The Making of The Mysterious Affair at Styles

L Inline Stylesat100

Written by Agatha Christie expert Chris Chan

Writing is hard work. You need to develop strong ideas to turn into a book. Likewise, a person has to find the time to write, and they must be sufficiently disciplined to sit down regularly and keep writing until the project is completed. This isn’t easy, especially when having to juggle work, family and social responsibilities.

The seeds of writing a crime novel were planted in Agatha Christie’s mind when her older sister Madge challenged her to write a mystery. During WWI, while Christie was working at the dispensary, she decided to use some of her free time to write. Christie had written poems and even a novel in the past, but this was her first attempt at a full-length murder mystery.

In her Autobiography, Christie writes:

Unlike nursing, where there always was something to do, dispensing consisted of slack or busy periods. Sometimes I would be on duty alone in the afternoon with hardly anything to do but sit about. Having seen that the stock bottles were full and attended to, one was at liberty to do anything one pleased except leave the dispensary.

I began considering what kind of a detective story I could write. Since I was surrounded by poisons, perhaps it was natural that death by poisoning should be the method I selected. I settled on one fact which seemed to me to have possibilities. I toyed with the idea, liked it, and finally accepted it. Then I went on to the dramatis personae. Who should be poisoned? Who would poison him or her? When? Where? How? Why? And all the rest of it. It would have to be very much of an intime murder, owing to the particular way it was done; it would have to be all in the family, so to speak. There would naturally have to be a detective. At that date I was well steeped in the Sherlock Holmes tradition. So I considered detectives. Not like Sherlock Holmes, of course: I must invent one of my own, and he would also have a friend as a kind of butt or stooge–that would not be too difficult. I returned to thoughts of my other characters. Who was to be murdered?.... I could, of course, have a very unusual kind of murder for a very unusual motive, but that did not appeal to me artistically. The whole point of a good detective story was that it must be somebody obvious but at the same time, for some reason, you would then find that it was not obvious…
An Autobiography, Agatha Christie

With the genesis for the plot in her mind, Christie started looking around her for inspiration. A neighbour with a distinctive physical appearance soon provided the corporeal description for a pivotal character, though the fictional creation’s personality was purely Christie’s own invention. A woman Christie overheard on a tram also sparked the flames of creativity. One by one, Christie filled her roster of characters, though one person was by far the most difficult to create. Who should her detective be? How could she make him distinctive, unique, and interesting? Eventually, a small colony of Belgian refugees caught Christie’s imagination, and after some deliberation, Hercule Poirot was born.

Once the basic characters were outlined, Christie started coming up with names. The opening and closing of the novel were fairly clear in Christie’s mind, but the middle chapters required a lot more planning. Christie was so obsessed with working out a usable plot that she was constantly distracted at home. Her mother noticed she often didn’t answer questions fully. Christie used the wrong stitches when knitting, and even put the wrong addresses on envelopes. When she finally worked up the nerve to tell her mother about the project, the response was supportive. “Oh? A detective story? That will be a nice change for you, won’t it? You’d better start,” her mother remarked.

At that time, Christie would write out the initial draft of each chapter in longhand, and then type it up on her sister’s old typewriter. (Christie stopped writing in longhand later in life, when she decided her handwriting had declined to the point that it was too illegible for her to read!)

Meanwhile, Christie applied a keen critical eye to her own work. She realised she was trying to cram too many plot twists and clues into the narrative, so she started excising the extraneous details. A plethora of red herrings was winnowed down to a manageable number.

Around the halfway point of the writing process, the creative energy required to keep on going started to take its toll on Christie. “Up to a point I enjoyed it. But I got very tired, and I also got cross. Writing has that effect, I find,” Christie declared.

At that point, Christie’s mother advised her daughter to use her upcoming vacation to devote herself wholly to the book. And so, in 1917, Christie took a two-week vacation to Dartmoor at the Moorland Hotel in Haytor. The Moorland Hotel celebrates many famous people who’ve stayed there over the years, and even has an “Agatha Christie Bar” in honour of the writer.

Christie devoted herself to writing, taking brief breaks to enjoy the scenery:

I used to write laboriously all morning till my hand ached. Then I would have lunch, reading a book. Afterwards I would go out for a good walk on the moor, perhaps for a couple of hours. I think I learnt to love the moor in those days. I loved the tors and the heather and all the wild part of it away from the roads... As I walked I muttered to myself, enacting the chapter that I was next going to write; speaking as John to Mary, and as Mary to John; as Evelyn to her employer, and so on. I became quite excited by this. I would come home, have dinner, fall into bed and sleep for about twelve hours. Then I would get up and write passionately again all morning.
An Autobiography, Agatha Christie

By the time her fortnight’s vacation was over, Christie was nearly finished with the first draft. She spent a lot of time revising it, cutting passages that didn’t work, polishing up the romantic subplot, and making other general improvements. When she was finally satisfied, she hired a professional typist to prepare a proper manuscript, and sent it to a publisher who bluntly rejected it. Time passed, and Christie kept submitting to different publishers with no success, until The Bodley Head accepted it. She needed to make a few changes, had to wrestle with an editor who imposed curious spellings on her work, and rewrote the climactic chapter from a courtroom scene into the “Poirot gathers all the suspects in a big room” setting that would become a Christie trademark. (John Curran rediscovered the original courtroom-set chapter and published it in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.)

It was a challenge, but Christie finally became a published mystery writer. Having signed a contract to produce additional books, Christie realized that she’d have to repeat the creative process.

And she did. Over and over again, for more than fifty years.

Sign up to the newsletter to receive The World of Agatha Christie magazine