Agatha Christie and the Dartmoor Mystery

As part of the International Agatha Christie Festival this year, I was honoured to give a talk on the connections between Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, in the stunning setting of the Dartmoor Prison Museum. This was an amazing experience – not least because of a fascinating tour of the grounds that followed the talk, with curator Graham Edmondson.

A number of people were kind enough to say they enjoyed my talk, and it is not part of any project so I thought I’d share my script on here. Hopefully it wasn’t just the Dartmoor mist and my theatrical hand gestures that made it seem entertaining!

Thank you very much for having me today, and it’s a true pleasure to be speaking in such special surroundings on this very special 131st birthday. First, please let me apologise: the trade-off to being in such an atmospheric place is that there cannot be any audio visuals – so I’m afraid you’re stuck with my face and voice.

Today, I will be talking about the influence of Arthur Conan Doyle, and in particular The Hound of the Baskervilles, on Agatha Christie. I’ll also be looking at how both writers tackled the endlessly mysterious possibilities of Dartmoor as a setting for a murder mystery, and hopefully persuading anyone who’s been put off reading The Sittaford Mystery because of a certain television adaptation to give it a go.

Arthur and Agatha and Sherlock and Hercule

Unless I’ve seriously misread the room, I don’t think I need to introduce Sherlock Holmes, or Hercule Poirot – the greatest detectives in fiction and, by their own admission, the world. It is not a secret that Holmes, the Victorian creation of Edinburgh physician Arthur Conan Doyle, inspired Agatha Christie’s creation. 

She wrote in her autobiography that, creating Poirot, she wanted to make him as unlike Sherlock Holmes as possible: 

‘There was Sherlock Holmes’, she wrote, ‘the one and only – I should never be able to emulate him’, before describing the process for making Poirot a petite and orderly Belgian detective. ‘He would have a rather grand name,’ she added, discussing the genesis of the name Hercule. ‘[O]ne of those names that Sherlock Holmes and his family had.’ 

This is a reference to Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft Holmes – and as we learn in The Big Four and The Labours of Hercules, Poirot may or may not have a brother of his own called Achille.

In the early 1920s, as Christie herself acknowledged, she thoroughly indebted to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. To quote her autobiography again: ‘I was still writing in the Sherlock Holmes tradition – eccentric detective, stooge assistant, with a Lestrade-type Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Japp’, she said. But the influence went beyond this initial set-up.

We can see this in the details of the stories themselves, especially the short stories. In ‘The Third Floor Flat’, for example, people recognise Poirot from his published adventures in The Sketch, just as characters recognised Holmes from Dr Watson’s accounts of him (i.e. Doyle’s short stories) in The Strand. ‘The Veiled Lady’ is very clearly a retelling of Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton’.

In Doyle’s story, Holmes and Watson are approached by a society beauty who says she is being blackmailed over love letters. Holmes sympathises and breaks into the blackmailer’s house. He finds the papers but is discovered. He later finds out that the blackmailer was murdered, and realizes that he was killed by a victim. Siding with the murderer, Holmes lets the case rest.

Christie’s story is almost identical up to the point of finding out that the blackmailer has been killed. Poirot learns that his client is playing him, trying to get him to retrieve some stolen jewels, stowed with the letters in the blackmailer’s house. It’s a fun story, and not to be taken too seriously.

It is not surprising that Doyle and Holmes were big influences on Christie and Poirot.  Even in the first case, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Holmes looms large – although again with comic reverence, as Hastings compares himself to the great detective and rather fancies that his petite Belgian friend will take the part of Dr Watson. ‘Real life’, he concludes, is not like the Sherlock Holmes stories – and by ‘real life’, he means Agatha Christie Land as opposed to the reality Doyle created.

The Mysteries of 1926

What many people don’t realise is that Doyle was still writing original Holmes stories, not only when Christie created Poirot in 1916 but for another ten years. In fact, Sir Arthur was a young man when he created Sherlock in the 1880s, and he himself didn’t die until 1930.

In 1926, the year the last Holmes book was published, his world crossed over with Agatha Christie’s in a really fascinating way. Now, to understand what’s going on in this next bit you need to understand that Doyle was an ardent spiritualist. Like many upper-middle-class people of the late nineteenth century, he was interested in spiritualism and the belief that the dead could communicate with the living. It became his chief interest after he lost a son during the First World War, and he became probably the world’s highest-profile spiritualist, publishing prolifically on the topic. However, it never crossed over into his detective fiction. The supremely rational Sherlock Holmes never crossed paths with forces that could not be explained by pure, scientific reason.

Nonetheless, Doyle clearly did believe that these forces had a place in detective work. 1926, the year I mentioned a minute ago, will be familiar to any Christie fan. It’s the year she became a household name with her masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and also the year she made headlines by disappearing for eleven days.

