Agatha Christie: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

The other day I was in need of a comfort-food book, and what is more comfort food than Agatha Christie? Only her first couple of books are out of copyright and freely downloadable, so I grabbed the very first one. I read dozens of these as a kid, including this one, although of course I’ve forgotten all the details except for the famous ones like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express.

As a first mystery it’s totally reasonable. I don’t know enough about the history of murder mysteries to know how much Christie innovated and how much she was just good at churning out quality product, so I don’t really know how it compares to similar books from the same period.

It does suffer a little bit from an issue that also often plagues authors of interactive fiction. When writing a work of IF it’s easy to feel that the game you’re writing is too easy, that every puzzle is totally standard and will be solved within minutes by any half-intelligent player. So there’s a temptation to make every puzzle really tricky, and to make every object be used in a non-obvious way. The danger is that the resulting game will be a frustrating collection of tricky exceptions, with no standard puzzles to ground it that those exceptions to play against.

And so it is here; pretty much every clue is not what it seems, and not only is every normal hypothesis overturned, but usually the hypothesis that replaces it is replaced in turn. It is a murder mystery so Christie is careful to ensure that the eventual solution is actually logical, but by that point she’s screwed with you so much that you just throw up your hands and say, “Okay, fine, you win”, rather than “Wow, awesome!” I don’t remember whether she got better at this or whether it’s just a standard trait of her mysteries; if I read a few more I’ll report back.

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