The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie

The final monthly theme for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story set during bad weather’. I have chosen to read The Sittaford Mystery, a standalone novel first published in 1931 – and what a great choice it was both as a Christmas read and as the book to bring this year’s challenge to an end! The bad weather is there from the very first page when Major Burnaby opens the door of his cottage in the village of Sittaford and looks out:

The scene that met his eyes was typical of the English countryside as depicted on Xmas cards and in old-fashioned melodramas. Everywhere was snow, deep drifts of it – no mere powdering an inch or two thick. Snow had fallen all over England for the last four days, and up here on the fringe of Dartmoor it had attained a depth of several feet.

On this snowy day, with the village cut off from the outside world, Major Burnaby and the other residents of Sittaford decide to entertain themselves by holding a séance. It seems like harmless fun, until a spirit suddenly announces that Burnaby’s friend, Captain Trevelyan, has just been murdered. Despite the heavy snow, Burnaby insists on walking the six miles to Exhampton, where Trevelyan lives – and on arriving there more than two hours later, he discovers his friend’s dead body on the floor of his study.

With several family members named in Trevelyan’s will, there are plenty of suspects, but when it emerges that one of them, the dead man’s nephew James Pearson, was in Exhampton that day, he is arrested on suspicion of murder. Pearson’s fiancée, Emily Trefusis, is determined to clear his name and travels to Sittaford to look for clues. She is assisted by Charles Enderby, a journalist from the Daily Wire, who happened to arrive in Exhampton the day after the murder and is staying on the scene in the hope of getting an exclusive story for his newspaper. But will Emily and Charles manage to solve the mystery before Inspector Narracott, the police detective carrying out the official investigations?

Of all the Christie novels I’ve read for Read Christie this year, The Sittaford Mystery is one that I’ve particularly enjoyed. Much as I like Poirot, Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence, I do often find that I prefer her standalone mysteries. In this one, I loved the partnership of Emily Trefusis and Charles Enderby; Emily is a wonderful character – intelligent, courageous and with a knack of knowing how to manipulate people in order to get exactly what she wants (and yet, despite this last character trait she’s very likeable). There’s also a strong supporting cast of characters, including the sharp tongued Miss Percehouse and her nephew Ronnie; Mrs and Miss Willett, the new tenants of Sittaford House who have just arrived from South Africa; and the mysterious Mr Duke, of whom nobody in the village seems to know anything at all.

The plot is up to Christie’s usual high standards, with lots of red herrings and misdirections, so that the reader ends up suspecting almost everybody! I didn’t come close to guessing the culprit – in fact, the murderer was someone I had considered and then dismissed very early in the book – but although there is an important clue concealed from us until near the end, I think it would probably still be possible to work out the solution if you were paying enough attention. My favourite thing about this book, though, was the setting; many of Christie’s mysteries are set in small villages, but the wintry weather gave this one a special atmosphere. I loved it and am glad the Read Christie challenge prompted me to pick it up this December!

They Do It with Mirrors by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story set after WWII’. There were plenty of options for this one – any book published after 1945 would count – and I eventually decided on They Do It with Mirrors, a 1952 Miss Marple novel.

The story begins with Miss Marple meeting an old friend, Ruth, who tells her that she’s worried about her sister, Carrie Louise, although she doesn’t give any specific reasons for her concern. Carrie Louise, like Ruth, has had several husbands and her latest, Lewis Serrocold, has established a rehabilitation centre for juvenile criminals at their home, Stonygates. Miss Marple agrees to go and visit Stonygates to see if she can find out what’s going on and, on her arrival, she finds a large number of people assembled at the house, including Carrie Louise’s daughter, granddaughter and stepson, as well as several other family members and servants.

As Miss Marple gets to know the various members of the household, she also begins to feel that something is not quite right – and she is proved to be correct when Christian Gulbrandsen, the son of Carrie Louise’s first husband, is found shot dead in his room. At the same time, Lewis Serrocold is shot at in his study by one of the ‘juvenile delinquents’, a young man who claims to be Winston Churchill’s son. Lewis is unharmed, but as one of the other characters remarks, “you don’t expect murder and attempted murder in the same house on the same night!” The police, led by Inspector Curry, soon arrive on the scene and begin their investigations, but it’s Miss Marple, of course, who eventually solves the mystery.

