Murder Is Easy
Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
|Cover artist||Not known|
|Publisher||Collins Crime Club|
|5 June 1939|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||256 pp (first edition, hardback)|
|Preceded by||Hercule Poirot's Christmas|
|Followed by||And Then There Were None|
Murder is Easy is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on 5 June 1939 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in September of the same year under the title of Easy to Kill. Christie's recurring character, Superintendent Battle, has a cameo appearance at the end, but plays no part in either the solution of the mystery or the apprehension of the criminal. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) and the US edition at $2.00.
Luke Fitzwilliam happens to share a London-bound train carriage with Lavinia Pinkerton, an elderly lady who informs Luke that she is travelling to Scotland Yard to report a serial killer, responsible for the deaths of three people i.e. Amy Gibbs, Tommy Pierce and Harry Carter, and that another man, Dr John Humbleby, will be the next victim. Luke, unsure of how to respond, feels that this is unimportant and pays lip service only.
However, he is soon surprised to find the obituaries of not only Miss Pinkerton, who has been killed in a hit-and-run car accident, but also a Dr Humbleby, who has died of septicaemia. Luke, a retired policeman, travels to this seemingly quiet village, Wychwood under Ashe, and poses as a researcher for witchcraft and superstition to try and uncover the true murderer. Staying in a large estate with the wealthy Gordon Whitfield and pretending to be a cousin of Bridget Conway, Whitfield's fiancée, he makes inquiries into the deaths. He and Conway receive the assistance of Honoria Waynflete, an elderly but observant spinster whom they believe may know the identity of the person behind the deaths. By asking several villagers – including Mr Abbot, a solicitor who fired Tommy Pierce from his service due to an incident with a letter; the Rev. Mr Wake, local preacher; Mr Ellsworthy, an antique shop owner who appears to be mentally insane, and Dr Thomas, Humbleby's medical partner (who had had several rows with Humbleby and would have benefited from his death) – it becomes apparent that the deaths had been understood to be accidents. Amy Gibbs died after confusing her cough remedy with hat paint in the dark, Tommy Pierce died from falling off the library roof after cleaning the windows, Harry Carter fell from a bridge while drunk and drowned in the mud, and Humbleby died from a cut that became infected. Luke learns that Mrs Lydia Horton was another victim of these "accidents" -– she was recovering from acute gastritis and was progressively getting better before she had a sudden unexpected relapse and died.
Luke believes Ellsworthy to be the killer - he had shown signs of mental instability, and Luke's suspicions are further aroused after he sees Ellsworthy arriving home with blood on his hands, though this later is proved to be blood from a hen he sacrificed with his friends as part of a pagan ritual. Later on in that day, Luke and Miss Waynflete witness Whitfield arguing with his chauffeur, Rivers, who had taken Whitfield's Rolls-Royce for a joyride. Shortly after this event, Rivers is found dead, with his skull caved in by a stone pineapple which Whitfield had outside his house for decoration. Luke and Bridget have realised that they are in love with each other, and Bridget tells Gordon of her decision to break off the engagement. Gordon, ordering Luke to his study, makes a very suspicious statement. He claims, with some satisfaction, that God, executing divine justice upon wrongdoers, kills people that do him harm. Whitfield notes as examples that Mrs Horton had argued with him, Tommy Pierce did mocking impressions of him, Harry Carter shouted at him while drunk, Amy Gibbs was impertinent to him, Humbleby disagreed with him on the village water supply, and Rivers used his car without permission and then spoke disrespectfully to him; and all of them died soon afterwards. Whitfield predicts that Luke and Bridget, having wronged him, will soon meet their fates too. This sudden turn of events makes Luke change his mind about who is responsible for the deaths. It seems obvious under the circumstances that Whitfield must be the murderer. He consults Miss Waynflete, who confirms his suspicions, and tells him of how she knew he was insane: when they were both young, Waynflete and Whitfield had been engaged to be married. But one evening, Whitfield killed one of her canaries that she kept as a pet, with the appearance that he enjoyed doing it. She knew from that moment on that Gordon went too far on subjects – so far that he would kill those who wronged him even slightly or trivially.
Luke and Bridget decide that Bridget should leave Whitfield's estate to stay at Miss Waynflete's house, to be protected from Gordon. Luke goes off to collect their luggage and prepare to leave, while Bridget and Honoria go for a walk in the woods. It is at this point that a sudden twist in the plot occurs – Honoria, of whom Bridget has had a nagging suspicion, reveals herself to be the murderer. During her engagement to Whitfield, Honoria had killed her own pet canary after it bit her, which prompted Gordon to abandon the engagement. She vowed revenge on Gordon, and eventually decided to have him hanged for crimes he did not commit. She came up with the plan to kill anyone with whom Gordon had any trouble, eventually leading his ego to become inflated with the idea (which she suggested to him) that God exacted immediate retribution from those who disrespected him. Honoria regularly visited Lydia Horton, to whom Whitfield had sent some grapes, and was able to poison her tea. Honoria next killed Amy by swapping the bottles around in the night and locking the door from the outside using pincers -– the fact that she died from hat paint would have suggested an old-fashioned touch, linking it in Luke's mind with an older man, like Gordon. She killed Carter by pushing him off the bridge on the day he had a row with Gordon, and she likewise pushed Tommy Pierce out of the window while he was working. Whitfield had been the one to assign this job to Tommy, so that made him look suspicious.
