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#1920Club. The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie – how you can hear French in Poirot’s English

The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie (1920). French title: La mystérieuse affaire de Styles.

This time I was received with a smile. Monsieur Poirot was within. Would I mount? I mounted accordingly.

When I heard again about the #1920Club hosted by Simon, I decided to read The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie. I have fond memories of binge reading Agatha Christie when I was thirteen. I borrowed her books in French at the library and they were all in the collection Le Masque. I’ve always been fond of detective stories. In primary school I read a lot of Famous Five, Nancy Drew or Fantômette. I guess that Agatha Christie was the next step.

It’s been years since I’ve last read a book by her and I’d never read one featuring Hercule Poirot in the original and what a delight it was.

The Mysterious Affair At Styles is the first book with Hercule Poirot as a detective. Set in a rich country house in Essex during WWI, old Emily Inglethorp dies in her room from strychnine poisoning. We have the usual setting of such stories: the lady had just remarried to Alfred Inglethorp who is twenty years her junior. Her stepsons, John and Lawrence Cavendish, live with her and hate her new husband. She also has a young protégée, Cynthia. Hastings is friends with John and has arrived at the estate for a few weeks of R&R.

Poirot, a former detective from the Beligan police is living in the village near Styles. He’s a refugee from the war and is delighted to meet Hastings again. They will investigate the murder and give a hand to Scotland Yard when Inspector Japp arrives to take charge of the case.

I will not get into the plot as it’s the usual Agatha Christie book and we’ve all read some. I found Hastings delightful with his naïve and overdeveloped ego, he has such a refreshing voice.

The setting is the usual lovely English countryside where people’s main hobby is walking in the woods. I’ve never seen so many characters having walks than in English literature, it’s like a national sport.

We also hear the tone of other books of that time, the Downtown Abbey comments about faithful servants and the uncomfortable little remarks about foreigners and Jews.

For this reader, the best thing about The Mysterious Affair At Styles was discovering Poirot in the original instead of reading him in French translation. Poirot uses a lot of French words in his English like Pouf!, Voilà, mon ami, Voyons!, A merveille!. He swears like Captain Haddock in Tintin (Milles tonnerres!), not that I’ve ever heard this insult in real life. He makes little grammar mistakes like using his instead of its, a common thing for French people because there is no neutral gender in French. The reader can’t forget he’s a foreigner.

Poirot speaks English like a French native and makes delightful errors, even funnier for me who heard the French behind his English sentences. Let’s see:

Excuse me, mon ami, you dressed in haste, and your tie is on one side. Permit me. Poirot uses Permit me instead of Allow me because in French it would be Permettez.

I comprehend perfectly. instead I understand perfectly, a literal translation of Je comprends parfaitement a natural way to speak for a French speaker.

A little minute,(…) I come is the direct translation of the French, Une petite minute, j’arrive. One of the most difficult step in speaking another language is to know how things are said. In English, you’d say something like Give me a minute, I’ll be down soon, which is not the French way to express this.

Deciphering when to use little or small, forgetting to add down, off, up, etc. after verbs and understanding when to use the present continuous are common difficulties for French speakers who learn how to speak English.

You are annoyed, is it not so? brought me back to the classroom and the endless lessons about how to conjugate the equivalent of the French invariable n’est-ce pas? (literally is it not so?)

My favourite Frenchism remains the incomparable I will mount to my room, literally Je vais monter dans ma chambre.

To be fair, Agatha Christie also shows what happens when an Englishman tries to use a French word. When I read Me and Moosier here have met before, it took me a few seconds to understand that Moosier was Monsieur, as I had no clue of how an English native would pronounce Monsieur!

Many thanks to Kaggsy for reminding me of this blogging event, I had a great time with The Mysterious Affair At Styles and reading Poirot made me chuckle many times.

 

  1. April 15, 2020 at 6:25 pm

    So glad you enjoyed this, Emma! I think it’s a marvellous read, but I was so interested to hear what you had to tell us about Poirot’s use of English. It sounds like Christie was very accurate – lovely! Thank you for joining in with the club! 😀

    Like

    • April 15, 2020 at 8:31 pm

      Thanks for organising this event, it was fun and it gave me the opportunity it read Agatha Christie.
      Did you notice this thing about Poirot’s language when you read it?

      Liked by 1 person

      • April 15, 2020 at 9:22 pm

        No, because my French is very basic and is from back when I was in Grammar School! So it sounded to me like you would expect a French person to be written as speaking English, but I had no way of knowing how accurately Christie had caught that! 😀

        Like

        • April 16, 2020 at 7:43 am

          He does sound French then. Now you know where some of the mistakes we make come from! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  2. April 15, 2020 at 8:34 pm

    This does sound delightful – interesting points about the use of language, too. Like you, I went through a Christie phase in my youth and may well have read this one. The trouble is, it’s so long ago that I can’t quite recall if I have or not! They all merged into one after a while – no fault of the books, just a function of the erosion of memories over time.

