by Agatha Christie
Publication Date: September 7, 1931
Project: appointment with agatha
In a remote house in the middle of Dartmoor, six shadowy figures huddle around a table for a seance. Tension rises as the spirits spell out a chilling message: "Captain Trevelyan . . . dead . . . murder."
Is this black magic or simply a macabre joke? The only way to be certain is to locate Captain Trevelyan. Unfortunately, his home is six miles away and, with snowdrifts blocking the roads, someone will have to make the journey on foot...
Publication information: this is Agatha Christie’s 11th full-length mystery, published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on September 7, 1931. It was published in the U.S. that same year by Dodd, Mead & Company under the title Murder at Hazelmoor.
The Sittaford Mystery is a stand-alone, with only a single character who appears in more than one Christie – Inspector Narracott also makes an appearance in a radio play called Personal Call, which is part of an audio anthology called Agatha Christie: the Lost Plays. If you are interested, you can find it on Audible here.
I have read The Sittaford Mystery several times – four at least. I always enormously enjoy it, and this was no exception to that rule. Agatha is at her most playful here, incorporating a number of Sherlock Holmes-ish elements, including a seance, an escaped convict and the Dartmoor landscape.
She sets the book during a notable snow-storm – the book opens on a snowy evening party at Sittaford House, which is being rented by a mother-daughter pair of Australians. This makes The Sittaford Mystery a perfect winter reading escape – I was actually reading it at the wrong time of year altogether. I do remember that my last reading of the book occurred as part of a family winter holiday. My daughter & I listened to it on a drive between our home in the Portland area and the Bend area of Oregon, which was sheer perfection. The roadsides were white and piled with snow, and we drove in a very light snow, so that there weren’t safety issues, but there was added atmosphere for the Hugh Fraser audiobook.
Back to the beginning of The Sittaford Mystery, though. Looking for entertainment, the party, which introduces many of the characters, decide to indulge in a spot of table-turning. The “spirit” who contacts them claims to be Captain Trevelyan, the owner of Sittaford House, where the party is taking place. Captain Trevelyan is spending the winter in a nearby town, because he wanted the money offered by Mrs. Willett to take Sittaford House for the winter. He is supposed to be very much alive at the moment of the table turning. The spirit’s announcement becomes even more dramatic – with a claim that he, Captain Trevelyan, has been murdered.
This all happens very early in the book, so it’s not a spoiler. It’s a cracking opening, though, and is immediately intriguing.
The announcement that Captain Trevelyan has been murdered has quite an effect on the table-turners. His best friend, Major Burnaby, who was reluctantly drawn into the table-turning enterprise, is shaken against his will. He decides that he needs to get to Exhampton to make sure that Trevelyan is all right. The conditions are terrible, deep snow and more snow falling with a blizzard expected. The roads are impassable so driving to Exhampton is out of the question. Nonetheless, Major Burnaby is the sporty type, so he takes off on foot, for the two and a half hour walk through the snow. He finds Captain Trevelyan murdered.
I’m not going to spoil this book because Agatha’s puzzle mysteries are such fun. I almost never figured them out the first time through. I don’t remember if I figured this one out or if it was wholly baffling.
I want to talk about bit about two of my favorite characters in the book, though. First, a mention of Inspector Narracott, our Inspector du Livre, who is very well-drawn and likeable. He is no bumbler – he comes to Sittaford to solve the mystery, and is quite capable. It’s a bit of a pity that Agatha never really used him again.
The life and soul of this book, though, is Emily Trefusis, whose fiance, James Pearson, is one of Captain Trevelyan’s heirs. It seems that the good Captain is quite well-off, and, as well, is a woman-hater so he has no wife or children to stand in the way of his siblings – and their children, inheriting a packet. Each of the four heirs are quite hard up, and they all stand to gain approximately 20K pounds.
This is a tidy sum – according to a calculator I just used, 20K pounds in 1931 had the equivalent purchasing power of 1.4M pounds today. For American readers, that’s almost 2M dollars.
Motives everywhere! Anyway, back to Emily Trefusis, who is delightful. Over the many years that I have read Christie’s books I have found that some of her best characters are young women, and Emily Trefusis is a firecracker. She is resourceful and, at times, manipulative. She is a very capable young lady who is determined to clear her boyfriend’s good name, as he has been arrested for the murder. He’s a weak, albeit attractive, young man and is but clay in her hands – her plan is to marry him and make him into a success.
I have no doubt that she will prevail in any endeavor she undertakes. Because Emily Trefusis is a force of nature. Not everyone will connect with her character, but I absolutely do. There was a time in my life, before I raised kids, had a career for 30 years, and was worn down by life, when I, too, was a force of nature. I didn’t need to manipulate a man to fulfill my ambitions, because I have the good fortune of having been born in 1966 instead of 1911 and could do for myself. I don’t hold Emily’s fierceness against her, even when she uses it to manipulate the men around her. Which she does, very effectively.
This being a Christie, there is a love triangle between Emily and her two suitors: the afore-mentioned, somewhat wet, James Pearson and the not-at-all-wet Charles Enderby, a journalist who comes to town to deliver a prize to Captain Trevelyan for winning some sort of a puzzle competition and stays for the murder investigation. Emily very openly uses Enderby to accomplish tasks that she isn’t able to manage by dint of her status as a young woman. Also this being a Christie, Emily chooses between them by the end, and will go off and be married, never to be seen or heard from again (which is really too bad. A mid-career visit from a mature Emily Trefusis would have been a sight to behold).
The Sittaford Mystery isn’t Christie’s best work – but it’s an enjoyable mystery with a great setting and some wonderful characters.