The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Sittaford Mystery (1931)

The Sittaford MysteryIn which we meet young Emily Trefusis, determined to prove the innocence of her fiancé Jim for the murder of Captain Trevelyan. With the help of the busybodying news reporter Charles Enderby and the thoroughly decent Inspector Narracott, she does a fine job! And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to give the game away as to whodunit!

DartmoorApparently, the book is dedicated “to M.E.M. with whom I discussed the plot of this book to the alarm of those around us.” However, my copy of the text omits this dedication. Perhaps that’s not surprising; my copy has a few misalignments and misspellings, and one sentence is even completely omitted. Poor work from Fontana! M.E.M., by the way, was Max Mallowan, the famous archaeologist whom Christie had married the previous year. It’s set in Dartmoor, which was an area of the country Christie knew well, and that confident local knowledge comes out in the writing – more of which shortly.

detectiveThis is the only book of Christie’s to feature Inspector Narracott, and I think that’s quite a shame. Here’s how she introduces him: “Inspector Narracott was a very efficient officer. He had a quiet persistence, a logical mind and a keen attention to detail which brought him success where many another man might have failed. He was a tall man with a quiet manner, rather far-away grey eyes, and a slow soft Devonshire voice.” A much more pleasant chap to deal with than that dreadful Inspector Slack in The Murder at the Vicarage. Christie allows us to appreciate his observations and thought processes which helps to keep the narrative moving at a good pace.

charlestonIn fact, I think I slightly preferred the chapters where we see Narracott investigating more than those where the amateurs Emily and Charles are let loose on the world – although I’m not sure that was Christie’s intent. Emily and Charles sleuthing together reminded me forcefully of Tommy and Tuppence, full of wisecracking chat which is how you imagine a Charleston would be if it were a conversation and not a dance. The comparison with T&T was sometimes odious. I especially found Charles quite irritating at times, with his relentless cheeriness and almost autistic lack of empathy for the characters involved in the case. Although critical opinion at the time favoured Emily as a new heroine and thought she brought a lot of life and colour to the book, I’m rather glad Christie never re-visited them.

table-turningIn this book Christie has gone back to the third-person narrator and it works very well. It creates a slight distance between the reader and what is taking place and I think in this particular book it also adds to the slight sense of supernatural mystery. You don’t have that instant connection to reality that comes with a first-person narrator. Hence you have a slight disconnect from the table-turning scene – which helps both the atmosphere and the practicality of the story-telling. You also have a sense of melodrama, nowhere more clear than when Emily overhears Mrs Willett in secret: “”My God,” the voice had wailed, “I can’t bear it. Will tonight never come?”” Even the Dartmoor location itself takes on a mysterious mantle, with its brooding and hostile terrain; when Emily appraises the height of Sittaford Tor, she says “one ought […] to see things better when you are high up like this. It ought to be like lifting off the top of a doll’s house and peering in.”

exeter-st-davidsThis brings us to Christie’s intriguing combination of fictional and factual geographic locations in this book. Here, perhaps more than in any of her other books we’ve looked at so far, she creates her own Christie world. There is no village of Sittaford, but there is Sittaford Tor (as we’ve just seen) with its prehistoric stone circle. It’s close to Okehampton, which is represented by Exhampton in the book. Moretonhampstead, Two Bridges, Plymouth, Widecombe (with its fair), Lydford and Chagford are all real places that find a home in Christie’s narrative; and in particular, the prison at Princetown is identified, apparently twelve miles from Sittaford, from where a dangerous criminal escapes – this is of course what we now know as Dartmoor Prison. Jennifer Gardiner lives in Waldon Road, Exeter; Brian Pearson in Cromwell Street, London SW3; and Martin Dering in Surrey Road, Wimbledon. None of these addresses exist. The two railway stations mentioned in Exeter are certainly real – Exeter St David’s and Exeter Queen Street (renamed Exeter Central in 1933).

okehamptonDespite my not being over-enamoured with Emily and Charles, there’s a vivid and very enjoyable colourfulness about this book that is hard to describe. The locations are very realistically observed and portrayed; you get a real feel for the characters and their activities, even though there’s nothing overly extraordinary about most of them. The early table-turning scene adds an extra dimension of eeriness and fun – it’s a beautifully written scene – and your curiosity keeps you going all the way through. It’s a book that you can really see pan out in your mind’s eye as you read it.