I don’t think this is one of Christie’s best, but I did still enjoy it – and unlike my last Christie novel, Death on the Nile, where I guessed the solution almost immediately, I didn’t manage to solve this one before the culprit was revealed. The title of the book refers to the fact that things and people are not always what they seem and sometimes, like a magician, ‘they do it with mirrors’ to cause confusion and misdirection. Well, I certainly allowed myself to be misdirected, but I do think it would have been possible to work it out if I’d been paying more attention.

This book has an interesting setting which gives Christie a chance to explore Lewis Serrocold’s work with the young offenders and the way in which these young men were viewed by 1950s society. This doesn’t really play a big part in the story and it could have worked just as well as a conventional country house mystery without this element, but it does provide some extra interest.

December’s theme for Read Christie 2021 is ‘a story set during bad weather’. The suggested title is The Sittaford Mystery, which is one I haven’t read yet.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for Read Christie 2021 is ‘a story set on a mode of transport’. There are plenty of those to choose from and I’ve already read a few of them – Murder on the Orient Express, Death in the Clouds and The Mystery of the Blue Train – but I decided to read a book I’ve never read before, one of Christie’s most famous novels, the 1937 Poirot mystery Death on the Nile.

When Linnet Ridgeway, a beautiful heiress, is found shot dead in her cabin during a cruise along the Nile, there are two suspects with obvious motives. One is her husband, Simon Doyle, who will inherit her money on her death; the other is Simon’s former fiancée Jacqueline de Bellefort, who was left heartbroken by Simon and Linnet’s marriage and has followed them on to the steamer Karnak, threatening revenge. However, both Simon and Jacqueline have alibis, so Hercule Poirot, also touring the Nile on the same cruise, is forced to turn his attention to the other passengers – many of whom, it seems, are hiding secrets of their own and could also have reasons to want Linnet dead.

As it happens, another of Christie’s detectives, Colonel Race (whom I recently met in Sparkling Cyanide), soon arrives onboard the Karnak, on the trail of a man suspected of terrorism. Although it seems unlikely that this will be the same person who killed Linnet, Race joins Poirot in the search for the murderer. It was interesting to see them working together – this is Poirot’s book, of course, and he is the one who solves the mystery, but Race makes some useful contributions and his presence in the story means that Poirot can share some of his theories and thought processes with him (and therefore with the reader).

Knowing that this is one of Christie’s most popular books, I expected to love it but, although I did enjoy it, I don’t think it’s a favourite. That’s partly because I thought the characters, with only one or two exceptions, were a particularly unpleasant, privileged and entitled group, so I didn’t have much sympathy for either the victim or any of the people who found themselves under suspicion! Also, I guessed who had committed the crime almost immediately – before it happened, in fact – which took away some of the fun. I don’t think it was necessarily a particularly easy mystery to solve; I feel as though I’ve read another book recently (maybe not a Christie one) based on a similar idea and once I had that idea in my head, it seemed quite obvious who had done it. What I couldn’t work out was exactly how it was done, so I was still kept in suspense waiting for Poirot to explain it.

Next month’s Read Christie theme is ‘a story set after WWII’. This will mean any Christie novel published after 1945; I’ve already read a lot of them, but any suggestions are welcome!

Book 8 for R.I.P. XVI

Crooked House by Agatha Christie

September’s topic for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story featuring a school’. I’ve already read the obvious choice, Cat Among the Pigeons, so I was grateful to the challenge hosts for providing a list of alternative suggestions. Crooked House doesn’t involve an actual school, but it does fit the general theme as it features two children who are being home-schooled.

First published in 1949, this was apparently one of Christie’s own favourites; in the foreword, she says that ‘practically everybody has liked Crooked House, so I am justified in my own belief that it is one of my best’. Now that I’ve read it, I can say that although it’s not one of my absolute favourites, it would definitely be in my top ten so far. It’s one of her standalones – with no Poirot, Marple or other famous detective – and, like several of her other novels, has a title inspired by a children’s nursery rhyme:

There was a crooked man, and he went a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile;
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

The ‘crooked house’ of the title is a mansion in the quiet London suburb of Swinley Dean and the people who ‘all live together’ there are ten members of the Leonides family. When the family patriarch, old Aristide Leonides, a Greek businessman, is found poisoned by his own eye medicine, suspicion immediately falls on his second wife, the much younger Brenda. It would certainly be more convenient for the rest of the family if Brenda could be proved to be the murderer – none of them like her and believe her to have married Aristide for his money – but so far there is no real evidence against her. Aristide’s eldest granddaughter, Sophia, is desperate to know the truth as she feels it won’t be fair to marry her fiancé, Charles Hayward, while a scandal is hanging over her family. As it happens, Charles is the son of the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard so, joining forces with Chief Inspector Taverner, the detective assigned to the crime, he sets out to solve the mystery so that he and Sophia will be free to marry.

