The Sittaford Mystery

Rating: **

A group of people in a remote village get together one wintry evening. Nothing could be more natural than neighbors getting together for some tea; nothing could be more unnatural than the company. Sittaford House in the village of Sittaford is occupied by tenant Mrs. Willett and her daughter Miss Willet. Inviting the residents of the small village to tea and entertainment one evening, things take an unexpected turn.

Major Burnaby, Mr. Rycroft, Ronnie Garfield, Mr. Duke and the Willets sit down to a game of table-turning. The perfectly harmless game involves calling spirits to interact with the people sitting around a table. With the start of the rocking the seven people are alarmed at a serious message sent to them by one of the ‘spirits’: Captain Trevelyan – the owner of Sittaford House – has been murdered.

The shock that follows only increases when Major Burnaby – Captain Trevelyan’s closest friend – tells of his intention to go and check up on his friend. The only problem is the heavy snowfall making roads impassable and the two hours it would take to get to his residence! Nevertheless, his unease is to the extent that he resolves to go, only to discover the truth of the message.

The motives behind the murder are investigated by Inspector Narracott. Money seems the strongest motive with four relatives inheriting equal shares of the Captain’s money. Very early in the investigation, James Pearson, the victims nephew and one of the beneficiaries, is arrested on suspicion. It’s not long before his impressive and confident fiancee, Emily Trefusis sets out to prove his innocence. She ropes in a young and attractive journalist Charles Enderby to aid her in her investigation – not a very difficult task for a woman like Emily to make him fall in line with her plans. Together they set out to investigate the truth behind the mystery. Pretending to be cousins, they journey to Sittaford to become acquainted with Captain Trevelyan’s neighbors hoping to discover a clue.

The table-turning seems to be the important factor. Was it really a supernatural phenomena? or did someone with previous knowledge unconsciously reveal the truth? The key to the murder lies in the answers to these questions – something Inspector Narracott quickly realizes. But it is Emily who discovers the final clue – something much more prosaic: a pair of shoes.

Some thoughts
I didn’t really enjoy this novel. I found the identity of the murderer unsatisfactory and although Agatha Christie always makes sense (rarely are there loopholes in her plot) I couldn’t quite agree with her. The motive, although there, seemed to rely on one small clue to the murderer’s personality – something anyone would have missed and requires no great insight on the part of the reader. The clue to the mystery, for the most part, remains hidden from our eyes.

I labeled the character who investigate this mystery as ‘the young man in love with one of the women suspects’ because – well, you’ll see. Maybe it could also have been ‘the dominating woman who loves the main suspect!’

The Pale Horse

Rating: ****

On a foggy night, a certain Father Gorman is murdered after hearing the confession of a dying woman. Inspector Lejeune, the lead detective on the case, discovers a list of names hidden in the priest’s shoe. What significance do those names bear? What is the connection of those names to the dying woman? Far away at a cafe in Chelsea, Mark Easterbrook, a historian, watches as two girls fight and one pulls out tufts of the other’s hair. Later, he reads of the death of one of the girls.

By sheer coincidence, Mark Easterbrook comes into contact with the list of names. Slowly, he discovers that the list is a list of victims. The girl at the cafe, his god-mother, a friend etc. …Were these people being blackmailed? Or something more sinister? What was the dying woman involved in?

Mark Easterbrook believes from the onset that the list contains the names of dead people. He finds that many of the names are known to him as of people who have recently died. This list becomes connected in his mind with a name: the “Pale Horse” (a hugely coincidental connection). Casually mentioned by an empty headed girl at lunch one day, the place apparently deals with murdering people for money. Shortly, he himself travels to the Pale Horse and meets Thyrza Grey, its mysterious owner. At first inclined to dismiss the superstition attached to the place as ridiculous, he finds himself horrified by the rantings of its occupants. Thyrza Grey apparently believes in the concept of being able to kill people by suggestion. A lot of scientific jargon popular in Christie’s day is used and ‘thought-waves’ and ‘mediums’ are considered as the supernatural basis for the deaths as the victims – all rich – supposedly suffered a natural death.

The young historian finds himself in a curious position. He confides his suspicions to Ginger, a girl he met in the locality of the Pale Horse. Together, they hatch up a plan to approach the people involved as prospective clients. In a dangerous situation, it is in the end Inspector Lejeune who uncovers the true leader behind the ring.

Some thoughts
Re-reading was more fun than I thought. The Pale Horse had some interesting characters and a small romance to round it all off. I always enjoy Agatha Christie’s depiction of characters. Mark Easterbrook, although somewhat credulous as far as ‘thought-projection’ and ‘waves’ are concerned, was a reliable and intelligent hero. He provides most of the narration in the novel which ends on the normal twist: whodunnit is never so simple in Agatha’s mystery novels. It’s the suspense that keeps you hooked till the end.

The Pale Horse is one of Agatha’s later mysteries. Published in 1961, it contains famous characters Ariadne Oliver the detective fiction writer, Rev and Mrs. Dane Calthrop (also in The Moving Finger) and Colonel and Mrs. Despard (also in Cards on the Table).

I categorized this novel as one with the ‘young couple’. Agatha Christie occasionally stereotyped her characters. This is most apparent in novels with Miss Marple, whose method consists of ascertaining ‘types’ of people. Although it was generally done with foreigners to make it easier for her readers to understand them, in my opinion it stretched to the protagonists in certain novels.