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Literature / The Sittaford Mystery

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The Sittaford Mystery is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie, published in 1931.

Mrs. Willett and her daughter are renting Sittaford House for the winter from the retired Captain Trevelyan, who is staying nearby in Exhampton. The Willetts entertain a group of four people for tea one evening - Mr Rycroft, Mr Garfield, Trevelyan's longtime friend Major Burnaby, and Mr Duke, the latter of whom instigates a game of table-turning, during which a spirit appears to communicate to them that Trevelyan has been murdered. There being no telephone, and the roads being inaccessable to cars, the concerned Burnaby resolves to walk the six miles to Exhampton in the snow. When he arrives there two and a half hours later, he gets no response at the door. Fetching a policeman, they break in and discover the Captain dead from a fractured skull. His nephew James, a beneficiary of the will, is arrested, having been in Exhampton at the time. Even though the official investigation is led by Inspector Narracott, James' fiancee Emily Trefusis, does some detective work on her own, assisted by journalist Charles Enderby.

The novel was dramatized by BBC radio in 2004, and was very loosely adapted into an episode of ITV's Marple starring Geraldine McEwan in 2006, with many large changes to the plot, right down to the identity of the murderer.

The novel contains examples of the following tropes:

  • After-Action Villain Analysis: After the very abrupt arrest of the hitherto unidentified killer at the end of one chapter, this person's background and motivations are explained to the assembled party in the next.
  • Amateur Sleuth: Emily Trefusis takes on an unofficial investigation of her own to unmask the murderer and clear her fiance's name.
  • Clear My Name: Emily Trefusis is determined to clear her fiance, James Pearson, who is suspected of murdering his uncle, Captain Trevelyan.
  • Clock Discrepancy: A variation: at 5:25 in the afternoon, the spirit announces that Trevelyan is dead, and in response, with no road transport available, Burnaby decides to walk the whole distance there, arriving a good two and a half hours later. Only he actually used skis to travel to Trevelyan's house, downhill the whole way, in barely ten minutes. He then killed Trevelyan, set the scene, and at the appropriate time left to make a detour and come back, pretending to have walked all the way from Sittaford and to be arriving for the first time.
  • The Determinator: Although Major Burnaby is quite advanced in years, he is resolved to walk six miles in heavy snow to make sure his friend is all right. Not.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: In the final chapter, Charles' marriage proposal to Emily is rejected.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Inverted. Emily's fiance James Pearson is quite nice but weak-willed and not very reliable, while Charles Enderby is a charismatic, quick-witted journalist and a very useful partner in Emily's detective work. Charles is thought to be a better match for Emily, but she decides to stay with James, knowing he'd need her while Charles could take care of himself.
  • Exact Words: Burnaby says his two legs will carry him to Trevelyan's house. True, but he doesn't mention those legs will be on skis, allowing him to murder Trevelyan shortly after he's supposedly dead instead of the two hours later when he arrives to "discover" the murder.
  • Fair-Play Whodunnit: If you assume this trope, typical for a Christie novel, the killer's identity leaps to the eye. No spiritual mumbo jumbo.
  • The Ghost: The victim, Captain Trevelyan, never appears as a living character in the story - only as a corpse.
  • Hidden Villain: It turns out that the spirit announcing Trevelyan's death is Major Burnaby deliberately rigging the table-turning.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Charles Enderby is an enthusiastic journalist from The Daily Wire who managed to organize an interview with Trevelyan's best friend, and later comes to Sittaford to investigate further alongside Emily Trefusis. He finds out some good stories, but doesn't discover much information that is useful for the actual murder case.
  • Red Herring: Some of the characters have suspicious secrets that end up having nothing to do with the murder.
    • The Willetts act strangely because they have a criminal plan of their own to break their husband and father out of prison, and their renting of Sittaford House was due to their co-conspirator Brian Pearson being Trevelyan's nephew.
    • More than one occupant of a Sittaford cottage has a surprise connection to Trevelyan's relatives (Ronald Garfield is the godson of Jennifer Gardner, and Mr. Rycroft is Sylvia Dering's uncle by marriage), but as the occupants all rented from Trevelyan, the connections are not all that unbelievable, and not dwelled on by the detectives.
  • The Resenter: Miss Percehouse could see that Major Burnaby had always been jealous of his supposed best friend, Captan Trevelyan, for being more skilled at everything they do - and shares this information when the murder is explained to her in the final chapter.
  • Snowed-In: Because of the heavy snowfall, road access is impossible on the afternoon of the murder.
  • Spooky Sťance: Kicks off the plot; it is during the table-turning game hosted by the Willetts that a spiritual message conveys that Trevelyan has been killed.
  • Wham Line: The final line of Chapter 29, spoken by Inspector Narracott.
    "John Burnaby, I charge you with the murder of Joseph Trevelyan on Friday the 14th instant, and I hereby warn you that anything you may say will be taken down and may be used in evidence."