As a died in the wool Agatha Christie fan, I was keen to start this novel, being one of the last two Christie novels I haven’t read. In a style reminiscent of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps (1915) Murder is Easy (1939) opens with Luke Fitzwilliam, a retired policeman, newly returned to England sharing a train carriage, with an elderly woman called Miss Fullerton. All seems perfectly ordinary, except that Miss Fullerton is going to Scotland Yard to report her suspicions about a string of seemingly accidental deaths in her village, Wychwood under Asche.
A common stereotype of Golden Age crime fiction is that the murderer is the person you least expect and in Murder is Easy (1939) Agatha Christie certainly plays around with this concept, providing several least likely suspects and voicing this concept through several of her characters such as Miss Fullerton:
‘It’s very easy to kill, so long as no one suspects you. And, you see, the person in question is just the last person anyone would suspect.’
Miss Fullerton’s words are corroborated in the most irrevocable way as by the second chapter she’s dead, having seemingly died in a road traffic accident. Even worse, it seems she never reached Scotland Yard. Has the mysterious killer struck again? Luke is not sure until after reading in the newspaper not only of Miss Fullerton’s death, but also of one of the doctors in her village, who she was worried was the next on the killer’s list. After this Luke is convinced something is afoot and under the guise of writing a book on folklore and superstition heads to the village to investigate. Throughout the investigation Luke will have to contend with a shoal of red herrings and his own finer feelings before solving the mystery. Superintendent Battle (who also features in The Secret of Chimneys (1925), The Seven Dials Mystery (1929) and Towards Zero (1944)) also puts in a last minute appearance (in a similar vein to Miss Marple’s role in The Moving Finger (1942)).
Robert Barnard in his book A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie (1980) likens this novel’s setting to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford with its choice of characters such as ‘doctors, lawyers, retired colonels’ (p. 199) as well as its ‘generous allowance of sharp old spinsters,’ (p.199) although of course Christie puts her own twist on that. In addition comments such as ‘most of these rambling old dears are as sharp as nails’ are scattered into the narrative, reminding me of similar remarks made more forcibly in the Miss Marple novels about the detecting abilities of elderly women.
A theme I picked up on whilst reading this book was the idea of eugenics or more broadly whether it would be better for the world if some people died. This was a debate pertinent to the time Christie was writing such as the activities of the Nazis against people they deemed undesirable at this time, as well as the fact that in 1939 the Eugenic Manifesto (titled Social Biology and Population Improvement) was published. A key example which shows both sides of the argument occurs in chapter 8 of the novel between Luke and Doctor Thomas, where Luke uses the topic to identify if Doctor Thomas is the killer. Moreover, Christie wrote a stage play, which was never published called Eugenia and Eugenics, which tantalizing suggests she had some interest in the topic. In digging a little deeper into this topic I came across an interesting post on M. B. Culver’s (2013) blog which looks partially at mystery novels from the 1920s and 30s and how they may have been responding to eugenic theory through creating unlikeable characters, which arguably may have deserved to die. I’m not entirely sure how much this may have been the case, as I think there were many reasons why writers chose to make their victims unlikeable, but it is a thought provoking idea.
To read the post in full see: https://aharmlessvice.wordpress.com/tag/eugenics/
The review in The Times Literary Supplement (10th June 1939) for Murder is Easy (1939) comments on the character of Luke Fitzwilliam writing that ‘it must be confessed that… Luke Fitzwilliam, a retired policeman from the Mayang States is singularly lacking in “little grey matter.”’ To a certain extent I do tend to agree with this as I don’t think Luke was an entirely successful detective character, not least because he has to literally walk into the murderer to discover them. Although, The Times Literary Supplement does excuse Luke’s lack of success suggesting that ‘he nor the reader is provided with any clear clues pointing to the fantastically successful murderer’. I think this is part of the problem of why I didn’t like this novel as much as some of Christie’s other novels. The plot moves very slowly at times in Murder is Easy (1939) because there is a lack of any fresh definite clues or trails so Luke has to resort to theorising, after indefinite conversations with villagers, which I did find a bit boring at times. However, that could just be me as Kay Irvin in The New York Times Book Review (24th September 1939) found ‘the story’s interest…unflagging’. Conversely, like the anonymous Toronto Daily Star reviewer (2nd December 1939) I found the love interest underdeveloped and I feel Christie has dealt better with character romance in some of her other novels.
Rating: 3/5 (This is a fairly middle of the road Christie tale, which has many of the usual ingredients such false suspicion and unexpected twists, but I just don’t think the results were as successful in this novel.)
Here are my picks for other good reviews on Murder is Easy (1939):