The Sittaford Mystery is a work of detective fiction by British writer Agatha Christie, first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1931 under the title of The Murder at Hazelmoor and in UK by the Collins Crime Club on 7 September of the same year under Christie’s original title. It is the first Christie novel to be given a different title for the US market. The US edition retailed at $2.00 and the UK edition at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6).
Mrs Willett and her daughter host an evening of “table-turning” (a séance) on a snowy winter’s evening in Dartmoor. The spirit tells them that Captain Trevelyan is dead. The roads being impassible to vehicles, Major Burnaby announces his intention to go to the village on foot to check on his friend, where he appears to find the prediction has come true. Emily Trefusis, engaged to Trevelyan’s nephew, uncovers the mystery along with the police.
References to other works
The Sittaford Mystery contains several references to The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle.
- Both stories are set in Devon and have a gothic atmosphere imparted by the suggestion that supernatural phenomena might be involved.
- There’s an escaped convict from Dartmoor Prison in both stories: “Freemantle” Freddy in one, Selden in the other.
- There’s a naturalist in both stories: Mr Rycroft in one, Jack Stapleton in the other.
- In chapter eleven, Charles Enderby says: “That séance business was queer too. I’m thinking of writing that up for the paper. Get opinions from Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a few actresses and people about it.” Conan Doyle was actually an enthusiastic believer in parapsychology, especially in his later years.
Sittaford is a tiny village on the fringe of Dartmoor. Mrs Willett and her daughter Violet are the newly installed tenants of Sittaford House, a residence owned by Trevelyan, a retired Navy captain. They invite four people to tea on Friday afternoon: Captain Trevelyan’s long-standing friend, Major Burnaby, Mr Rycroft, Mr Ronnie Garfield, and Mr Duke. At the suggestion of Mr Garfield, the six of them decide to play a game of table-turning. During this séance, at 5.25 pm, a spirit announces that Captain Trevelyan has just been murdered. Concerned for the Captain’s safety in Exhampton, Major Burnaby says that he intends to walk the six miles there. There is a thick layer of snow on the ground and further heavy snowfall is forecast for later that evening. There is no telephone in Sittaford, and cars cannot manoeuvre in these conditions.
Two and a half hours later, just before 8 pm, in the middle of a blizzard, Major Burnaby is trudging up the path to the front door of Hazelmoor, the house in Exhampton where Captain Trevelyan now lives. When nobody answers the door, he fetches the local police and a doctor. They enter the house through the open study window at the back, and find Captain Trevelyan’s dead body on the floor. Dr Warren estimates the time of death at between 5 and 6 pm. A fracture of the base of the skull is the cause of death. The weapon was a green baize tube full of sand.
Captain Trevelyan’s will states that, apart from £100 for his servant Evans, his property is to be equally divided among four people: his sister Jennifer Gardner, his nephew James Pearson, his niece Sylvia Dering, and his nephew Brian Pearson (the three children of his other, deceased sister). Each of these four will inherit approximately £20,000. James Pearson is arrested for murder because he was in Exhampton at the time of the murder, trying unsuccessfully to get a loan from Captain Trevelyan.
While the official investigation is led by Inspector Narracott, James Pearson’s fiancée Emily Trefusis starts sleuthing herself. She is assisted by Charles Enderby, a Daily Wire journalist who, after the murder, presented a cheque for £5,000 to Major Burnaby for winning the newspaper’s football competition in Exhampton. Emily and Charles stay with Mr and Mrs Curtis in Sittaford, searching for clues. Mr Dacres, James Pearson’s solicitor, tells Emily that things look much worse than they already imagined. James has “borrowed” money from his firm to speculate in stocks without the knowledge of the firm.