There were sensational reports, conspiracy theories, and a very far-reaching manhunt. At a loss, the police decided it might take a crime writer to catch a crime writer, and asked Sir Arthur himself if he had any insights into the case of the missing novelist.

The great writer asked Scotland Yard for an item belonging to Agatha Christie. They brought him a glove. He did not proceed, in Sherlockian style, to comment on a loose thread, or conjecture from an ink-stain on the left fingertip that the owner had been typing on a specific typewriter, in a specific part of the country. Instead, he showed it to a medium, and asked them to channel the owner’s spirit. The police did their best to keep the episode quiet.

As it turns out, though, the medium said Christie would be found near running water – and she was found at an hotel that specialised in hydrotherapy. So perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to judge.

‘The Footprints of a Gigantic Hound!’

Mediumship and inspired intuition are alien to the Sherlock Holmes world – but the supernatural isn’t. We need only turn to the most famous Holmes case, the 1902 novel The Hound of the Baskervilles, to see how Doyle used myths and folklore to create a compelling detective narrative.

Doyle set his novel in the most sinister place imaginable – a thinly-veiled version of his own prep school, relocated to the middle of Dartmoor. It has Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson investigating the Baskerville family curse, whereby heirs to the baronetcy have a habit of dying prematurely – the most recent having apparently been frightened to death by a giant demonic hound.

He worked carefully with a journalist to tour the moor and learn about myths, and there are several local traditions involving ghostly canines. Most famously, the story Lady Howard’s coach. Even today, sometimes, the ghost of Lady Howard is said to make the journey from Fitz House to Oakhampton Castle in a coach made entirely out of the bones of her four dead husbands, and preceded by a gigantic black dog.

There’s even a folk rhyme about it:

My ladye hath a sable coach,
And horses two and four;
My ladye hath a black blood-hound
That runneth on before.

My ladye’s coach hath nodding plumes,
The driver hath no head;
My ladye is an ashen white,
As one that long is dead.

‘Now pray step in,’ my ladye saith,
‘Now pray step in and ride.’
I thank thee, I had rather walk
Than gather by thy side.

The wheels go round without a sound
Or tramp or turn of wheels;
As cloud at night, in pale moonlight,
Along the carriage steals.

I’d rather walk a hundred miles
And run by night and day
Than have the carriage halt for me
And hear the ladye say:

‘Now pray step in, and make no din,
Step in with me and ride;
There’s room it’s true, by me for you,
And all the world beside.’

Doyle didn’t use this exact story, but he tapped into the specific elements of Dartmoor legend to create his famous atmosphere. And Dartmoor is probably the first location we think of for Sherlock Holmes besides a specific part of Baker Street. As Owen Dudley Edwards has pointed out, the moor also ‘receives far more detailed description than Baker Street ever gets’. This may in part be because it wasn’t designed as a Sherlock Holmes story but, in Doyle’s words, ‘a straight Victorian creeper’ – a gothic mystery – although it is hard to picture it now as anything but the world’s most famous detective novel.

Baskervilles is a cracking story because of its atmosphere – its superb gothic handling of the buildings, the places, and the people – all complementing the secrets of superstition. Holmes’s talk of ‘the Devil [desiring] a hand in the affairs of men’ would seem overblown if the case wasn’t framed with talk of a family curse, and apparently irrefutable evidence – remember the famous lines: ‘Footprints? A man’s or a woman’s?’ – ‘Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!’.

So iconic is the novel that of course it inspired Agatha Christie. Her 1923 Poirot short story ‘The Lemesurier Inheritance’ is one of the only ones never filmed with David Suchet, and it is definitely worth a read. You can find it in Poirot’s Early Cases or The Under Dog in the US.

It’s set over several years, but opens in wartime, when Poirot and Hastings, having recently solved The Mysterious Affair at Styles, hear about an ancient family curse that stops the firstborn son of a baronet ever inheriting the title. Over the next few years, the heirs to the Lemesurier estate die in a series of apparent accidents, until Poirot intervenes. The plot has several echoes The Hound of the Baskervilles, not least the shared name of the ancestor, Sir Hugo, whose licentiousness and paranoia first fuelled the curse.

Just to warn you there will be spoilers in the next two minutes, so you might want to stick your fingers in your ears and hum a folk song about Lady Howard’s bone-coach.

In both cases, the detective proves that a murderer is exploiting the family curse in order to inherit, but interestingly while with Doyle it is quite straightforward – an illegitimate Baskerville wants to work his way up the line of succession, Kind Hearts and Coronets style – with Christie it is more psychologically complex.

