Friday, 21 February 2014

Agathon #14: The Sittaford Mystery (1931)

Tansy and I started out with a challenge to read every book written by Agatha Christie, in order of publication – we’re blogging as we go along. We spoil all the things!

Yes, it’s been a while, but we’re still going! The Sittaford Mystery is also sometimes called Murder at Hazelmoor.

KATHRYN: First I need to say that I didn’t actually note the giant spoiler on the front cover, until I was photographing it for the blog...

The Sittaford Mystery This feels like a fairly ‘typical’ Christie murder mystery, although it has the distinction of including neither Miss Marple nor Poirot. Instead the detective in charge of the case is an Inspector Narracott, who is described as competent and intelligent, but doesn’t have much in the way of defining features otherwise. Indeed for the first ten chapters of the book I was wondering if Christie had written a mystery in which the detective had no personality at all. Come chapter eleven, however, it becomes apparent that Inspector Narracott is not the star of the book at all. Enter Emily Trefusis, determined to clear her fiance, Jim Pearson, who has been wrongly accused of the murder.

Normally I would be thrilled with a plucky young lady intent on solving a mystery (think Tuppence or Bundle) but I did not warm to Emily. Yes she is a capable young lady, but one of her primary methods is to fool men into thinking that she is less capable than she is, so they help her. Maybe if I was reading this in 1931, this would appeal, but here in 2013 the idea makes me weary. Can’t she just be capable and awesome without hiding it? Emily also seems to be very brittle, which I guess might be the case if your fiance has been accused of murder. She doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor and it is really not clear why she wants to marry Jim Pearson in the first place, as he seems to be completely incompetent and not even in an adorable way. (It is explained away by Emily declaring she needs someone to giude and look after. Again, this doesn’t appeal to me as a 21st century woman. Too much work!!)

I’m not sure any of the characters in this book rang true, nor were any that likeable. Instead we get a series of cardboard cutouts - old retired army men, grumpy invalids, flighty young women, and anonymous policemen. And while there are clues scattered through the book, and tied up neatly in the end, it felt a bit like an anticlimax. There didn’t seem to be much at stake, and I didn’t really care who had done it.

Even the ‘red herring’ sub plot, which involves an escapee from nearby prison on Dartmoor, is fairly abruptly resolved - to the extent that once the escapee is (spoiler alert) recaptured, his daughter’s response can be pretty much boiled down to ‘Oh well, he’s got pneumonia now. It’s probably just as well if he dies...’

I noted in ‘A Murder at the Vicarage’ that Christie used a first person narrator to good effect to mask the identity of the murderer until Miss Marple chose to reveal him. So just for the record, ‘Sittaford’ used 3rd person/omniscient narration, and the reader follows more than one character. Once Emily works out who did it, we get a few vague descriptions of what she has found, including a declaration of ‘I know who did it now, but not why’, and then that scene fades to black until the final reveal. This kind of felt like cheating…

TANSY: My apologies for the long delay on this one, I read it back when I had pneumonia last year, really enjoyed it and then never got around to writing it up!

I liked Emily a bit more than you did, K. I found her quite likeable in that Bundle-Tuppence sort of way. I also very much enjoyed the way that her detective work revolved around the exchange of confidences - she feels a lot like a junior Miss Marple. I also liked the journalist she dragged around with her, Charles, and enjoyed their banter.

It was a bit odd that the murder mystery seemed to be less central than the ongoing theme that everyone could see there was something romantic going on between Emily and Charles, and that despite working to save Jim from prison, she was *obviously* going to ditch him for our hapless young reporter. The idea of course is that Emily is herself in denial about this - and the rather odd sort of punchline is in fact that she was right all along about her feelings for Jim and not actually fancying Charles, thank you very much, and she planned to marry the man she was actually engaged with.
While I agree with you that Jim was totally uninteresting, I did find it amusing that Christie was playing with (and debunking) the trope and that Emily did not in fact change her mind purely because Charles was in love with her. Almost like she (Christie) thinks that unrequited love isn’t remotely romantic and doesn’t deserve to be rewarded…

(I have an unfortunate glitch in my programming that responds far too sympathetically to unrequited love stories, and have been trying to debug myself for years to no avail, so I must admit at this point that I was shipping Emily and Charles like mad, damn it).

I think this book might be the point where Christie has realised she’s a bit too sharp and cynical for the genre she’s writing in - it’s set up almost as a parody of her own previous works, with all the details about the murder and the trick to it and so on. But maybe that’s just because she is using so many elements that are used in more iconic books or indeed dozens and dozens of her imitators? This is the first Christie set in a snowbound manor, yes?

It was all terribly clever with the trick to it, but there was something that felt a bit off about it - like a short story worth of plot held together with banter and flirting. Still, I did find it very readable even with a lung that didn’t work, so there’s that.

Coming up:
1932: Peril at End House, Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings, Chief Inspector Japp
1932: The Thirteen Problems, Miss Marple Shorts
1933: Lord Edgware Dies (also Thirteen at Dinner ), Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings, Chief Inspector Japp

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