Six people conduct a séance at the remote Sittaford House. All is fun and games until “TREVELYAN DEAD MURDER” is spelled out. In the absence of a telephone, and despite a snowstorm, Major Burnaby is determined to check that no ill has befallen Captain Trevelyan, but when he arrives at his friend’s house in Exhampton he receives no answer. The police find the house broken into and Trevelyan bludgeoned to death, quite possibly at the exact time of the supernatural message.
This is a stand-alone mystery with the sleuthing being done by a local inspector (for the first time in a Christie, I believe, we see detective work from a police perspective), a journalist (following in the tradition of Gaston Leroux’s “The Mystery of the Yellow Room”, E. C. Bentley’s “Trent’s Last Case”, and J. S. Fletcher’s “The Middle Temple Murder”), and the fiancée of the prime suspect.
This split of activity keeps things moving along as relatives and villagers are interviewed and as answers are sought to the questions, among others, of why the Willetts paid an exorbitant rent for a lonely property, who is the mysterious Mr Duke, and what is missing from Trevelyan’s house?
I only read this for the first time last year in an English version published in Russia where the number of footnotes served to illustrate how idiomatic language is. Somehow I already knew who the killer was, but I was still surprised by one element, and so having never having had the wool pulled over my eyes I find it hard to properly rate this book but I do like it more than some of the titles I read earlier in the year.
Signs of the Times
The story is set in 1928.
A reference to Xmas cards. I had thought that this was a fairly modern word, but it dates back to at least the 18th century. It turns out that Xρ and Xt have been used as abbreviations for Christ since the eleventh century.
Major Burnaby wears a British Warm. This is a military greatcoat from World War I with the Scottish firm Crombie’s claiming to have coined the term for their version.
Major Burnaby once won the Army Racquets Championship. Racquets is the forerunner of squash; the main difference is that it is played with a hard ball as opposed to a rubber ball.
Mr Rycroft is a member of the Psychical Research Society. The Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882 and continues to publish a quarterly journal and the magazine, Paranormal Review.
Major Burnaby has fond memories of playing “Up Jenkins” – as do I. In this game, two teams sit opposite each other across a table. One team passes a coin between themselves until the other team calls “Up Jenkins” whereupon they raise their closed fists above the table. “Down Jenkins” is then called and they have to slam their hands palm down on the table, whilst trying to disguise the sound of the coin. The other team then try to guess which hand the coin is in by a process of elimination.
Robert Gardner tells Nurse Davis to have her tea at Boots on him. Boots is a pharmacy chain founded in 1883 and I was unaware that it had ever had cafés, but a little research shows that it also had a lending library service from 1898 until 1966 (local councils became required to provide libraries from 1964). I’ve just realised that a secondhand book that I recently bought has their sticker on the front.
Charles Enderby considers asking for opinions on the séance from Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The former was a physicist involved in the development of the radio; the latter best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Both lost sons in World War I which increased their interest in spiritualism.
Mrs Belling bought “The Syringa Murders” at Woolworth’s. The former is a fictional book; the latter started as a five and dime store in the USA in 1878, with the first British branch opening in Livcrpool in 1909. The UK stores all closed December 2008 – January 2009.
Mrs Curtis says that one of King Charles’ men hid from Cromwell’s men in Pixie’s Cave. A similar story is referenced in the 1887 “A Handbook for Travellers in Devon”.
Martin Dering’s alibi could be on the Mauretania or the Berengaria somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. RMS Mauretania was built in 1906 for the Cunard Line, held both Eastward and Westward Atlantic crossing speed records, before being decommissioned in 1934 and scrapped in 1935. SS Imperator was built for the German Hamburg American Line in 1912, was briefly used by the US Navy following World War I, before being transferred to the Cunard Line as part of war reparations and renamed RMS Berengaria. The ship was decommissioned in 1938 and scrapped in 1946.
For his nocturnal adventure, Charles Enderby completes his toilet after the model of Tweedledee. This refers to Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There” where Tweedledum and Tweedledee bring Alice “bolsters, blankets, hearth-rugs, table-cloths, dish-covers and coal scuttles” so that they can prepare for battle. Alice remarks that “they’ll be more like bundles of old clothes than anything else, by the time they’re ready”. The implication is that he must have been wrapped up warmly in a number of layers of clothing, which for December is not surprising.
Reference is made to the Phidias. This ship was built in 1913 and was sunk in 1941 by a German U-boat.
Vintage Reading Challenge
The murder occurs during a snowstorm so fulfils “When – during a weather event”.
The key to this one is, as with a lot of Christie’s, if you ignore all the window dressing what has actually happened. Here Major Burnaby, although he has no plans to visit Captain Trevelyan due to the snow, ends up doing so, therefore there must be something suspect about him.
The motive is cleverly obscured because the competition prize could be seen as a plot device to introduce the journalist as one of the three sleuths and to have no significance beyond that.
It is the motive that sheds light upon the relationship between the Major and the Captain and hints at a darker reality. The Captain, rich and successful but with a miserly streak, lives in the big house that he has built for himself, whilst the poor Major, financially gullible, lives at his gates in a small cottage. The Captain rubs salt in the wound by using the Major’s address for his competition entries, due to his belief that a more common address is more likely to be selected as the winner, but ultimately this gives rise to his death.
The Major receives the letter notifying him of the win and he thinks on it during the day; he wants the money but how can he secure it? We don’t know if he has any other plan in mind – the table-turning is not his idea – but here we see that despite his reactionary character he is a man of action. During the séance he was “thinking of the snow. It was going to snow again this evening” and suddenly it comes to him – an unlikely, yet still plausible reason for visiting the Captain, whilst maintaining an alibi for the time of the crime. If for any reason he is seen on the journey down, he can call the whole thing off; the only risk is being seen leaving the house and making his way back to the main road. So he acts immediately, and to gain a significant sum of money kills his best friend, but a friend in whose shadow he has lived for most of his life, a friend he has come to envy, and probably to hate.
Two words are key to keeping this a fair play mystery – “as though”. After knocking at Trevelyan’s door and receiving no answer we are told that “The Major desisted. He stood for a moment as though perplexed – then he slowly went down the path”. If we had been told he stood there perplexed, that would be unfair – he isn’t perplexed, he knows why no one is answering – but we ignore the “as though” and believe that he is perplexed. I will be looking out for more of this type of phrasing in my ongoing reading.
As for the bit that surprised me, even though Emily Trefusis makes it clear that she will do anything to prove Jim Pearson’s innocence, like Charles Enderby, I was sure she had fallen for him.