british-warmLet’s have a quick look at some of those more obscure references and terms that cropped up in this book and made me reach for Wikipedia. Twice, early in the book, mention is made of a British Warm. I’ve never heard of it referred to in this way before, but, maybe obviously, this was the name given to that specific type of heavy, warm greatcoat that was made famous by Churchill. Major Burnaby recalls playing the game of Up Jenkins, which was also new to me. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition: “also known by the shortened name Jenkins, is a party game in which players conceal a small coin (or ring, button, etc.) in their palm as they slap it on a table with their bare hands. The goal of the game is for the players on the team without the coin to correctly identify which hand the coin is under. The game typically consists of two two- to four-player teams, one on each side of a table. There are no official rules, so rules may vary widely, the game is often played with alcohol beverages with which to drink as a forfeit.” I can’t think that I’ve ever been anywhere where someone has suggested playing that game or a variant of it. You live and learn.

selfridgesMrs Curtis (of whom more later) who offers a B&B service at her little cottage, first greets Emily with: “Yes, of course I can take you in, Miss, and your cousin too, if he can just wait until I shift a few duds.” I only know dud as something that doesn’t work, but, as a plural noun, it was originally a Middle English term meaning clothes, and then, through semantic change to mean just “things”. There is of course, no such shop as Delfridges – it’s Selfridges by implication; and Captain Wyatt accuses James Pearson of being a counter-jumper; an old-fashioned term for a sales assistant.

grocery-bagLet’s also take a look at a few financial references and re-evaluate them for today, I find that a very helpful exercise in understanding the sums involved. Trevelyan’s will bequeaths £100 to his man Emery; that’s about £4700 in today’s money – so that’s a pretty stingy offering. On the other hand, the remaining £80-90k of his estate, which gets divided between his sister and his nephews and nieces equates to approximately £4 million today. The £5000 competition win that Enderby brought for Burnaby is a stonking £238,000 today, and the £8-£9 weekly sum that the Willetts are alleged to spend on their groceries is now the equivalent of about £400 per week. What a profligate pair!

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Sittaford Mystery:

Publication Details: 1931. Fontana paperback (in quite poor condition), 5th impression, published in June 1972, priced 25p. The uncredited cover illustration shows a swirling nightmare scene with an older lady (Mrs Willetts?) and an older man (Trevelyan? Burnaby?) mixed up with the séance table and a dog. I don’t recall a dog in the story…

How many pages until the first death: 16. Not too much preamble which always makes a detective story go a bit faster.

Funny lines out of context: Quite a good selection:

“”That’s a rum go,” ejaculated the Superintendent.”

“…I know what I am talking about – a lot of subalterns have passed through my hands in my time.”

“He heard about Miss Percehouse and her tongue and the way she bullied her nephew, and of the rumours of the gay life that same nephew led in London.”

“…he had an awful kick on the head from a horse about fifteen years ago, and since then he has been a bit queer.”

Memorable characters:
It’s interesting because there’s a full range of new characters in this book, including the police and the amateur sleuths but I wouldn’t say any of them are particularly memorable. I liked Mrs Belling, the proprietor of the Three Crowns: “Mrs Belling was fat and excitable, and so voluble that there was nothing to be done but to listen patiently until such time as the stream of conversation should dry up.” When Mrs Belling talks, she sounds like a lost pirate: “Don’t ee worry my dear, we’ll have your young gentleman out of his trouble in no time.” As hotel licensee, Mrs Belling has money but no class (see later) and so instinctively blames people lower than her in the pecking order of the murder. “…Little did any of us think what was happening to the poor dear gentleman. Those nasty tramps – if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a dozen times, I can’t abear those nasty tramps. Do anybody in they would.”

I also quite liked Mrs and Miss Willetts, because they’re so steeped in subterfuge and tragedy in a terribly over-the-top way. Just one word can cause Miss Willetts to faint; she literally is a drooping Violet.

Christie the Poison expert:
Not in this book. The murder method is being sandbagged to death. Brutal!

Class/social issues of the time:
All the usual bees in Christie’s bonnet come to the fore as usual, including a couple of really stark examples of 1930s light racism that come over as really offensive today. However, the chief recurring theme in this book is that of class issues. There’s a very us-and-them sense of the sophistication and status of the upper middle class characters against the lower classes (in Christie, the working class are always lower class!) Mrs Dering describes Trevelyan as “a regular philistine in every way – devoted to sport. No appreciation […] of literature.” Captain Wyatt tries to waylay Emily as she hurries on by with: “Come in – have a glass of wine or a cup of tea. There’s plenty of time. No need to hurry. That’s the worst of you civilised people.” I would have thought suggesting a glass of wine under those circumstances and in that time, was the height of sophistication.

