a table.

Less than a fortnight later, a review of The Mysterious Affair at Styles appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. Although it found the story “almost too ingenious,” it approved of “little M. Poirot, a retired Belgian detective” and the book overall:

“In spite of its intricacy the story is very clearly and brightly told. There is a good deal of human interest in it apart from the crime, and it has a very happy ending. It is said to be the author’s first book, and 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.”

In the end, Styles sold 2,000 copies from its 2,500 first-edition run, a respectable return on investment that affirmed the decision of the publisher, John Lane at The Bodley Head, to sign its author to a six-book contract.

If anyone was disappointed, it should have been the author. Agatha Christie, a 30-year-old married mother with one daughter, had signed the contract without reading that she wouldn’t earn royalties until after the first edition of 2,500 copies sold out. That year, she received £25 — worth roughly $1,000 or £625 today — her half-share from selling the serialization rights to a newspaper.

She would not make that mistake again, and she would go on to write more than 80 books with an estimated sales worldwide of more than four billion copies. She would also leave her publisher over their cavalier treatment of a naive author.

But that was in the future. For the moment, she was content. She was £25 the richer and a published writer working on her next book.

The Evolution of a Writer

Christie had been telling stories ever since she was a child. She grew up at Ashfield, her family’s large home on a 2-acre parcel on the edge of Torquay, a seaside resort town in southwestern England. With her two siblings at least a decade older, she was a precocious child, self-taught to read by age four and used to playing by herself or with the servants. She would make up stories as she played and tell them to herself as she wandered the walled kitchen garden, the woods, and the nearby fields of rural Devon.

Like many children of her class and time, before television, radio, movies and other distractions, Christie was exposed to a wide variety of literature. Her family library was well-stocked. There was the Bible, of course, and books by Shakespeare and Tennyson, but there were also complete sets of Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Lord Bryon and Rudyard Kipling; bound volumes of Cornhill Magazine, The Nineteenth Century and The Lady’s Magazine; poems by Oscar Wilde and plays by Arthur Wing Pinero.

The late 1890s and early 1900s was also a golden era for children’s writers such as Evelyn Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett, whose boys and girls went on marvelous adventures. Agatha was a curious reader, and new words and unfamiliar locations would send her to the dictionary or atlas. Plenty of unfettered time to read, write and dream makes an ideal training ground for writers.

But her family’s finances were shaky, and she would grow anxious over the possibility of being abandoned. At the age of seven, she wrote in her family’s “Album of Confessions” that misery was “Someone I love to go away from me.”

Sometimes, her imagination could overwhelm her, such as when she dreamed of the “Gun Man.” Sometimes, he’d look like a colonial Frenchman with a uniform, powdered hair in a queue and a tri-cornered hat. Other times, he’d appear as a specter with murderer’s eyes and stumps in the place of hands. Writing as Mary Westmacott in Unfinished Portrait (1934), Christie described the awful moment when, in the middle of a happy dream about a party or picnic, the face of a trusted, loving person — sometimes her mother or father — would change into the Gun Man. This anxiety, seemingly about the destructive power of love, would surface again and again in her writing.

In 1901, at age 11, Agatha’s childhood ended. Her beloved father, who suffered from years of heart problems, died from complications of double pneumonia. Her mother, Clara, was devastated. She, too, suffered from mild heart problems. Agatha assumed the roles of companion and nurse, prepared to revive her mother with doses of brandy or sal volatile when her attacks came on at night.

As she grew older, Agatha began transferring her imagination onto paper. The year of her father’s death, she won a prize for a poem about electric trams. She would continue her education: at home, at a Torquay school for girls for 18 months, then finishing school in Paris. Turning 17, Agatha accompanied her mother on a three-month visit to Egypt, where she danced with potential suitors at parties and visited ancient sites.

Then came one of those turning points in her life that she would recall in her memoirs. The next year, while she was confined to her bed with influenza, her mother, Clara, suggested writing a story to pass the time. She wrote The House of Beauty, about dreams and madness, and submitted it to magazines. More stories followed, usually inspired by whatever she was reading at the time. She wrote a novel, Snow Upon the Desert, drawing on her memories of her trip to Egypt. The woman who told stories to entertain herself was developing an ambition to tell them to others.

At her mother’s suggestion, Agatha showed her work to a neighbor, the novelist Eden Phillpotts. His letters were honest and encouraging. He recommended books such as Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), praised her ability to write convincing dialog and warned against moralizing, instead letting her characters’ actions carry the theme. When she showed him Snow Upon the Desert, he offered to introduce her to his agent, Hughes Massie. While the meeting did not come off well — she was terrified of this “large dark swarthy man” — she was inspired by his recommendation that she abandon the novel and try again.

A Sister’s Challenge

In her early twenties, Agatha fell into an engagement with a family friend, Reggie Lucy. But her lukewarm interest faded in 1912 when Archibald Christie, a soldier with ambitions to be a pilot, danced with her at a house party. A few weeks later, he unexpectedly rolled up at Ashfield on his motorcycle and was invited to stay for supper. They exchanged books and met for tea. It was a civilized courtship, but he wanted her and wasn’t shy about saying so, and they were soon engaged.

(Coincidentally, Christie had motorcycles in common with her future rival on the mystery scene, Dorothy L. Sayers. Early in her writing career, Sayers had an affair with a man on a motorcycle. Both relationships came to a bad end: divorce and scandal in Christie’s case, a baby out of wedlock in Sayers’.)

Agatha and Archie wanted to get married, but Clara held her daughter back until Archie could earn enough to support a wife. He joined the Royal Flying Corps and spent much of his time with his squadron. Adjusting to a long-distance courtship was not easy for either partner. For the next 18 months, the couple alternated between engagement and estrangement.