The murderer in this story actually believes in the curse and is convinced that he is the instrument to deliver it.  He even tries to kill his own infant son, to ensure that the line of succession will pass to his second-born.

There is of course one final twist. When Hastings congratulates Poirot on breaking the curse – the title has now passed to the disgraced baronet’s oldest child – Poirot twinkles and says, maybe not. He then asks Hastings, doesn’t the new baronet look remarkably like the gardener…?

So, here we can see Doyle influencing Christie in a very expected way – she takes the premise he employed in his most famous novel, and turns it into a more sophisticated mystery plot. Doyle turned it into an atmospheric thriller, and Christie exploited other possibilities suggested by the story and the genre. Setting doesn’t have much to do with ‘The Lemesurier Inheritance’.

The Myths and Magic of Agatha Christie

But Dartmoor is very special to Agatha Christie too. She completed her first novel here. Struck by writers’ block – which as we know was very rare for her – Christie found herself unable to complete the manuscript for The Mysterious Affair at Styles around the half-way point.

Her mother suggested a holiday, so she booked herself into the Moorland Hotel. Not the Duchy Hotel, much closer to hand, where Sir Arthur wrote Baskervilles in longhand. She would write for hours on end in the hotel, then go for walks along the moor, planning out how to tell the next part of the story.

Then she would enjoy a nice dinner and sleep for twelve hours! Not the usual image of an eccentric genius writing through the night fuelled only by coffee and a sense of injustice – but clearly very effective.

The myths and magic of Dartmoor don’t seem to have influenced the plot or setting of Styles, but this is common with Agatha Christie. Lord Edgware Dies, which is centred on the fashionable corners of London, was written in Syria, while ‘location’ novels set in the Middle East were often written from London.

However, we see myths and legends and a bit of magic abound, especially in Christie’s early works. Like Doyle, Christie was fascinated by spiritualism, and we know that she did believe in some form of magic – but she was not, as Doyle was, a spiritualist. Much of her interest came from her mother’s participation in new age religions, something common to regional English life towards the end of the nineteenth century.

You don’t need to look far to find the influence of the supernatural throughout Christie’s career, but it’s especially pronounced in her very early short stories, especially those collected in The Hound of Death in 1933 and The Last Séance in 2019. Many of these were written, at least in draft form, before she even started writing crime, and the influence of Doyle as well as other Victorian and Edwardian writers is clear.

In stories like ‘The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael’, ‘In a Glass Darkly’, or ‘The Mystery of the Fourth Man’, Christie combines both kinds of story Sir Arthur wrote: the supernatural ‘case study’ and the logical detective story. The effect is different each time.

In ‘In a Glass Darkly’, for example – one of the most criminally underrated Christie tales – the narrator has a vision in a mirror of horrible violence occurring to a beautiful woman. When he meets the woman in the flesh, he decides to save her from this terrible fate – but in the course of his actions, ends up inflicting the violence he saw. A fairly conventional psychological story with a supernatural tinge – except that we have in this several clues to show us what’s going to happen.

The man sees in his vision that the assailant has a scar on the left side of his face. Years later, in war, he is injured on the right-hand side of his own face and even muses on the irony of the disfigurement, the mocking reminder of what he saw. Only at the end does he realise that because he saw the vision in a reflection, the image was reversed – what looked like left was right. The same clue was later used in the Poirot novel, After the Funeral.

What’s going on here is a mingling of two genres, something Doyle never ever did. We are invited to use logic, just as Poirot or Miss Marple would do, to deduce what must be true. But at the same time, for that logic to work, we need to accept a premise which denies the norms of science; that a man can see the future.

Of course, this is a short story, not a novel, and in her book-length fiction Christie knew not to break that rule of the Detection Club, which members are to this day sworn to uphold: No ‘reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God’.

This means that when we read in her 1931 novel The Sittaford Mystery that a murder is announced via a séance, we know that some more earthly hand was turning that particular table.

The Sittaford Mystery: A Secret Tribute?

My personal view is that The Sittaford Mystery was written as a tribute to Doyle, who died a year before it was published. He is even mentioned in the book – one character who wants to get to the bottom of an apparently supernatural event considers writing to the great man. This shows that it was at least planned and partly written before the Sir Arthur’s death – but I think the idea of a tribute to the man who had just turned seventy is not impossible. Moreover, his death was not unexpected – so much so that when a group of crime writers, including Christie, founded the Detection Club in the run-up to 1930, they decided not to involve Sir Arthur, in part because he was not long for this world.

