Snow falls thickly on Dartmoor following the murder of Captain Joseph Trevelyan, and suspects lie thick on the ground as well. More than a dozen characters have links to the dead man, through either family or employment or real estate. Years earlier, the captain had essentially created the tiny village of Sittaford; he’d done so by developing a set of cottages around a grand manor of his own called Sittaford House. At the start of this tale, however, he has rented that house for the winter to one Mrs. Willett and her daughter, Violet, while removing himself to the village of Exhampton, six miles away. His reasons for doing so are mysterious, and the sense of mystery grows deeper when the Willetts host a séance at showbound Sittaford House.Amid an atmosphere at once gloomy and cozy, a message comes, apparently from the spirit world: Trevelyan is dead. A long trek through rough weather reveals that, indeed, someone has killed the old man with a blunt instrument at Hazelmoor, his temporary home.
Christie, in a rare lapse, then lets the tone shift and the narrative lose focus. Carefully controlled suspense gives way to light romantic comedy, as a spirited lass named Emily Trefusis sets out to clear her fiancé of a murder charge. Alternative suspects multiply, and a diffuse and unruly investigation ensues. Sleuths, too, are more abundant than they should be. Competing with Emily is Inspector Narracott, the detective of record, along with another official who turns up late in the game. Together, these investigators unravel what turns out to be a clever murder puzzle. Yet the final resolution comes with muffled impact, and the identity of Emily’s romantic choice comes to seem more pressing than the identity of the killer.
[ADDENDUM: Looking back at this review, I wonder if I was too critical of Hazelmoor—too quick to dismiss Christie‘s overall success in combining a moody, country-house detective puzzle with the kind of devil-may-care romp about Bright Young People that was a staple of her work in the 1920s. Robert Barnard, in A Talent to Deceive, deems the book “[h]ighly entertaining, with adroit clueing.” Nancy Blue Wynne, in An Agatha Christie Chronology, praises the novel’s use of Dartmoor as a backdrop. “In fact,” Wynne writes, “this is the Christie book that stands out most clearly in my mind for its setting rather than for any other reason.” All that said, I think that the lack of a clear organizing principle (which is to say, the lack of a star detective) causes this one-shot effort to fall into the second tier of Christie’s work.]