Rating: four out of five
Year of Publication: 1931
Motive for Murder: Hatred
Plot: In Sittaford, a table-turning game of six is held at Mrs. Willet’s. What is supposed to be a pleasant winter evening turns the other way round when the table rocks and the letters that come up surprise everyone: T-R-E-L-V….D-E-A-D…M-U-R-D-E-R. The time: 5.25 pm. That night Captain Joseph Trevelyan is found dead in his house in Exhampton – six miles away from the hamlet.
Who has coshed Trevelyan on the head? Apparently, the murderer was admitted through the window. In other words, Trevelyan knows the murderer. With snow falling heavily that day in Dartmoor, who came the deceased in such condition?
James Pearson, an estranged nephew of his, is then identified as the last person to see Trevelyan. Despite having had a row with his uncle hours before the other was murdered, he swore to the police that the other was alive and kicking when he left the house. Nonetheless, Trevelyan’s will is in favour of Pearson. Moreover, Pearson had financial trouble due to the money he has owed and cannot be repaid. His arrest is inevitable.
Meanwhile, the late captain used to enter acrostic competitions. On the day of the murder a letter came for him in which it informed his winning £ 5,000 of Daily Wire football competition. The news has not reached him that day and nobody knew about it until a reporter from the paper arrived to deliver the cheque by hand. Due to the snow, someone says that no post has been received at that time.
A girl in love, an idiotic man and an extremely jealous man are the backbones of the plot. First of all, Emily Trefusis is the heroine, James Pearson’s fiancée, who is adamant to prove his innocence (see Clues). Secondly, the main suspect, Trefusis’s man is in a tight spot with motive and opportunity. Bad timing, perhaps. Thirdly, an unassuming man that nobody notices; a kind of murderer that seems as normal as everybody else, except for his simmering hatred to the victim. As Trefusis becomes the hamlet’s latest sensation, he remains behind the screen.
That man participates in Mrs. Willet’s table-turning game although he is not the mysterious Mr. Duke, another man in the séance session that day.
The setting, Dartmoor buried in the snow, is a contrast from the previous St. Mary Mead in autumn (see Notes On Murder At The Vicarage, 1930). Coming from South Africa, Mrs. Willet and her daughter, Violet, offered Captain Trevelyan an incredible sum of money to occupy his house during winter. Why? That is another talk among Sittaford residents, coupled with the presence of Mr. Duke – the latest arrival in one of the Sittaford cottages. Also, Mrs. Willet is noticed to have seemed aged a lot after the murder.
The opening, a séance session turns to a shambles, is intriguing. With the ghost of the Great War still shadows people in that era while the recession across the Atlantic had begun, séance strangely‘rhymes’ with a gloomy feeling of winter. The nature of the crime itself is still crime intime, the authoress’s favourite. Murders committed in the convenience of a home without a splutter of blood and the rat-ta-ta of a machine gun. And Most importantly, no suffering on the part of the victim as the dead from a blow on the head is usually instantaneous.
In terms of the clue, anyone would wish that the green baize tube used as a murder weapon would have ‘talked.’ For there are no footprints nor a heavy thud heard by a witness. A ‘dumb witness’ is not available and a letter wrongly addressed is not to be found. The murderer covers his track wonderfully.
The question that hangs is whether Trevelyan’s death occur before or after the séance. Logically, it must have happened either before or as being mentioned. The estimated time of death- two hours approximately before Constable Grave and Major Burnaby broke into the house- seems to match with the doctor’s estimate.
Yet here lies the first trap of many. Only when readers reflect will they realise the flaws of the logic. Cristie is quite convincing and consistent in keeping readers ‘interested’ in James Pearson and afterwards his brother, Brian, who turns up at Sittaford House in the small hours. A great surprise to James, who thought Brian had still been in Australia.