It took a war to settle matters. The outbreak of hostilities sent Agatha and Archie to the altar on Christmas Eve 1914. While he was in France flying planes into battle, the newly minted Agatha Christie stayed at Ashfield with her mother and joined the Volunteer Aid Detachment. She worked as a nurse at a hospital in Torquay, taking care of wounded soldiers, then moved in 1916 to the dispensary, mixing drugs and beginning her education in poisons that would prove so useful throughout her life.

Dispensary work gave her plenty of time to think, and her thoughts turned to writing a novel, in particular a mystery. Edgar Allen Poe had kicked off the genre with short stories such as The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) and The Purloined Letter (1844). Wilkie Collins scored successes with his detective novels The Woman in White (1859) and The Moonstone (1868). But it was Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories that really captured the imagination of the reading public. Crime permeated the culture of the Victorian era. Newspapers attracted and entertained readers with crime stories. Murderers such as William Palmer, Madeline Kent, Thomas Neill Cream, Florence Maybrick and Jack the Ripper became as familiar to the public as politicians and entertainers.

By picking the mystery genre, Christie was also indulging in a bit of sibling rivalry. Christie’s sister, Madge, was not only a writer herself, but had introduced Agatha to these stories as a child. She told Agatha the plot of Anna Katharine Green’s The Leavenworth Case (1878), and the story became one of Agatha’s favorites. They steeped themselves in the genre, at a time when it was still possible to do so. They would debate the merits of the stories.
During a discussion of Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1908), Agatha said she could write a story just as good.

“I don’t think you could do that,” Madge said. “They are very difficult to do. I’ve thought about it.”

“I should like to try.”

“Well, I bet you couldn’t.”

It was an joshing remark, not seriously meant. But Christie remembered it as an important moment in her life. It fired in her a determination to prove her sister wrong.

The Road to Styles Court

Now, in the quiet of the dispensary, between filling prescriptions, Christie turned the idea over in her mind. Rather than wait for inspiration, she approached her story in a methodical fashion, asking herself questions and finding the answers.

First, how to kill? Poison was the obvious method. She devised an appropriately mysterious method of introducing it into the victim, then turned to her cast of characters. Her limited life experience dictated what she called “an intime murder,” set within a family, and she imagined a country house similar to the one she grew up in and knew well. She picked the victim and the villain. Unlike Sayers’ decision to create the aristocratic Lord Peter, Christie stayed firmly within her social class. The closest to the aristocracy she would get in her first book would be Mrs. Inglethorp’s mention of writing “the Princess,” Lady Tadminster, and the Duchess to invite them to her charity events.

Down the list she went, assembling the pieces of her story. The appearance in the neighborhood of a couple — the man obviously younger than his wealthy wife and sporting an impressively sinister black beard — inspired the creation of Emily and Alfred Inglethorp. She learned not to rely on one person for a character, but to assemble a mosaic of impressions. She began talking the story out to herself, just as she had done as a child.

When she was ready, she began handwriting each chapter. Then she dug out Madge’s typewriter and typed a second draft. She liked dreaming up her story, less so getting it down properly on paper. Then, she encountered a rough patch by the middle of the book, as her story grew more complicated and with the end not in sight.

Her mother suggested a solution: go to a hotel for her two-week holiday where she could write without being disturbed. Christie agreed and settled in at the Moorland Hotel in Dartmoor. Her schedule was unvaried: she’d write in the morning, read a book by herself at lunchtime, then walk the moors talking out the next day’s work. Clara’s suggestion worked. By the time she returned to Torquay, she carried with her a draft of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. She continued working at it, she recalled decades later in An Autobiography (1977), until “It was roughly as I had intended it to be, but I didn’t see just how I could make it better, so I had to leave it as it was.”

For better or for worse, Styles was ready to face the publishers.

Selling Styles

Publishing is a game of winners and losers. Every editor has at least one story of The One That Got Away. Nearly every best-seller has been rejected at least once. Editors learn to shrug off the missed opportunities and look forward to the next winner.

Still, it must have pained the publishers at the houses that rejected Styles — including notable names such as Methuen and Hodder and Stoughton — to reflect on what they had passed up. It must be especially galling since the debut Christie did not change very much from the mature Christie at the height of her powers. Her first attempt was rough in places, and the solution was too complex. But her talent for plotting and characterization were on display from the start. It would only get better.

Christie finished Styles in 1916 and the manuscript began making its rounds. While she waited, her life grew intensely busy. The war ended in 1918. Archie was transferred to the Air Ministry in London, and for the first time in four years, Agatha was living with her husband.

While Archie endured the emotional fallout of the war — he had fought well and earned several decorations — he needed to adjust to civilian life with his wife. Agatha got pregnant, endured nine months of morning sickness, and gave birth to their daughter, Rosalind, at Ashfield in August 1919.

By this time, Christie saw herself more as a wife and mother than as a writer. Then her life changed again. Soon after Rosalind’s birth, and nearly two years after receiving the manuscript, John Lane at The Bodley Head — the name a reference to the bust of Sir Thomas Bodley that was mounted above the publisher’s door — wrote to Christie with an offer to publish Styles.

ESSAY-05a-Styles-2After signing the contract, she was asked to rewrite parts of the book. Lane made several minor suggestions, but what concerned him most was the ending, which had Poirot delivering the solution to the mystery while testifying in court. Christie had no experience with legal proceedings and it showed. She rewrote it so that Poirot gathered the suspects in a room and ran through the clues, building suspense as first one person is accused, then another, before — like a magician — he reveals the murderer. Without intending to, she had created an enduring mystery trope. It would not be her last.

With the publication of Styles in the U.S. in October 1920, Christie’s journey to literary success had begun.

(c) 1995-2016 by Bill Peschel