Originally Published 1939
Alternative Title: Easy to Kill (US)
Luke Fitzwilliam does not believe Miss Pinkerton’s wild allegation that a multiple murderer is at work in the quiet English village of Wychwood and that her local doctor is next in line.
But within hours, Miss Pinkerton has been killed in a hit-and-run car accident. Mere coincidence? Luke is inclined to think so—until he reads in the Times of the unexpected demise of Wychwood’s Dr. Humbleby.…
Murder is Easy begins with Luke Fitzwilliam, who had been a policeman overseas, making a train journey to London. He is seated next to Lavinia Pinkerton, an elderly woman who tells him that she is headed to Scotland Yard to report a murder she suspects will take place. She bases her suspicions on a look she observed on the killer’s face shortly before several other suspicious deaths. She tells Luke who she expects the victim will be but does not mention the killer’s identity.
He learns later that she was run over in a hit-and-run accident but he suspects that she may have been onto something when he learns that the man she thought would be the next victim had unexpectedly died. He decides that he will investigate her claims informally himself, coming up with a cover story with a friend who arranges for him to stay with a cousin at Ashe Manor, the grandest home in the area.
Let’s begin with the cover story aspect of the novel as it is, in my opinion, the book’s most charming feature. Basically Luke crams knowledge about old English customs, particularly those relating to death, to give him a reason to go to this otherwise unremarkable village and poke around. This leads to some light tension as he runs the risk of being exposed throughout much of the novel, adding complications to his investigation as he has to keep up the pretense that he is there primarily to research this book. This not only works quite well as a plot device, it also lends the village of Wychwood under Ashe and its inhabitants a little personality.
Similarly I quite enjoyed the way Luke (and the reader) is brought into this story, even if the somewhat dotty spinster talking about seemingly improbable murders idea would be used somewhat more memorably in The 4:50 From Paddington. This exchange not only builds interest in the setting and situation, it also helps to introduce us to Luke and give us a sense of his personality and some of the traits that will define him as a protagonist.
On the topic of protagonists, one question I find myself considering whenever I read one of the non-series Christie titles is why she didn’t opt to include one of her series regulars. After all, my assumption (with no data at all to back it up) would be that sales would likely have been higher had it been part of one of her established series.
Sometimes, as with Death Comes as the End, that reason is quite obvious but in other cases it can be more subtle. The thrillers obviously belong in a category by their own but sometimes Christie would play with structure or form in a way that would make it hard to include a detective character (for example, Ordeal by Innocence).
If we consider just the basic elements of the plot it seems that Murder is Easy could have quite easily been a Poirot or Miss Marple story. The setting feels appropriate, particularly for Miss Marple, and it is not difficult to imagine her being pulled into a mystery through a chance conversation on a train. For that reason it shouldn’t really surprise us that ITV decided to adapt it as part of the fourth series of Marple!, albeit with some pretty significant changes to the story and particularly the killer’s motivations.
I think that the changes made for that production actually point to the reason that this book couldn’t have featured Miss Marple. I suspect that with her greater understanding of human nature and the relationships within a community she would have found this crime as it appears in print too easy to solve. As for Poirot, it is hard to imagine him entering the investigation the way that Luke does, listening (albeit very reluctantly) to an elderly lady talking on a train about her suspicions about people he has never met.
Another reason that I think that this story really wouldn’t work as a Poirot tale is that the prominent romantic story thread shared by the protagonist and a young woman he meets in Wychwood under Ashe. This creates a little dramatic tension although I personally did not find them to make for a particularly engaging pairing. The inclusion of a romantic subplot is a fairly typical element in a Christie mystery but here I think it is used to serve a slightly different purpose, albeit with only partial success.
With the exception of Murder on the Links, romances in the Poirot stories seem to be treated distinctly as subplots. What strikes me most about Luke’s romance is that it affects the way he conducts his investigation, particularly as we enter the final phase of the story. I found this idea to be quite intriguing as it is easy to imagine how this could lead to the prospect of a partial or corruptible sleuth and the ways that could affect the investigation. While some of those ideas are not entirely realized, I did find those aspects of the story enjoyable and the way this prompts a secondary detective character to emerge in the later stages of the book.
Alternatively it could just be that Luke is not a particularly good policeman…
This brings me to what I consider the book’s biggest problem to be – as much as I enjoyed the process by which Luke gathers information, for much of the book the investigation seems to be fairly bland. There are few clues turned up and we have a fairly limited pool of suspects with some pretty weak motivations to kill, particularly on the scale we are talking about here.
This creates a problem that I think ends up undermining the effectiveness of the book’s ending. The reader sees all of the evidence pointing in one direction but knows that ending would be pretty unsatisfying, therefore they are likely to guess at the twist not based on any clues in the text but rather based on their intuition as seasoned Christie readers. This is hardly satisfying puzzle mystery writing, leading to an ending that simultaneously feels predictable and yet not really supported by the material that came before it.
This really is a shame because much of the setup for the story and the atmosphere it conjures up is quite delicious and shows enormous potential. For much of the first half of the novel I felt sure I would be writing a rave review. Unfortunately this didn’t quite live up to those expectations but while I was a little disappointed with the destination, I did enjoy much of the journey.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a Small Village (Where)
Kate at CrossExaminingCrime found this to be a middling Christie and was far less entertained than I was with the lengthy exchanges with the villagers. I do agree with her about the book’s biggest problem though.