The first thing to note about this book, the ‘hook’, is very clearly in Sir Arthur’s non-detectivish territory. Several neighbours sit down to an evening of ‘table-turning’ – a séance – for fun. But the party turns sour when a message comes through, apparently from the spirits, that a friend in nearby Exehampton has been murdered. As we know, Arthur Conan Doyle went to his grave believing he would one day communicate from beyond it, and Christie herself was fascinated by seances, as we see in some of her early work.

This being a very good, fair-play detective story, there is a perfectly logical, earthly explanation as to how and why that message came through and, what makes this an excellent detective story, why there is no other way it could have happened. A nice tribute to the other writer, who never really let that side of his life cross over with the detective side himself.

But there is more. In many ways, while being a completely different novel, The Sittaford Mystery echoes The Hound of the Baskervilles. Both books are set, of course, here on Dartmoor – Sittaford is a fictional village named after Sittaford Tor, where a mystical stone circle was discovered about fifteen years ago.

And while the plots couldn’t be less alike, both stories have several small things in common: a lonely nature enthusiast who’s invested in local folklore (a murderer for Doyle, a gossipy ally for Christie), a mysteriously missing pair of boots, and a subplot involving a convict who has escaped from this very prison and is hiding out somewhere on the moor.

I am afraid I couldn’t do this fascinating location justice and Graham [Edmondson, curator of the Dartmoor Prison Musesum] has explained better and more knowledgably than I ever could its history and reputation – which has fired the imaginations of writers from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first. In fact, it also appears in another Doyle novel, The Sign of Four, and in a Miss Marple story, ‘The Thumb-Mark of St Peter’.

I’m going to talk instead about where the prisoners escape to – the barren but populated marshlands of the moor. ‘A false step yonder means death to man or beast,’ says one character in Doyle’s book. It can be, says Dr Watson, ‘as if some malignant hand [is] tugging us down into those obscene depths.’

People Make Places

While The Hound of the Baskervilles shows the moor to be a dangerous place – where the Grimpen Myre holds certain death for anyone trying to cross it, and spectral beasts become a part of the landscape – The Sittaford Mystery is more interested in people and the use they can make of this out-of-the-way piece of land. Caves and rocks serve not as entrances to external dangers, but as hiding places, where an escaped prisoner can shield himself, where dangerous secrets from the outside world can be buried.

In fact, there are more descriptions in Christie’s book of the local cuisine than of the moorland itself! When we hear about rocks and tors it is in terms of ‘hiding places’: at one point we get a story about ‘the Pixie’s Cave’, ‘and how ‘one of King Charles’ men hid there […] with a serving maid’.

This shouldn’t be taken as a lack of interest in the geography: it’s a different angle, a human one. As in Baskervilles, the Dartmoor of this book is steeped in history, and it’s more connected to history than anywhere else in the country. It’s a place where characters say ‘Hark!’ as a bell tolls, announcing a prison escape, where the time is given as ‘five-and-twenty past five’ (it’s given as ‘twenty-five past five’ by characters who live in Exehampton), where there’s not only no phone line but, quote, ‘not such a thing as a telephone’. It’s these little things we often miss in the adaptations and audiobooks that Christie nailed so well about people and communities.

We have an extra insight when we remember that Agatha’s brother, Monty, was sent to live out his days in a Dartmoor cottage after a string of bad luck and bad choices: an uncanny home, away from the rest of the world.

In The Sittaford Mystery, Christie looks at the community aspect – what kind of people would want to live in a small village on the edge of Dartmoor? A place without telephones, a place where snow stops letters being delivered, where a journey to the nearest town is easiest done in two and a half hours on foot?

And despite everyone having their own sometimes sinister reasons for sequestering themselves, there is in this novel a sense of community that runs counter to the small pockets of isolated households in The Hound of the Baskervilles. People don’t just meet for weird gothic dinner parties or the revelation of the murderer – they meet to play parlour games on snowy nights, to do crosswords together, to get in groceries for one another.

There are no legends of glowing hounds in The Sittaford Mystery, but there’s plenty of atmosphere – and a different, more human angle to this unique location.

I’m aware I’ve talked quite a lot now, and will move this towards a conclusion. Perhaps we all knew that Agatha Christie owed a lot to Arthur Conan Doyle – thinking especially of the model for a detective, a sidekick, and a Scotland Yard inspector. We also all knew that her particular genius was for plotting. But did we ever think about setting before? The two writers were linked by a sense of atmosphere – Doyle knew how to evoke feelings with place, and Christie excelled in linking place and character.

No place will ever be as fertile for writers as the evocative part of the world we find ourselves in today. And Doyle and Christie can be read in dialogue, showing us just how endless are the mysteries of the moor – almost as dark and mysterious as the human soul itself.

Thank you for your time.

Thank you to @TinaWalksLondon for the image of me, addressing the victims audience at the prison museum.

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