Lavinia Pinkerton had observed Honoria staring at Humbleby as he and Whitfield argued, and she realised that Honoria must be the killer, and that Humbleby would be her next victim. Suspecting that Lavinia had figured out the truth, Honoria followed Lavinia into London. Just after Lavinia and Luke had parted ways, Honoria pushed the other woman in front of a car that happened not to stop. Honoria framed Whitfield by giving a nearby witness the registration number of Whitfield's Rolls-Royce. After inviting Humbleby round to her house, she was able to cut his hand with scissors, supposedly by accident. She then convinced him to let her apply a dressing to the wound. She had previously infected the dressing with pus seeping from her cat's ear, and Humbleby died a few days later from blood infection. After witnessing Rivers being sacked, Honoria hit him with a sandbag and caved his skull in with the stone pineapple -– it would have appeared suspicious as it was a decoration that only Gordon chose. Finally, she drugged Bridget's tea (which, fortunately for Bridget, she had not actually drunk) and took her into the woods, where the two of them began talking. Honoria then revealed a knife covered in Whitfield's fingerprints, and informed Bridget that she would kill her and leave the knife at the scene. Whitfield's fingerprints on the knife that killed the woman who had just jilted him would be damning evidence against him. Furthermore, Honoria had arranged for Whitfield to be seen walking alone through the very area where Bridget's body would be found. According to Honoria's plan, Whitfield would be condemned as a murderer and would surely be hanged. Bridget, who was about to have her throat slit, fought with the older woman, who had the wiry, mad strength of the truly insane. Having himself realised that Honoria was the killer, Luke arrived on the scene and saved Bridget. With the case over, Bridget and Luke decided to leave the village once and for all, to live their lives together as a married couple.
Literary significance and reception
The Times Literary Supplement of 10 June 1939 published a review of the book by Maurice Percy Ashley, together with And Death Came Too by Richard Hull which began "A week in which new novels by Mr Hull and Mrs Christie appear should be a red letter week for connoisseurs of detective fiction. One must, however, reluctantly confess that neither of them is fully up to standard."
After considering in isolation And Death Came Too, Mr. Ashley turned his attention to Murder is Easy and started, "Mrs Christie has abandoned M. Hercule Poirot in her new novel, but it must be confessed that his understudy, Luke Fitzwilliam, a retired policeman from the Mayang States is singularly lacking in 'little grey matter.' Poirot may have recently become, with advancing years, a trifle staid, but absence makes the heart grow fonder of him." After outlining the basics of the plot and the romantic interests of the main character, Mr. Ashley concluded, "He (Luke) is less effective a detective than as a lover, which is not surprising since neither he nor the reader is provided with any clear clues pointing to the fantastically successful murderer. The love interest scarcely compensates for the paucity of detection and the characters verge on caricature; nor is Fitzwilliam able to recapture vividly enough the circumstances of the earlier murders."
In The New York Times Book Review for 24 September 1939, Kay Irvin said the book was "...one of Agatha Christie's best mystery novels, a story fascinating in its plot, clever and lively in its characters and brilliant in its technique." She concluded, "The story's interest is unflagging, and the end brings excitement as well as surprise."
William Blunt in The Observer of 4 June 1939 raised a question regarding Christie's abilities to write non-crime fiction, which demonstrates that her nom-de-plume identity of Mary Westmacott was not yet public knowledge: "I should hate to have to state on oath which I thought was Agatha Christie's best story, but I do think I can say that this is well up in the first six. The humour and humanity of its detail raise a question which only one person can give an answer. Agatha Christie has grown accustomed to working her embroidery on a background of black. Could she, or could she not, leave death and detection out, and embroider as well on green? I believe she is one of the few detective novelists who could. If she would let herself try, just for fun. I believe it would be very good fun for other people, too."
E.R. Punshon in The Guardian's issue of 11 July 1939 said that, "Readers may miss the almost supernatural cunning of Poirot, but then if Luke also depended on the famous 'little grey cells' he would be merely another Poirot instead of having his own blundering, straightforward, yet finally effective methods." Mr. Punshon summed up by saying that the story, "must be counted as yet another proof of Mrs. Christie's inexhaustible ingenuity."
Robert Barnard: "Archetypal Mayhem Parva story, with all the best ingredients: Cranford-style village with 'about six women to every man'; doctors, lawyers, retired colonels and antique dealers; suspicions of black magic; and, as optional extra ingredient, a memorably awful press lord. And of course a generous allowance of sharp old spinsters. Shorter than most on detection, perhaps because the detection is, until the end, basically amateur. One of the classics."
