The Sittaford Mystery (Agatha Christie)

  • By Agatha Christie
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1931; USA: Dodd Mead, 1931, as The Murder at Hazelmoor

Rating: 3 out of 5.

One of Christie’s least-known books — and surprisingly good. The traditional setting of a snow-bound English village is very well-done, and shows Christie’s ability to handle place and weather. The detection is performed by the young amateur detectives Emily Trefusis (engaged to the innocent but good-for-nothing young man arrested for his uncle’s murder, who doesn’t deserve her in the slightest) and the journalist Charles Enderby, a pair much more successfully handled than the garishly “Bright Young Things” Tommy and Tuppence; the amateur detection is similar to that of Christie’s later Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934), G.D.H. & M. Cole‘s The Murder at Crome House (1927), and Cyril Hare‘s Suicide Excepted (1939), although the enquiries into train time-tables recall Freeman Wills Crofts. The characterisation boasts such gems as the domineering spinster Miss Percehouse, the invalid Captain Wyatt (who shoots real or imaginary cats, and is most likely based on Christie’s brother Monty), and the powerful Mrs. Gardener, the victim’s sister, whose life is revealed to be an illusion: a deft if very un-Christieish piece of pessimism. The supernatural, a rare element in Christie’s work and one which she always handles well, comes in the form of the opening séance, leading to some good atmospheric pieces. The plotting is excellent, with a good spread of suspicion and equally good misdirection, although everyone in the village is (in)directly related to the victim, which is improbable; and even the escaped convict (a nod to Conan Doyle‘s The Hound of the Baskervilles) is well-done. What holds this book back from a place in the first rank is the insufficiency of motive.

Blurb (UK)

It was a typical Dickens Christmas: deep snow everywhere, and down in the little village of Sittaford on the fringe of Dartmoor probably deeper than anywhere.  Mrs. Willett, the winter tenant in Captain Trevelyan’s country house, was, with her daughter Violet, giving a party.  Finally they decided to do a little table rapping and after the usual number of inconsequential messages from the “other side”, suddenly the table announced that Captain Trevelyan was dead.  His oldest friend, Captain Burnaby, was disturbed.  He quickly left the house and tramped ten miles of snowy roads to Exhampton.  There was no sign of life in Trevelyan’s house.  A back window was broken in and the light was burning—and there, on the floor, was the body of Trevelyan.  Inspector Narracott took the case in hand, and after wandering through a maze of false clues and suspects, he ultimately discovered the murderer of Captain Trevelyan.  Mrs. Christie has never formulated a more ingenious or enthralling plot and her characterisation is of the vivid type which marked The Murder at the Vicarage and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Blurb (US)

Agatha Christie’s stories have always stood in a class by themselves because they plunge the reader into a gripping situation with people who are so real and circumstances which are so logical that one seems to be living the exciting plot and actually making friends or enemies, as the case may be, with the principals.

The Murder at Hazelmoor is no exception.  Six members of the little community of Sittaford are indulging in an afternoon séance of table-turning when suddenly there comes a loud rap.  The name of Trevelyan is spelt out, then slowly the table rocks out the letters M-U-R-D-E-R.  An hour later, old Captain Trevelyan, the wealthy landlord of Sittaford House and its cottages, is found dead in his temporary residence at Hazelmoor.

At first, as in The Murder at the Vicarage, there are plenty of logical suspects but no clues.  Then events move so rapidly that, although you foresee a surprising climax, it is intriguing to follow the confusing scenes and impossible to guess the clever solution.  Meanwhile, you are dashing about, searching for clues, in company with a delightful group of people, enjoying the brisk humor and shrewd commentaries that always enliven Agatha Christie’s detective stories.

Contemporary reviews

NY Times (16th August 1932, 200w): An excellent book to take away for week-end reading.

Books (Will Cuppy, 23rd August 1931, 230w): You can’t go wrong with this one, certainly the best of the always high-grade Christie items in quite some time.  Indeed, we will venture that the trick with which the author turns her climactic whopping surprise is not a whit inferior to the famous one in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the volume upon which her celebrity is firmly founded.

Boston Transcript (5th September 1931, 320w): As a story it is as nearly right for a summer holiday as anything else can well be.  As a novel it suffers from the author’s very definite aim of preventing you from guessing the outcome.  Her technique is clumsy.  She waves her clouds of smoke before your eyes, demanding that you look her way, rather after the manner of a child who is preventing you from finding the thimble.  She has none of the reasonable subtlety that a master of the craft would show, by allowing you to make your own conclusions at every turn, still baffling you by his superior skill.  But then, this is for pastime and as such, it is excellent.