The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie

SittafordMy quest to read and review all of the non-series mystery and thriller novels by Agatha Christie continues this month with a look at The Sittaford Mystery. The only experience I had with this book prior to this read was seeing a very loose television adaptation for Marple! so much of this was new to me.

Bad weather is about to set in on Dartmoor as a group gathers in Sittaford House to chat and engage in a little seance. While the game starts off as entertaining, soon it takes a turn for the unsavory as the spirit spells out that Captain Trevelyan, the owner of the House, has been murdered.

Visibly distressed, Trevelyan’s friend Major Burnaby announces that he will walk to the home Trevelyan is staying in to check on him. When the house is locked on his arrival he is concerned and summons the Police. When they gain entry into the home they find him lying dead and, as Major Burnaby points out, the likely time of death would be around the time the game was taking place.

As with many of the non-series Christies I have read, while there is a detective they are a supporting character in this story. Instead we follow the exploits of a young woman whose fiance becomes the prime suspect in the case and the journalist she manipulates into helping them. This is certainly not a bad thing as both characters are quite charming and make for pleasant company but I am not convinced that the male was really necessary for this plot to work.

The centerpiece of the novel is the seance scene which occurs early and, while only loosely described, does convey a striking sense of dread as we wait for the name to be spelled out. Christie pitches this perfectly, playing with a slightly gothic playbook but never going overboard with those elements.

I also think this makes for a great starting point for the story as our pool of suspects can all give each other alibis for the time of death. We know that the situation cannot have occurred as described, therefore there is a (deliberate) error somewhere in the scenario. Unfortunately while the introduction to the crime is interesting, it turns out to be dressing for a much more pedestrian murder case.

There are a few aspects of the plot that I feel limit its overall effectiveness. The first is that the murder itself lacks any flair or appeal to the imagination. Indeed I would go so far as to label it the least interesting death I can think of in the Christie canon in terms of either the method and the circumstances in which the body is discovered.

The other problem I have with it relates to the table turning at the beginning of the novel and the role it plays in causing Trevelyan’s body to be discovered. The problem is that the murderer seems to rely on that event taking place to spur on the events that followed but they could not have anticipated or prompted the game taking place at the necessary time to suit their purpose.

On a more positive note, I do think Christie finds some clever ways to casually drop  important information into her plot and a few of those clues are quite well designed, sitting in the background until they are needed to explain the solution.

In short, while I didn’t love The Sittaford Mystery I do think that it possesses a few points of interest and I did enjoy reading it. It’s not Christie’s best but I also gather it’s not her worst.

Next month’s selection will be The Pale Horse which will be completely new to me. In the meantime chums, can I ask your opinion on a Christie question? Do you consider the Superintendent Battle stories to belong to a series or not? I won’t be including the Tommy and Tuppence series in this reading challenge but I’m a little stumped as to whether Battle should be regarded as a series or just a recurring character.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During a Weather Event (When)

20 thoughts on “The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie

  1. This is one of my favourite Christies! I’m a sucker for an (almost) snowed-in whodunit. I adore the ITV version even though Marple was crow-barred in and almost everything is changed!
    In answer to your question, I noticed for the first time the other day that Goodreads lists the Superintendent Battle books as a series and it had never crossed my mind for them to be so before. They do the same for Colonel Race and Ariadne Oliver too, even though all cross over with Poirot at at least one point and with each other too. Personally I’d consider any non-Poirot, non-Marple and non-Tommy-and-Tuppence to be stand-alones.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Either way I intend to read them but given they represent actual blank spots in my Christie knowledge I was just not sure how to categorize them. Thank you!

      I have only the vaguest memory of that adaptation but I hope to revisit it soon.

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  2. The following 3 novels can be regarded as part of the Superintendent Battle series: The Secret Of Chimneys, The Seven Dials Mystery, Towards Zero.
    Cards On The Table belongs to the Poirot series. Though Superintendent Battle appears here, he is a minor character.
    In Murder Is Easy (aka Easy To Kill), Superintendent Battle makes only a cameo appearance at the end. Hence it should be regarded as non-series.

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    1. Thanks Santosh. Battle is something of a gap in my knowledge of Christie so I appreciate you sharing, particularly the information about Murder Is Easy.

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  3. Thanks for the review, which made me reflect on my bias towards Christie. I recall enjoying ‘Sittaford Mystery’, and finding the resolution pleasingly surprising. But then again Christie knows how to fool me, and I read her works with the same rose-tinted glasses that I wore as a child discovering GA mystery writing. 🙂

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    1. This was an ealy Christie for me, and I remember beinf completely blown away by a linguistic piece of misdirection…only to go back to reread it and find it wasn’t there. Very confusing 🙂 I do seem to recall there being a fairly steady stream of “We’ll interview this person…now we’ll interview this person…now we’ll interview that person…” in the middle, but apart from that I enjoyed this, and loved the central clue that gives away the workings of the murder. But I can see how this might fail to capture the imagination.

      As to the Battle books — I beliebe characters fom The Secret of Chimneys crop up again, and refer to that first book, in The Seven Dials Mystery, so do those two in order. Hell, do them all in order just in case. Seven Dials is one of my very favourite Christie novels and probably the point where I fell in love with her, i reckon.

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      1. There is certainly an interviewiness to the middle section though I think the interactions between the reporter and the accused man’s fiancee break that up a little. I do think this is well clued though – not only with regards that central clue but one where something is curiously out of place.

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the Battle stories. I take it then that you do consider them as much of a bona fide series as Tommy and Tuppence then?

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      2. Yup. Anything with a recurring character playing a meaningful role is part of a bona fide series in my book. I’m weird like that.

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      3. Not at all weird! I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on it. I came across the same issue with Colonel Race but given 50% of his appearances were in Poirot stories and he is only in the final third of Cyanide I felt I was on sounder ground making my decision.

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      4. Johnny Race is very much an also-ran in my estimation — there’s no real focus on him at any point, even Cards on the Table when he’s supposed to be investigating. The books that mention him are no more a series than the ones that mention Miss Lemon or Jacques…he’s very much part of the furniture. Battle, T&T, and Ariadne Oliver all have much more to do in “their” books than Race ever does in his. So the race books constituting a series is a non-starter for me.

        I did warn you that I was weird about this sort of thing…

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      5. Heh. I don’t think there is anything weird at all about that logic. In fact it sounds like we are basically on the same page with this. Thanks for helping me think it through.

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    2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one. Sittaford is certainly a lot of fun and I do think Christie disguises many of her clues well. I am just not sure how the killer’s plan works without the event he didn’t know would take place. Other aspects of the resolution make me very happy indeed though!

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  4. Cat among the pigeons is a Battle as well and, while he doesn’t feature heavily, he does solve the mystery I believe, though more through a fortunate coincidence than any display of skill.

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    1. No, Battle does not appear in Cat Among The Pigeons ! It is Poirot who makes a late appearance in the final third of the novel and solves the case.

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  5. This sounds like an interesting one I should prioritize reading. The seance aspect of the story reminds me of books like John Dickson Carr’s early Merrivale works (The Plague Court Murders, The Red Widow Murders) or Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit. I’m a sucker for the fake supernatural storyline.

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    1. I think it is the most effective part of the story, even if I think it presents an issue later on. I look forward to tackling some of those titles you mention!

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