    Like

    • April 15, 2020 at 8:53 pm

      I didn’t remember whether I had read it or not. I assume that I have because I’ve read so many of them.

      These books are entertaining, I don’t think they’re meant to stay with us except as a happy thought “I remember I enjoyed it”

      Like

  3. April 15, 2020 at 9:46 pm

    Poirot is a great character, regardless of how good the particular novel is. His language is so much fun.

    Like

    • April 16, 2020 at 7:45 am

      I agree with you, he’s a great character and I really had a lot of fun observing his language.

      Like

  4. obooki
    April 15, 2020 at 11:45 pm

    The influence of non-native speakers means you can append “isn’t it” to any sentence now, and it’s perfectly reasonable (though if you’re over 25, you can only do it ironically). If you look up Armstrong and Miller WWII pilots on YouTube you will get the idea.

    I watched an episodes of Poirot tonight and he actually said “milles tonnerres”.

    Like

    • April 16, 2020 at 7:46 am

      Global English won’t improve the language, alas.

      So the episode you watched is faithful to the original Poirot.
      For me Mille tonnerres is really associated with Captain Haddock. I’ve never heard anyone say it, even older people.

      Like

  5. April 16, 2020 at 5:07 am

    Ah! Loved your explanation of where Poirot’s English language quirks come from, I never realized that Christie caught that so well. Then there’s the embarrassing reality that all too many of us non-French speakers struggle with pronouncing the poor man’s name correctly!

    Like

    • April 16, 2020 at 7:48 am

      From her writing of Poirot, I think Agatha Christie spoke French vey well.

      I always enjoy checking out French words, expressions or sentences in English books. Some writers spoke French better than others.

      Like

  6. April 16, 2020 at 5:50 am

    I really enjoyed your observations on the French English mistakes that Poirot makes – a nuance missed by me (at any age)! Like you I read through our school libraries supply of Christie’s in my first year at high school. I’ve only revisited a few in my adult years – they hold their charms well.

    Like

    • April 16, 2020 at 7:51 am

      I’m glad you enjoyed them, Brona.

      Agatha Christie had a good knowledge of French, you need to speak very well to write Poirot in such an accurate way.

      Agatha Christie’s books are feel-good books even if they’re all about murder. Maybe it’s because it brings us back to our youth, most of us have discovered them early in our reading life.

      Like

  7. April 16, 2020 at 8:44 am

    This novel seems very much enjoyed by bloggers, I’ll have to give it a try as it’s not a Poirot I’ve read. Thank you for explaining Poirot’s English, that is so interesting & I’ll definitely notice more about how he speaks next time I read Christie.

    Like

    • April 19, 2020 at 12:46 pm

      It’s a nice read, a great classic detective story.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the passages about Poirot’s English, I thought it might be interesting for English speaking readers.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. April 16, 2020 at 4:53 pm

    Milles tonnerres! Permit me to say that I comprehend perfectly that you enjoyed the book. Next time I mount to my room I shall look for it on my étagères.
    Did you never read Alice détective? I went through so many of those in my “formative” years.

    Like

    • April 19, 2020 at 12:47 pm

      Excellent comment! 🙂

      Actually, the French Alice is Nancy Drew in the original! So yes, I’ve read Alice!

      Like

      • April 19, 2020 at 5:11 pm

        Sacrebleu, I had no idea about Alice = Nancy! I wonder what I’d make of her nowadays but back then I loved the stories.

        Like

        • April 19, 2020 at 5:17 pm

          Same here, I discovered this one day when another blogger mentioned Nancy Drew. I researched the books and found out they were our good old Alice stories!

          I read them in Bibliothèque Verte. I don’t know if kids read her books now or if they seem lame to them.

          Like

  9. April 17, 2020 at 9:54 am

    I never noticed that element when I read the book but now it’s clear from your explanations how much Christie must have thought about Poirot’s speech patterns. Thanks for this insight Emma.

    Like

    • April 19, 2020 at 12:48 pm

      She has a very clever way of writing Poirot’s speech. I found it very amusing.
      I hoped it would be of interest for English speaking readers.

      Like

  10. April 19, 2020 at 12:17 am

    Poirot is a marvellous character. Much better than Miss Marple IMO

    Like

    • April 19, 2020 at 12:49 pm

      I agree with you, Poirot is better than Miss Silver and Hastings is fantastic with his ridicules.

      Like

  1. April 19, 2020 at 12:20 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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