On the second reading, as I scan the pages it is most interesting that I missed a number of vital clues in the first few chapters. Her subtleness is superb as she is able to present something important as if it is a trivial thing through gestures and facts. She also does that in her other books published later on, such as And Then There Were None (1939).
Just as her predessors Bundle (The Seven Dials Mystery, The Secret of Chimneys)and Anne Beddingfield (The Man In The Brown Suit), Trefusis is sharp and does not waste time. She takes Charles Enderby, the Daily Wire reporter, on her side and works around the clock with him.
What is fascinating is her background, which is not entirely clear. I assume she is a working-class girl or an orphan, due to her seeming to be mature beyond her age. To Enderby the following is how she describes herself: ‘….You see I have been on my own pretty well since I was sixteen. I have never come into contact with many women and I know very little about them, but I know a lot about men. And unless a girl can size up a man pretty accurately, and know what she’s got to deal with, she will never get on. I have got on. I work as a mannequin at Lucie’s, and I can tell you, Mr. Enderby, that to arrive there is a Feat.’ And boy how she handles men well!
Can a woman’s instinct be trusted? The topic is also discussed in The Under Dog, a Poirot case in which the wife of the murder victim holds her late husband’s secretary responsible (see Notes On The Adventure of The Christmas Pudding). Although there is no proof nor evidence, it does not bother her. She pays Poirot and that is the end of it. Similarly, Trefusis only knows that it is not her fiancée.
Regarding the description of a character, there are certain lines that Christie is inclined to use. I am not sure why a person on the side of the law has to be a gardener, big and muscular with Poirot as an exception – because he is a foreigner. Her description of Mr. Duke tickles my brain: ‘a big man, very quiet and devoted to gardening.’ Particularly when Trefusis asks Inspector Narracot: ‘I wish I knew who Mr. Duke really was? And what particular branch of criminology he indulged in the past?’ What pleases me is that Mr. Duke was not mistakened as a hairdresser but Poirot (Lord Edgware Dies).
I pondered over the ‘snow factor’ in the plot; that the connection to the murderer is through a pair of snow boots. Personally it is strange to think of England snow on a par with Switzerland and Southern France. As a result I am in two minds as to the idea that the murderer skis to Exhampton instead of walking there. Plausible or impossible, do you think? On the one hand, I have not had a good knowledge about Dartmoor apart from its flat contour and the fact that many hills there are just over a thousand metres from sea level. On the other, according to the weather record, there were heavy rainfalls recorded in the autumn/winter 1929/1930.
Anyhow, the murder is caught because of Robert Evans. The late Captain’s manservant has noticed that one of his ex-master’s snow boots is missing during the clear-out. Something he relays to his wife, who then tells her aunt Mrs. Belling, whom writes to Trefusis about it. Things heard on the grapevine can be very useful sometimes.
-Captain Trevelyan uses Major Burnaby’s address to send his answer for a football competition
-There is a post service in Sittaford on the day of the murder
-the Major and the Captain used to spend time in Switzerland for winter sport.