One of the things I loved about this book was that the murderer really could have been anybody. Brenda is initially the main suspect as there are hints that she has been having an affair with Laurence Brown, tutor to Sophia’s younger siblings Eustace and Josephine, and would therefore need Aristide out of the way. However, Aristide’s eldest son Roger also appears to have a clear motive involving money and the company business, while his younger son Philip could have committed the murder out of jealousy. Then there are the brothers’ two wives, Clemency and Magda, and a spinster aunt, Edith de Haviland. Any of these people could have had reasons for wanting the old man dead, as well as the knowledge and opportunity to carry out the crime. At no point does Christie become too concerned with the technical details of the murder or get bogged down with discussions of alibis and timings, concentrating instead on motives, personalities and relationships – my favourite kind of mystery novel!

I didn’t guess who did it, of course. The correct solution did cross my mind once or twice, but I dismissed it as unlikely because I was so convinced that it was somebody else. I’m annoyed with myself for not working it out as I can see now that the clues were all there in plain sight!

Next month’s Read Christie theme, if anyone wants to join in, is ‘a story set on a mode of transport’. I’m probably going to read Death on the Nile, but there are plenty of others you could choose, including Murder on the Orient Express, Death in the Clouds or The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Book 3 read for R.I.P. XVI

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

August’s theme for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story set by the seaside’, which seemed the perfect opportunity to pick up an unread Poirot novel, Evil Under the Sun. It’s set on an island off the coast of Devon, where Hercule Poirot is on holiday at the exclusive Jolly Roger Hotel.

Christie begins by introducing us to all of the people staying at the hotel, including Arlena Stuart, a beautiful former actress. Arlena is described by one of the other characters as ‘the personification of evil’ – and she certainly seems to be causing plenty of trouble. Fellow guest Patrick Redfern can’t take his eyes off her and Arlena appears to be encouraging his attentions, regardless of how hurtful this is to Patrick’s young wife, Christine. Arlena’s own husband, Captain Marshall, claims he hasn’t noticed her behaviour, but is he telling the truth? Meanwhile, Marshall’s teenage daughter from a previous marriage hates her stepmother and resents the way she has come into the family home, bringing scandal and unhappiness with her.

When Arlena’s dead body is found at Pixy Cove, a secluded part of the island, almost everyone becomes a suspect. It’s fortunate that Poirot is already on the scene and can begin investigating immediately! In fact, as he later tells his friend, Captain Hastings, he had begun even before the murder took place…

Hastings said, staring: “But the murder hadn’t happened, then.”

Hercule Poirot sighed. He said: “But already, mon cher, it was very clearly indicated.”

“Then why didn’t you stop it?”

And Hercule Poirot, with a sigh, said as he had said once before in Egypt, that if a person is determined to commit murder it is not easy to prevent them. He does not blame himself for what happened. It was, according to him, inevitable.

Having just read three Miss Marple novels in a row for Read Christie, it made a nice change to get back to Poirot for this month’s read. I usually prefer the Poirots to the Marples and Evil Under the Sun – first published in 1941 – is another good one. Setting the story on a private island, for the use of the hotel guests only, is not just an atmospheric setting but also a clever one as it immediately limits the suspects to those already on the island at the beginning of the book. With his understanding of the kind of person Arlena was, Poirot is quickly able to pick out one suspect as the most likely culprit, but due to timings and alibis it seems impossible that this person could have committed the crime. As the novel progresses, more clues emerge, along with the usual red herrings and misdirections Christie likes to throw in our way!

I didn’t manage to solve the mystery, but once the solution was revealed I could see how perfectly all of the clues fitted together – like a jigsaw puzzle, as Poirot describes it. It did seem that the way in which the crime was carried out depended on a lot of good luck and on people behaving in a certain manner, but I still think Christie was fair with the reader and I have no complaints. I’m now looking forward to September’s book, which will be Crooked House.

