First published in the United States as The Murder at Hazelmoor in 1931, The Sittaford Mystery is a wintery mystery has delighted readers and critics alike. A riff on Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles with a gothic house, supernatural hauntings, and a bludgeoned man. It begins with a seance on the snowy moors of England. A party of eight guests sits around a table trying to summon spirits when the ghost of Captain Trevelyan appears and cryptically announces that he has been murdered. Rattled, his friend, Major Burnaby, leaves the party at once to check on Captain Trevelayan, and at Trevelayan’s cabin, he finds the man dead on the floor in his study. Who killed Captain Trevelyan?
High on the snowy moors sits the remote Sittaford House, currently occupied by renters Mrs. Willet and her lovely daughter, Violet, for the season. Dartmoor and Exhampton are agog with the new visitors, supposedly from South Africa. Overly solicitous, they rub elbows with their reluctant neighbors who wonder why the pair have come to such a place in winter. The Willets proclaim that they just want a change of scenery and try to make friends. They are often rebuffed by their landlord Captain Trevelyan who they repeatedly invite to the house for parties. On a cold night, they gather a small party and, after dinner, try table-turning (a seance) for fun. When a spirit supposedly of Captain Trevelyan says he has been murdered, they quickly stop the game and attempt to discover who made such a poor joke. No one confesses to the prank, and the uneasy Major Burnaby leaves Sittaford House and tramps six miles through the blizzard to Captain Trevelyan’s house, where he is found dead from a blow to the head.
Captain Trevelyan’s will elucidates no clues towards a motive when his property and wealth are to be divided equally amongst his family heirs. Suspicion quickly falls on Captain Trevelyan’s nephew, James Pearson, who visited his uncle the day before his death to procure a loan and was denied. James Pearson, a witless young man, is arrested, and his fiance, Miss Emily Trefussis endeavors to discover the actual murderer. She knows James is too gutless to commit such a brutal crime but will quickly be coerced into a confession. Emily Trefussis allies with a newspaper reporter, Mr. Charles Enderby, that she will give him exclusive access to the crime and interviews with her so long as he helps her investigate. A mutually beneficial agreement that seals them as partners.
Emily Trefussis goes around the village ingratiating herself with Captain Trevelyan’s friends and neighbors. She discovers that he is well-liked, good with money, and kind to his friends and servants. He has many hobbies, including snowshoeing and solving puzzles that are put in the newspaper. He often supplies more than one solution to these puzzles by using the names and addresses of his friends. Captain Trevelyan is quite good at solving newspaper puzzles and recently won a prize for three new novels. As Emily investigates Captain Trevelyan’s friends, she is discouraged to find they are all rather ordinary, friendly people.
Charles Enderby tells her that Captain Trevelyan’s death probably has nothing to do with his friends but the mysterious Willets. Charles Enderby tails Violet and discovers her meeting a young man on the moor. Emily soon discovers that the Willets are from Australia, not South Africa, as reported. The increasingly terrified Violet confesses that they moved to Dartmoor to be close to Dartmoor prison. Her father, a recently escaped convict, is very ill and hiding near the house, but they cannot run as long as Captain Trevelyan’s murder is unsolved.
The Willet’s absolved of any connection with the death of Captain Trevelyan leave Emily and Charles at a loss. They visit Captain Trevelyan’s house and snoop for clues. In the chimney, they find a pair of snow boots; in the closet, they find two sets of skis made at different lengths. To avoid suspicion, the killer must have stashed their skis amongst Captain Trevelayan’s things. As they rifle through Captain Treveleyan’s desk, they find the three new novels and a note discussing his winnings of 5,000 pounds for his solution to a newspaper puzzle made out to the name of Major Burnaby. Knowing that Major Burnaby did not write the answer to the dilemma, it is clear to Emily and Charles that he refused to turn over the check. Major Burnaby covered his tracks by rigging the seance and skiing to Trevelyan’s cottage, where he bashed him on the head, hid his ski things, and then walked back.
Flying high from the promise of ghosts, an escaped convict, and the claustrophobic nature of the blizzard, it is a letdown to find that the crime was committed for something so ordinary as money. That is perhaps the brilliance of The Sittaford Mystery; its readers, dazzled by the grand setting, are taken in and ignore the mundane reality that friends can be greedy and kill. One of the most atmospheric cases written by Christie with a large ensemble of characters. There’s a disguised policeman, servants, spiritualists, and a murderer teaming up in this tiny village wh, making a great read with plenty of suspects and red herrings. A great winter read that I highly recommend. You can get a copy of this cozy winter read from Amazon here.
Other #ReadChristie2023 posts
Partners in Crime book review.