The Once-and-Future Queen

Over the summer of 1916, with most of the world at war, a young Englishwoman decided to write a detective novel. 

Of course it wouldn’t be published, but the writing would be a welcome diversion from worrying about her aviator husband fighting overseas. And her job at the hospital dispensary had set her mind aflame with all its pretty poisons—why not write a mystery?

When the young wife mentioned her plan to her older sister, the sister said, “Well, I bet you couldn’t write it.”

“Still, I should like to try,” the young woman replied. 

Thank goodness for murder-mystery lovers everywhere, the young Englishwoman did indeed try, and a few short months later, the book was finished.

The woman was Agatha Christie and the book The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel.

It is a remarkable achievement. In this debut novel, her particular talents are on full display, talents she would hone to near-perfection in the coming years.

In Styles she piles suspicion on the most likely suspect even though he seemingly has an airtight alibi. It’s a technique she uses again and again—of course X has a reason to kill Y, but he was ten miles away at the inn when Y was murdered! The reader accepts the deception until the truth is revealed.

Agatha’s fascination and knowledge of poisons are on full display. At the dispensary where she worked, the poisons sat in lovely bottles, to be dispensed only with exquisite care. A grain or two over the proper dosage results in utter catastrophe, as it did for elderly Emily Inglethorp at Styles.

Then there’s Agatha’s ability to structure a plot as intricate and precise as any mathematical equation. But often overlooked is how plot functions as character, as intertwined as any Gordian knot. As Laura Thompson wrote in Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life, the solution to the murder at Styles resides in the character of the killer.

Or as Poirot so aptly observes: “Human nature. That, I think, is perhaps the real answer as to why I am interested in this case.”

It’s also the reason readers are still interested in Christie’s fiction. For Agatha, it was always about human nature.

Though it would take several years for The Mysterious Affair at Styles to be published, the completion of this remarkable debut novel marked the beginning of an era.

Thus was born the Once and Future Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie.

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