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for Read Christie 2021 is ‘a story starring a vicar’ and the chosen title is an obvious one – The Murder at the Vicarage, which was first published in 1930 and is the first book in the Miss Marple series. I have read most of the later Marple novels, but never this one and I thought it would be interesting to go back to the beginning and read the book that introduced Miss Marple to the world of crime fiction.

The novel is set, like many of the other Marple novels, in the village of St Mary Mead, a place where everyone knows everyone else and nobody’s behaviour goes unnoticed! When Colonel Protheroe is found dead in the study at the vicarage, shot while waiting for the vicar to return home, Miss Marple and the other villagers immediately begin to gossip and to speculate on who the murderer could be. At first suspicion falls upon Anne Protheroe, the Colonel’s unhappy wife, and Lawrence Redding, the man with whom she has been having an affair. However, Colonel Protheroe was not a popular man and there is no shortage of other suspects – Miss Marple herself insists that she can think of at least seven.

The story is narrated by the vicar, Leonard Clement, who is drawn into the mystery not only due to the murder victim being found in his study, but also because the people of St Mary Mead see him as a trusted friend in whom they can confide and share pieces of information they prefer not to give to the police. The vicar’s narrative is both intelligent and amusing, as he reflects on his household, his domestic arrangements and his relationship with his younger wife, Griselda, as well as carrying out his own investigations into the murder case.

Someone else who is investigating the murder for herself is Miss Marple – and of course she finds her way to the solution before the police do, using her knowledge of human nature and her powers of observation. Miss Marple as she appears in this first novel is slightly different from the woman we meet in the later books in the series and is not particularly well liked by her neighbours, who see her as someone who goes around poking her nose into everyone else’s business. Unlike in some of the other books, where she seems to have been added to the story almost as an afterthought and the plot would have worked just as well without her, in this one she is there from beginning to end – often just in the background, but everything she says and does and every suggestion she makes turns out to be vital to the solving of the mystery!

Although I did enjoy this book, particularly as I found it such a difficult one to solve – I think I suspected almost everyone and allowed myself to get distracted by all the red herrings Christie throws into the plot – it took me a while to get into it. There were so many characters to keep track of and apart from the vicar and his wife and Miss Marple I didn’t really engage with any of them. I found the second half of the book much more compelling, though, as the plot became more and more complex and clever. I have read three Miss Marple mysteries in a row now for the Read Christie challenge, so I’m in the mood for something different next month. The August theme is ‘a story set by the seaside’ and I’m thinking about the Poirot novel Evil Under the Sun.

Nemesis by Agatha Christie

This month, for Read Christie 2021, the theme is ‘a story featuring a garden’ and the suggested title is Nemesis, a late Miss Marple mystery published in 1971.

Nemesis is an unusual Marple novel because for the first half of the book it’s not really clear what the mystery is that she’s trying to solve. All we do know is that Mr Rafiel, a rich man whom Miss Marple met previously in A Caribbean Mystery (which I haven’t read), has died, leaving her a large sum of money in his will on the condition that she must agree to investigate a crime for him. The only problem is, he doesn’t tell her what sort of crime it is or what she will need to do – only that he remembers her flair for justice and her nickname ‘Nemesis’.

Intrigued by Mr Rafiel’s request and tempted by the money, Miss Marple decides to accept the mission – and promptly receives an invitation to join a tour of Britain’s historic houses and gardens. During the tour she gradually uncovers the details of a crime committed several years earlier and discovers at last what Mr Rafiel wants her to do.

I don’t really want to say much more about the plot of this particular Christie novel because I think part of the fun is in wondering what the mystery is going to be and which of the people Miss Marple meets on the tour are going to be involved in it. Once the crime is revealed and she is able to start her investigations, it becomes more of a conventional mystery novel and I don’t think it’s as strong as some of the other Marples. Several of the clues seemed very obvious and I was able to solve some of it (although not all of it).

I was pleased to find that Miss Marple is present in the story from the beginning all the way through to the end; I’ve often complained that she appears too briefly, so it was nice to spend an entire novel with her this time. I loved the way she uses her apparent absent-mindedness, frailty and ‘twittering’ to fool the people around her into thinking she is a harmless, silly old woman, while all the time her brain is working away, storing information, making observations and staying one step ahead of everyone else. I should warn you, though, that she does express some disturbing views on the subject of rape – views that, unfortunately, a lot of people still hold today. Apart from that, this is an entertaining, if not particularly outstanding, Marple novel and it looks as though I’ll be reading another one soon as July’s selection is Murder at the Vicarage.