- Luke Fitzwilliam – an ex-police officer in India, who meets on board a train to London one Lavinia Pinkerton, a doomed Miss Marple-type lady who sets the plot in motion even after she is killed off; he is the novice investigator who figures out the killer, but almost too late
- Lord Whitfield – Gordon Ragg, a self-made millionaire, and Bridget's fiancé; he owns Ashe Manor
- Bridget Conway – Jimmy Lorrimer's cousin
- Mrs. Anstruther – Bridget's aunt
- Jimmy Lorrimer – Luke’s friend, Bridget’s cousin
- Mrs. Church – Amy Gibb’s aunt
- Mr. Ellsworthy – owns an antique shop
- Dr. Geoffrey Thomas – the village doctor
- Honoria Waynflete – a spinster once betrothed to Gordon Ragg
- Major Horton – a widower who owns bulldogs
- Mr. Abbot – a local solicitor who employed Tommy Pierce
- Mrs. Pierce – Tommy’s mother
- Mrs. Jessie Humbleby – widow of Dr. Humbleby, Rose's mother
- Rose Humbleby – daughter of Dr. Humbleby
- Mr. Wake – the local rector
- Sir William Ossington – Billy Bones, Luke’s friend at Scotland Yard
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
Adapted into a television film in the United States in 1982 with Bill Bixby (Luke), Lesley-Anne Down (Bridget), Olivia de Havilland (Honoria) and Helen Hayes (Lavinia), and later for the stage by Clive Exton in 1993. In this adaptation, Luke is not a retired policeman but a professor from MIT on vacation.
A 2008 adaptation, with the inclusion of Miss Marple (played by Julia McKenzie), was included in the fourth series of Agatha Christie's Marple; it deviated significantly from the novel by removing some of the characters in it, while adding new ones and changing those left in. New subplots were, and the murderer's motive was changed in it:
- Miss Marple meets Lavinia Pinkerton on the train, not Luke, and learns from her of her suspicions about the village deaths and her plans to go to Scotland Yard (though the victims she knows of are changed in the adaptation).
- Pinkerton is killed in a fall down a London station escalator while en route to Scotland Yard, which Marple reads in the papers, rather than a hit-and-run.
- The first victims, including the village's vicar, and an elderly woman who made home remedies, died differently. The vicar was killed by having his beekeeper mask tampered with, causing him to inhale deadly fumes when spraying, while the other death came from poison placed in her cooking pot.
- Miss Marple meets Luke Fitzwilliam (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) in the village. He is not retired, but an active police detective, and is dealing with a deceased relative's property. Both recognise one another's investigative inclinations and work together to solve the murders.
- Gordon Whitfield and Giles Ellsworthy do not appear.
- Two new subplots surround the murders, one involving a political campaign in the village, in which one of the candidates knew about the death of Honoria's brother and was black-mailed about it, while the other focuses on an American woman who arrives in the village and tries to find out about her parents, having been found near the village in a basket that had been set adrift on the river close to it.
- Amy Gibbs is made a relative of one of the victims, and lives with Honoria.
- Honoria Waynflete (played by Shirley Henderson) is shown as an equally disturbed but much younger woman with different motives than in the original mystery. Her new motive for the murders reveals that she committed them to conceal the shameful truth behind an incident between herself and her developmentally disabled brother, who raped her after taking his first drink of whiskey, and being taught about sex. Honoria abandoned her child to fate, setting it off in a basket on the nearby rivers, months after pushing her brother to his death. When her child returned, seeking answers, Honoria was forced to kill those who knew, to conceal the truth.
- 1939, Collins Crime Club (London), 5 June 1939, Hardcover, 256 pp
- 1939, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), September 1939, Hardcover, 248 pp
- 1945, Pocket Books, Paperback, 152 pp (Pocket number 319)
- 1951, Pan Books, Paperback, 250 pp (Pan number 161)
- 1957, Penguin Books, Paperback, 172 pp
- 1960, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 190 pp
- 1966, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 219 pp
The book was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in seven parts from 19 November (Volume 211, Number 21) to 31 December 1938 (Volume 211, Number 27) under the title Easy to Kill with illustrations by Henry Raleigh. The UK serialisation was in twenty-three parts in the Daily Express from Tuesday, 10 January, to Friday, 3 February 1939, as Easy to Kill. All the instalments carried an illustration by "Prescott". This version did not contain any chapter divisions.
- The Observer 4 June 1939 (Page 6)
- "American Tribute to Agatha Christie". Home.insightbb.com. Retrieved 9 July 2012.
- Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (p. 15)
- The Times Literary Supplement 10 June 1939 (p. 343)
- The New York Times Book Review, 24 September 1939 (p. 20)
- The Observer 4 June 1939 (p. 7)
- The Guardian 11 July 1939 (Page 7)
- Daily Mirror 8 June 1939 (p. 22)
- Toronto Daily Star, 2 December 1939 (p. 13)
- Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie – Revised edition (p. 199). Fontana Books, 1990. ISBN 0-00-637474-3
- Holdings at the British Library (Newspapers – Colindale). Shelfmark: NPL LON LD3 and NPL LON MLD3.