There’s also some classic condescension from the local people towards the incomers. Here’s Mr Rycroft talking about the Willetts: “Charming, […] quite charming. Colonial, of course. No real poise, if you understand me. A little too lavish in their hospitality. Everything a shade on the ornate side.” And on Mr Duke: “…a very nice man, quite unassuming, but was he, after all, quite – well, quite? Mightn’t he, just possibly, be a retired tradesman?” One can hear the cumulative gasps of class-ridden disgusted Devonians echo throughout the moors.

It’s Emily Trefusis who is guilty of the most sexist comment in the book – but I wonder how much of it she means, and how much is designed to pander to Charles, to whom she speaks these abominable words: “One can’t do anything without a man. Men know so much, and are able to get information in so many ways that are simply impossible to women.” Apart from using feminine guile, of course.

Sadly, there’s a very unpleasant use of the “N” word, which I include here for the sake of completeness, and because of the irony of this being described as a “very discreet” note, sent by Emily to Jim: “Everything’s going to be all right, so cheer up. I am working like the worst kind of n***** to find out the truth. What an idiot you’ve been, darling.” I guess one must accept that times change, but even so this still seems appalling. But it’s probably Mrs Curtis who gets the gold medal for racism in this book: “It’s Captain Wyatt as could do with a spring cleaning […] That nasty native of his – what does he know about cleaning, I should like to know? Nasty black fellow.” Ugh. There are times when it’s uncomfortable to read Christie.

Classic denouement: I wouldn’t say so. Emily reveals that she knows the identity of the murderer earlier on, but not the motive, which means there’s a full 17 pages still to go before the end. Once the murderer has been charged, we don’t hear any more from them, so there’s no account from them of why they did it, or any sense of guilt, repentance, and so on; a little like Iago in Othello, who refuses to say another word once he’s been found out. It’s not a disappointing ending in any way though.

Happy ending? Yes and no. With Emily in the position of the old song Torn Between Two Lovers, there was always one person who was going to face disappointment. But which did she go with?

Did the story ring true? Yes. It doesn’t rely on impossible coincidences and how the murder was committed all makes sense. Even the supernatural elements of the story are explained in a credible way.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. I like this book a lot; it’s a very easy and fast read, one that you don’t want to put down because you’re thoroughly involved in the plot and investigation. Unfortunately, I quickly remembered who the murderer was, but it still didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book.

Peril at End HouseThanks for reading my blog of The Sittaford Mystery and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is the return of everyone’s favourite, Hercule Poirot, in Peril at End House. He’s even accompanied by Hastings, so expect some good old boys’ banter and some pretty women for Hastings to fall head over heels in love with. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

4 thoughts on “The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Sittaford Mystery (1931)

  1. Why is there such a commotion about Christie’s racism? Even go the extent of ‘purging’ her books of those comments? Exposing historic uncomfortable social opinions does not whitewash the exposer in my opinion. On the contrary.
    The real sting lies always in the minds of the reader and the beholder. And what they do with their thoughts and opinions.
    A nasty way of putting yourself on the pedestal of the ‘right’ interpretation.
    It stinks to hell and high heaven. So-called skeletons in the cupboard have to be faced and not shoveled under the carpet of self-righteousness.

    • Thanks for the comment – I wrote a long reply that seems to have been lost somewhere in cyberspace, annoyingly. I think you’re right to raise this criticism – and I never know whether changing the original is for the best or for the worst really. If it means welcoming new readers to an author’s works, that can only be a good thing. But it’s true that one would never want to go down a “Burn the Books” route.

  2. Thanks. It is never my intent to polarize.The tendency to preach right and wrong is so far from my concept of freedom. And I really wonder what is behind all that fear and worry and do-better moral judgement.

    I was born one year after the end of World War 2, a real Babyboomer. Especially after Covid I realize how blessed and dreadfully spoilt I was in my youth. To experience and have all the time in the world to play and seek.

    Now war is on everybody’s doorstep in 10 seconds. And it seems there has never been really a time without.
    History can be a burden but it can shed light as well. I live in a country where history is no longer a compulsory subject in secondary school. And I perceive daily the dreadful gap this produces in the education and the general knowledge of historical and social events and data.

    And we finally end up on the scaffold and the pyre as well to give a reckoning of our own acts. Children of preachers become communist and vice versa. That happened very often in my younger days.
    Judge and thou shall be judged as well. Old, biblical and still very much en vogue.
    To live and let live is a credo that suits me to a T.

  3. I agree that books should be left as they are. It is an important part of history to see the values of the day. I also believe much of Agatha Christie’s use of racist words is to highlight unpleasantness of her characters rather than representing her own views. And no one gets away unscathed. The aristocracy, middle classes and working classes get a hammering too.
    The only exception is And Then There Were None, which was correctly renamed. The original title and repeated use of the n word should never see the light of day again.

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