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 (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.
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On his return to England after his overseas job in the police, Luke Fitzwilliam shares a London-bound train carriage with Lavinia Pinkerton. She talks with him about her reason to travel to Scotland Yard, hoping for agreement. She plans to report a serial killer in her village and tells him who was killed and who will next be killed. Amy Gibbs, Tommy Pierce and Harry Carter have been killed, and Dr John Humbleby will be the next victim. This woman reminds him of a favorite aunt, so he replies politely and recalls what she said.
He reads of Miss Pinkerton's death the next day, and then of the death of Dr Humbleby, who has died of septicaemia. Luke will not let this rest, and he travels to the village, Wychwood under Ashe. He poses as one finding material for a book on beliefs in witchcraft and superstition, as he investigates. He stays at the home of Gordon Whitfield, claiming to be a cousin of Bridget Conway, Whitfield's fiancée, and the cousin of his own good friend. He and Conway receive the assistance of Honoria Waynflete, a woman whom they believe may know the person behind the deaths. He talks with villagers to learn the stories of the recent murders, including Mr Abbot, the solicitor who fired Tommy Pierce from his service; the Reverend Mr Wake, local preacher; Mr Ellsworthy, an antique shop owner who appears to be mentally unstable, and Dr Thomas, Humbleby's younger partner. People in the village view the deaths as accidents. Amy Gibbs died after confusing her cough remedy with hat paint in the dark, Tommy Pierce died from falling off the library roof while 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 getting better before she had a sudden relapse and died.
Luke believes Ellsworthy to be the killer because of his mental instability. Seeing Ellsworthy return home with blood on his hands adds to this image. 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. Luke finds Rivers dead, hit by a decorative stone. Luke and Bridget realise that they are in love with each other, and Bridget tells Gordon of her decision to break off the engagement. Speaking with Luke, Gordon makes an odd statement. He claims that God kills people that do him harm, dispensing divine justice upon wrongdoers. Whitfield mentions 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.
Luke changes his mind about who is responsible for the deaths, considering Whitfield as the murderer. He consults Miss Waynflete, who confirms his suspicions, and tells him of how she knew he was insane: when they were younger, Waynflete and Whitfield had been engaged to be married. But one evening, Whitfield killed the bird that she kept as a pet, with the appearance that he enjoyed doing it. She ended their engagement.
Luke and Bridget decide that Bridget will leave Whitfield's estate to stay at Honoria Waynflete's house. Luke collects their luggage and prepares to leave, while Bridget and Honoria take a walk in the woods. Honoria reveals herself to be the murderer. During her engagement to Whitfield, Honoria had killed her own pet bird after it bit her, which prompted Gordon to abandon the engagement. She vowed revenge on Gordon, and decided to set him up for crimes he did not commit. She encouraged him in the belief that God exacted immediate retribution from those who disrespected him.
Honoria poisoned the tea for Lydia Horton, while encouraging others to believe the problem was in the grapes sent by Whitfield. Honoria killed Amy by swapping the bottles around in the night and locking the door from the outside using pincers. She killed Carter by pushing him off the bridge on the day he had a row with Whitfield, and she likewise pushed Tommy Pierce out of the window while he was working. Whitfield had been the one to assign Tommy to this job.
Honoria sees that Lavinia Pinkerton realised she is the killer, and that Humbleby would be her next victim. Honoria follows Lavinia into London and then pushes her in front of a passing car. Honoria frames Whitfield by telling a witness that she saw the registration number of Whitfield's Rolls-Royce. After inviting Humbleby round to her house, she cut his hand with scissors. She then applied a dressing to the wound, a dressing with pus seeping from her cat's ear; Humbleby dies a few days later from blood infection. After witnessing Rivers being sacked, Honoria hits him with a sandbag and caves his skull in with the stone pineapple.
Honoria drugs Bridget's tea and takes her into the woods, where the two of them began talking. Bridget does not drink the tea and is ready for what comes. Honoria reveals a knife covered in Whitfield's fingerprints, and informs Bridget that she will kill her and leave the knife at the scene. Further, Honoria arranges for Whitfield to be seen walking alone through the area where Bridget's body will be. Instead, Bridget fights with Honoria. Luke realises that Honoria is the murderer and rescues Bridget. Bridget and Luke leave the village to live together as a married couple.
- 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
- Superintendent Battle - Inspector from Scotland Yard who helps to close the case and arrest the suspect.
- Sir William Ossington – Billy Bones, Luke’s friend at Scotland Yard
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."
- 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.
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.
- 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, die differently. The vicar is killed by tampering with his beekeeper mask, 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 Bridget. Bridget is an American who arrives in the village and to learn about the circumstances of her birth, 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 daughter to fate, setting her off in a basket on the nearby rivers, months after pushing her brother to his death. When her child Bridget returns seeking answers, Honoria felt forced to kill those who knew, to conceal the truth.
- 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.