-Charles Enderby bumps into Brian Pearson and Violet Willet near Sittaford House in the small hours
-A prisoner ran away from a jail twenty miles away in Princetown on the same day the Captain was killed
Cast of Characters:
The participants of table-turning game:
Major John Burnaby (Captain Trevelyan’s old friend, lives at no.2 In the bungalow near Sittaford House)
Mr. Duke (lives at no.6 of the cottages)
Mrs. Willet (Violet’s mother, who rents Captain Trevelyan’s house for the winter)
Ronald Garfied (lives at no.4 the cottages with his aunt)
Mr. Rycroft (lives at no.5 the cottages)
Violet Willet (Mrs. Willet’s only daughter)
Brian Pearson (James’s brother, Violet’s fiance)
Mrs. Belling (the proprietress at Three Crowns Inn in Exhampton)
Miss Caroline Perchehouse (Ronald’s aunt, who lives at no.3 the cottages)
Mr. and Mrs. Curtis
Mr. Dacres (James’s solicitor)
Emily Trefusis (James Pearson’s fiancée)
Charles Enderby (a reporter for the local paper)
Frederick Kirkwood (Captain Trevelyan’s solicitor)
Constable Graves (went with Major Burnaby to Captain Trevelyan’s house)
James Pearson (Captain Trevelyan’ nephew, who sees his uncle at his home on the day of the murder)
Mrs. Jennifer Gardner (Captain Trevelyan’s sister)
Martin Derring (Sylvia’s husband)
Inspector Narracot (of Exhampton Police)
Rebecca Evans (Robert’s wife)
Robert Henry Evans (Captain Trevelyan’s manservant)
Sylvia Derring (nee Pearson, Captain Trevelyan’s niece, James’s and Brian’s sister)
Dr. Warren (who examines Captain Trevelyan’s body after he was found)
Captain Wyatt (lives at no.4 the cottages with his Indian servant Abdul)
The Most Fascinating Character: Mrs. Willet
She offers Captain Trevelyan something he cannot resist: to rent his house, Sittaford House, to her above the market value in winter. When the estate agent conveys the message to the Captain, his initial respond is to refuse and after the second thought accepts it. For he likes money and seizes the opportunity – in spite of having been a very rich man. It was Brian Pearson, who suggested it to the mother and daughter as they had lain their plan for Mrs. Willet’s husband’s escape.
Leaving the warmth of South Africa for cold England pays a huge rent to be buried in the winter are enough to raise curiosity. As people speculate about Mrs. Willet, it does appear to Major Burnaby that there is something strange behind it. ‘..She was inclined to overdress, had a distinct Colonial accent, and seemed perfectly content with the transaction. She was clearly very well off and that – as Burnaby had reflected more than once- really made the whole affair more odd. She was not the kind of woman one would credit with a passion for solitude.’
Later on, the Major’s observation to Mrs. Willet after the murder is his views that her aging faster has nothing to do with the murder. Readers will understand the reason as to why Christie chose the Major in the end.
Meanwhile, it is clear that Mrs. Willet’ apparent anxiety is because of her fear to be ‘found out.’ Has she done a crime? Or, did she protect someone?
Inspector Narracot’s background check adds the tension as he managed to know that Mrs. Willet and Violet were on a voyage from Australia under the names of Mrs. and Miss Jones. What made them do that?
Eventually she has to make a clean breast to the police as regard to her presence in Sittaford. Also, to tell them the identity of the prisoner who ran away from a prison on the same day Captain Trevelyan was killed.
Inspector Narracot (to Sergeant Pollock):
‘The only curious thing is, though, that I think the murderer did actually enter by the window. As you and Graves reported, and as I can still see for myself, there are damp patches still visible where the snow melted and was trodden in by the murderer’s boots. These damp patches are only in this room. Constable Grave was quite positive that there was nothing of the kind in the hall when he and Dr. Warren passed through it. In this room he noticed them immediately. In that case it seems cleaer that the murderer was admitted by Captain Trevelyan through the window. Therefore it must have been someone whom Captain Trevelyan knew….’
Major Burnaby (to Charles Enderby):
‘…Look here –it’s impossible to get to Sittaford in this weather. The fall of snow was exceptionally heavy. No vehicle has been able to take the road for three days anyway, and it may be another three before the thaw sets in properly.’
Emily Trefusis (to Charles Enderby):
‘I am looking at this, Mr. Enderby, in an absolutely unsentimental and business-like way. You’ve got to take it from me to begin with that Jim didn’t do the murder. I’m not saying that simply because I’m in love with him, or believe in his beautiful character or anything like that. It’s just well – knowledge….’
Robert Evans (to Charles Enderby):
‘Well, it’s a wicked world, sir. I have heard there’s a lot of trickery concerned. The late Capting used to say that a prize never went to a good address. That’s why he used mine and time again.’