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.]
March 14, 2013 at 10:08 AM
This is one of the books that confuses me a little – there is, I think, a massive cheat in the opening section – I mentioned it (spoiler-free of course) in my review >here which spoilt it a bit for me. But it’s a fun read until you realise that you’ve been somewhat unfairly tricked…
March 14, 2013 at 3:42 PM
My apologies, Puzzle Doctor, for not linking to your review somewhere in my post. That review—which is sharp and helpful—didn’t readily appear in my quick Google search, but I should have searched harder for it. I don’t recall the particulars of the plot maneuver that you cite as cheating, but I don’t doubt that you’re right about it. Christie was a goddess of classic detection, but she was often willing to skate along or even across the fair-play line.
March 14, 2013 at 11:17 PM
It’s to do with something that is presented as fact by giving it as a thought by the guilty party which later turns out to be not the case – I think. It’s been a while and the book’s in storage. And no need to link to my ramblings…
March 14, 2013 at 11:36 AM
I’m not sure you should be linking to ANY Wikipedia post of an Agatha Christie book. The plot blurbs are extremely detailed and tell the *entire* story including the solution! I was amazed by this when I checked on some info for Mrs. McGinty’s Dead a few years ago. Then I checked on about 10 other Christie books I knew very well. Every single title I checked has the ending revealed. ‘Tis the work of the Devil, if you ask me!
Speaking of spoilers the early 1970s Dell paperbacks editions of this book had illustrations that ruined part fo the solution. I still remember them. But that’s the only thing I remember about this book. Not a winner for me even if it does have one of my favorite old detective story tropes — a spooky seance.
March 14, 2013 at 3:49 PM
I stand duly warned about those Wikipedia entries, John. The truth is, I use Wikipedia posts in a generic way—to provide a stable link to a general reference point—and often don’t actually read them. Not surprisingly, I suppose, Wikipedia has a whole different ethos from that of detection bloggers when it comes to offering plot content.
In any case, because of that spooky seance and because no series detective appears in it, this novel strikes me as being much more a period piece than a *Christie* piece.
March 15, 2013 at 6:27 AM
Took me a little bit to realise that this is another title for THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY, which I only have vague recollections of frankly (never a good sign when it comes to Christie usuallym at least for me) – enjoyed the review though – cheers Michael.
March 15, 2013 at 7:24 AM
Thanks for checking in here, Sergio. This is one instance where I think Christie’s U.S. publisher got the beat on her U.K. publisher. To my American ear, at least, “Sittaford” sounds generic and even humdrum, whereas “Hazelmoor” evokes thoughts of a strange, fog-draped landscape where any sort of mystification might happen.
March 16, 2013 at 2:02 PM
I’ve added this to the March edition of the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Blog Carnival http://acrccarnival.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/acrc-carnival-2013-3-march.html
March 16, 2013 at 5:44 PM
Thanks for the link, Kerrie. A carnival of Christie enthusiasts is a carnival that I’m very happy to join.