The Sittaford Mystery

THE BOOK   Fontana, 1971  pp 191

Tom Adams cover is a bit of a mish-mash. The table that featured in the séance is there, and the worried face of Mrs Willetts, but Captain Wyatt’s bull-terrier is for no reason given prominence and it is not obvious who the man grimacing might be. The rest is a kind of late 60s LP cover in the style of his original painting for Destination Unknown.

I am a fan of Tom Adams but I prefer the Pan cover with its image of what proves to be the key to the puzzle.

THE STORY

Sittaford is a tiny village on the edge of Dartmoor, and as the story begins it is completely snowed in. With nothing else to entertain them, six local people decide to have a table-tapping séance. They are surprised to receive a message that Captain Trevelyan, the actual owner of the house that they are in, has been murdered in a house he was renting in Exhampton, six miles away.

One of them, Major Burnaby, sets out in the teeth of a blizzard to check that his friend is all right… he isn’t. Trevelyan’s somewhat shiftless nephew Jim is arrested for his murder. Emily Trefusis, engaged to Jim, and convinced that he wouldn’t have had the guts to do it, travels to Sittaford to find out what really happened.

CHARACTERS AND ATTITUDES 

This story has many of the characteristics of a cut-off-remote-village murder mystery (except that the murder takes place six miles away in a town, and one that has not been cut-off).  There is a real village atmosphere about Sittaford, with a sprinkling of different characters who are all acquainted with each other without actually knowing each other at all. Sittaford is a village full of people who like to live cut off from everyone else.

Emily Trefusis is by far the most engaging character in the book. Her never-say-die attitude is matched by a gentle ability to manipulate others and re-enforced by a fierce common sense. She has total belief in herself, and, if not contempt, a wry opinion of the character of everyone else (including her fiancé). I think she is one of Swigatha’s most endearing heroines; if anyone ever gets round to making a decent film of this story hers would be a plum role.

The other characters in the village are lightly-sketched, almost enigmatic: the misanthropic Captain Wyatt and his servant Abdul; the invalid Miss Percehouse and her shiftless nephew Ronnie; the psychic researcher Rycroft. You get the impression that there is more to come from each of them, but nothing does.

The one character padded out a bit more is the jealous Major Burnaby. There are quite a few ex-Army officers in the Christie canon; many of them have either gone to seed or are bad hats full stop. One thing Burnaby has going for him is an incredible ability to improvise: within minutes of the decision by the others to indulge in some table-turning, the good major has conjured up a very devious plan, and within half an hour has carried it out. 

QUOTES

The early chapters give an interesting insight into some of the attitudes of a well-off village at the end of the 1920s.

Major Burnaby was between his hostess and Violet. On the other side of the girl was Ronnie Garfield. A cynical smile creased the major’s lips. He thought to himself: “In my young day it was ‘Up Jenkins’.” 

This seemingly-bizarre thought is actually a reference to an old-drinking game in which members of one team conceal a coin in the palm of one of their hands under a table before slapping them down on the table-top. It is more commonly known these days as Tippit. The kind of game that one could only imagine English adults playing, it gave opportunities for coy youngsters to touch hands.

‘Your aunt’s very nice, but rather frightening.’
‘I should think she was frightening. Snaps my head off sometimes. Thinks I’ve got no brains, you know.’
‘Not really?’
‘Oh! look here, don’t say it like that. Lots of fellows look like fools and are laughing underneath.’

Viola Willett gently joshes Ronnie Garfield, who comes across as a left-over character from The Seven Dials Mystery.

Of course, Mr Duke was a very nice man, quite unassuming, but was he, after all, quite – well, quite? Mightn’t he, just possibly, be a retired tradesman? But nobody liked to ask him – and indeed it was thought better not to know.

Mr Duke is revealed at the end to be a retired senior police officer. Whether that changes or re-enforces the locals’ attitude toward him is not stated.

‘Where’s that bitch got to? Nice-looking girl.’ The association of ideas in his mind was quite natural.

Captain Wyatt refers to i) his dog and ii) Emily. Or it may be the other way round.

“If you had studied criminology, Miss Trefusis, you would realise the curious effect caused by inbreeding, especially in country districts.”

Mr Rycroft has been discussing Mr and Mrs Evans, servants to the dead captain. Evans had already been described as having ‘very long arms’ and ‘small, pig-like eyes’ (eyes are always a significant character reference in swigathas).  

SWIGATHA RATING  7/10

Very entertaining! This is an enjoyable read – a read-in-one-go type of book, in fact. It all seems fairly-clued as long as the readers don’t examine the plot too closely as they race through it. If they stop to think, on the other hand, and discard the voices-from-the-other side theory, they might realise that the murderer would have had to be present at the séance – and only one person left it.   

It was not obvious to this reader why the murderer should feel the need to shove a pair of the victim’s boots up a chimney, and so give Emily the clue to the mystery, but what the heck!

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT

The Sittaford Mystery marked the start of a phenomenal period of output by Agatha Christie. Whether or not this is linked to her marriage to Max Mallowan the previous year, for the rest of the 1930s almost every novel she wrote was an instant classic of the genre. 

ADAPTATIONS

The only one that I am aware of was a disaster actuated by ITV as part of its Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series. This is not Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple at all.

This story is crying out for a proper adaptation. It would be a great choice as one of the BBC productions shown in the UK each Christmas.