‘The Sittaford Mystery’ by Agatha Christie

‘The Sittaford Mystery’ is a standalone Agatha Christie book that didn’t really work for me. I know it’s a firm favourite among Christie fans, mainly because of Emily, the spirited heroine who works relentlessly to clear the name of the man she’s decided to let marry her. Emily is a fine creation and it was fun to watch her get her way. She is credible, clever and indomitable. She uses men (all of whom deserve what they got – or don’t get in most cases) ruthlessly and is kind to other women.

Sadly, she doesn’t appear until 40% through the book and I’d almost given up by then.

It should have been a strong start: a group of people who barely know each other, meeting in the big house at the edge of Dartmoor, on a night when the snow is falling hard enough to make the roads impassable, who amuse themselves with a semi-serious ‘table turning’ seance only to be spooked when the table announces that death of the man the big house has been rented from. One of the party, a close friend of the man named, is so disturbed that he heads off into the blizzard to the next village where he finds his friend has been murdered. A detective is called to work everything out and set’s about interviewing everyone involved.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

But the storytelling was flat and the characters were hard to engage with. The detective was competent and the facts are clearly and succinctly laid out but, apart from thinking that the murdered man wasn’t very nice – hated women, hated change, travelled the world collecting elephants feet and tiger skins and hippo tusks – and would be no great loss – I didn’t feel connected to anyone.

Even the snow thing didn’t play properly. We get set up for all that fierce weather and then one of the characters hikes six miles through the dusk and dark with no problem. So the snow mattered why?

The seance scene didn’t fly for me. It seemed like Christie couldn’t decide if it was just a parlour game or something more. 

At the time, I slowly came around to the view that Christie was writing a cosy mystery that was meant to be a piece of light-hearted devilment. there were all those playful references to Conan Doyle both with the Dartmoor setting and the spiritualism. Then she threw in an escaped prisoner to get a Dickens vibe. Finally, she added Emily, a whirlwind blowing through the story like a fairy godmother waving her wand.

Emily is a whirlwind and the embodiment of Christie’s devilment. It’s hard not to like her or at least admire her. She’s bright and determined and resourceful. She’s also an expert in pressing men’s buttons not just to get them to do her bidding but to be really pleased to be allowed to do her bidding. She understands the rules of the patriarchy and knows how to subvert them by getting men less talented than herself to wield the power she’s not allowed to have. Even the fiancé Emily is spending so much energy rescuing has been chosen as acceptable husband material because Emily judges him to be malleable enough for her to shape into someone useful.

Emily’s approach works because most of the men in this story, with exception of the Inspector, are fine examples of how strange single men can become. Christie gives us a whole catalogue of weak men from the vacuous and inept, through the bellicose and narcissistic, the self-servingly romantic through to the openly misogynistic with an undertone of repressed homosexuality.

I worked out who the murderer had to be about 60% of the way through (that involves some spoilers so I’ve put it below the SoundCloud link) but that was OK because I didn’t know the how and the why gave me some things to think about.

My problem with the book was that I couldn’t settle into its tone. It seemed to me to be a mostly unkind book. Its humour was the kind that laughs at people for being who they are and invites you to join in demeaning them. Which means if it doesn’t work, you take offence and if it does work you feel bad about it later.

Christie takes a pop at the older generation throughout the book. All those military men on the Empire who survived Public School and then went through World War I and/or ran the Raj have their dignity stripped, their values mocked and their inadequacies put on display. Then there’s the approach to Spiritualism and Conan Doyle. I’m an atheist with no belief in an afterlife and this still annoyed me. ‘The Sittaford Mystery’ was published in 1931, when Spiritualism was starting to wane but, at its peak ten years earlier, it had been driven by grief. It was how a generation, mostly of women, tried to cope with the slaughter of millions of young men. How parents tried to deal with the loss of the yet to make thirty sons. Yes, there were charlatans and yes there was self-deception but it seemed to me that in this book is became just another sign of weakness for Christie to target.

As usual, Christie makes fun of the rough colonials. They’re not quite one of us, are they? And watching them try to fit in and still fail so badly is such fun. And of course, everyone will always suspect that they’ve done something nefarious so that stirs the pot. I know that makes this an authentic English mystery but it’s a side of the English that I despise.

Take a look at the spoiler material to see another, better hidden, target.

Anyway, my reading of this book is likely to be atypical. I couldn’t relax enough to just accept it as easy entertainment with a humorous intent. If you can do that, then Emily’s energy and Hugh Fraser’s narration will probably be enough for you to have a good time.

Spoilers

I worked out who must have done that murder about 60% of the way through. Once I saw that the time of death was a distraction – that the murder could have happened earlier. It was obvious who would have done it. I didn’t figure out the skiing thing but it made a lot of sense and finally justified all that snow.

The motive for the killing was the trickiest part and I think Christie was being subtle with it and maybe also taking a shot at suppressed homosexuality without ever daring to say its name. Christie offers a not insubstantial financial motive for the killing and I’m sure it played a part but I wonder if it’s a bit of a beard for the emotional attachment between the two men which eventually led to fury. The dead man left his sporting trophies, the ones in which he exceeded his friend’s prowess at every sport, to his friend while leaving him no money. wasn’t that a middle finger raised from the grave? And the killing seems like rage and seemed to be followed by grief..That doesn’t seem to speak to money as a motive.

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