There are several red herrings. Brian Pearson came under suspicion when Enderby discovered him making a late-night rendezvous with Violet Willett; he is Violet’s fiancé. He was not in Australia but had returned to England on the same boat with the Willetts. The Willetts’ motive for moving into the isolated Sittaford house had no connection with Captain Trevelyan. They wanted to live close to Dartmoor Prison, where Violet’s father was imprisoned. His escape from the prison three days after the murder was engineered by Brian Pearson. He and Brian would live with the Willetts as their manservants until the danger passed, but the prisoner was recaptured. Martin Dering created a false alibi because his wife Sylvia was watching him for divorce proceedings. Sylvia is Mr Rycroft’s niece; Jennifer Gardner is Mr Garfield’s godmother; and Mr Duke is an ex-Chief-Inspector of Scotland Yard.
Emily solves the mystery in Hazelmoor after finding Captain Trevelyan’s ski boots hidden in the chimney, and two pairs of skis in different sizes. Major Burnaby is the killer. He engineered the table movements during the séance to make the spirit convey the message that Captain Trevelyan had been murdered. Instead of walking the six miles in two and a half hours after the séance, he went to his own house to put on skis, and skied the distance in about 10 minutes. He killed Captain Trevelyan at about a quarter to six. Then he cleaned his skis and put them in the cupboard. He hid Trevelyan’s ski boots in the chimney to prevent the police seeing them, and thus possibly realising how quickly a person on skis could have travelled between Sittaford and Exhampton. Major Burnaby hoped that the second pair of skis, of a different size, would pass unnoticed.
Mr Rycroft, who is a member of the Psychical Research Society, reassembles five of the six original participants for a second séance at Sittaford House, the absent Mr Duke being replaced by Brian Pearson. The séance has scarcely begun, when Inspector Narracott steps in, in the company of Emily and Mr Duke, and charges Major Burnaby with the murder of Captain Trevelyan. Emily explains that Burnaby had lost a lot of money by buying rotten shares; his motive for the murder was to keep the cheque for £5,000. He had received the letter notifying him of the win on the morning of the day of the murder, contrary to what he told Enderby. Captain Trevelyan had won the competition but used Burnaby’s name to send in competition solutions. In the final chapter Emily turns down a marriage proposal by Enderby – who has fallen in love with her during the investigation – because she still loves her fiancé James.
- 1931, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1931, Hardcover, 308 pp
- 1931, Collins Crime Club (London), 7 September 1931, Hardcover, 256 pp
- 1948, Penguin Books, Paperback, (Penguin number 690), 255 pp
- 1950, Dell Books (New York), Paperback, (Dell number 391 [mapback]), 224 pp
- 1961, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 190 pp
In the US the novel was serialised in Good Housekeeping magazine in six instalments from March (Volume XCII, Number 3) to August 1931 (Volume XCIII, Number 2) under the title The Murder at Hazelmoor with illustrations by W. Smithson Broadhead.
Murder at Hazelmoor – First Edition Book Identification Guide
The books are listed in the order of publication. While the majority of Agatha Christie’s books were first published in the UK. There are many titles that were first published in the US. The title of the book may differs from the UK edition in some cases.
|Year||Title||Publisher||First edition/printing identification points|
|1931||Murder at Hazelmoor||Dodd, Mead & Co, NY, 1931||First edition. Date on the title & copyright page matches. No statement of later printings. Orange cloth lettered in black. Price $ 2.00.|
|1931||The Sittaford Mystery||William Collins & Sons, London, ||First English edition. "Copyright, 1931" stated on the copyright page. No statement of later printings. Red cloth, lettered in black. Price 7/6.|
Note about Book Club Editions (BCE) and reprints:
UK: You can see statements of later reprint dates or of book club on the copyright page.
US: The US reprint publishers usually use the same sheets as the first edition and are harder to identify by looking at the title page or the copyright page. One may identify a BCE by looking at the DJ, which doesn’t have a price on top of the front flap and a “Book Club Edition” imprint at the bottom. If the dust jacked is clipped at both the top/bottom of the front flap. You can safely assume it’s a BCE . If the book is missing the dust jacket. Later BCE editions can be identified by its plain boards, while first printings are issued in quarter cloth.
Please refer to the gallery for detailed images of true first edition bindings and dust jackets.
Murder at Hazelmoor – First Edition Dust Jacket Identification Guide
First edition bindings and various dust jacket printings identification.