The Sittaford Mystery (or The Murder at Hazelmoor), a standalone by the Queen of Crime, first published in 1931, is a quite perfect read for the season with a murder in a snowed-in English village difficult to navigate, a fair few suspects, and a touch of spookiness!
Our story opens in the small village of Sittaford in Dartmoor, where a retired Navyman, Captain Joe Trevelyan had built six cottages, one, Sittaford House for himself and five others which he has sold to others, among them his best friend Major Burnaby. Captain Trevelyan is very fond of money and never loses an opportunity to make some, so when Mrs Willet and her daughter, Violet, recently arrived from South Africa, offer to rent his home, the Captain is happy to oblige and himself moves to a smaller house, Hazelmoor down the hill in Exhampton, making a tidy profit. The Willets who are fairly social invite others from Sittaford for tea and bridge, and among their guests is Major Burnaby. For entertainment, one of the guests suggests a ‘table turning’. But after some fun messages, one of the ‘ghosts’ that visits them announces that Captain Trevelyan is dead—murdered, leaving all the guests unsettled. Major Burnaby is shaken as well, and decides to walk down to Trevelyan’s cottage (despite the impending snowstorm) and take a look. He finds that Trevelyan has in fact been murdered.
The police led by Inspector Narracott investigate. It seems at first that the Captain had no enemies, but it emerges that he was tight with his money because of which many in his own family bore him grudges. Soon his nephew James Pearson, who was in the village at the time (and had in fact visited Trevelyan to seek a loan) is arrested. But James’ fiancée Emily Trefusis knows he is innocent (for he doesn’t have the guts to kill) and teams up with enterprising reporter Charles Enderby to prove James innocent. The two begin to talk to Trevelyan’s relations and others in the village, and uncover some secrets. But do they track down the killer?
This was an enjoyable mystery with plenty of subplots and red herrings to throw one off track. Since this was a reread for me, I knew whodunit (I don’t think I guessed the first time around), and was keeping a look out for clues. Christie is fair and does give us various hints along the way. One incident though seemed the result of chance or coincidence, and I am not sure how things would have played out without it. But still, I had forgotten some of the subplots and threads, so it was interesting to follow those.
In the book Christie also gives us plenty of interesting characters. In Emily Trefusis we have a rather spunky Christie heroine, who undertakes to travel to isolated and snowed-in Sittaford and solve the mystery on her own. She uses not only her intelligence (which she has plenty of) and also ability to manipulate people (Charles, in particular) to do her bidding to manage to speak to various people involved and get help in the things she can’t do on her own. With Emily’s story we also have a romance thread, and a bit of a mystery as to whom she will pick for more than one character becomes interested in her. Another standout was the intelligent invalid lady Mis Percehouse, who might have a sharp tongue but turns out quite a likeable person. She takes to and helps Emily (she also has a bunch of cats, one of whom is called the Emperor of Peru).
But while Emily is investigating, Inspector Narracott isn’t turned into a background character, nor the typical policeman in mysteries who is lost or clueless. He too is fairly sharp and uncovers plenty of information; both investigations proceed side-by-side, complementing each other.
While not among Christie’s best mysteries, this was one I enjoyed a lot, for its atmosphere, characters, and plot too (aside from a few niggles).
p.s. there was also a reference to Conan Doyle in the context of seances that was fun.