Thursday, October 31, 2019

Hallow Read: Murder Is Easy (1939), by Agatha Christie

A few day ago I wrote a piece about Moray Dalton's excellent, soon to be reprinted crime novel The Case of Alan Copeland (1937), in which I commented that the novel is a village mystery filled with figurative witches.  However, the admittedly much better remembered Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, published a couple of mysteries with characters professing to be actual village witches: The Pale Horse (1961), arguably the best later Christie, and Murder Is Easy (1939), published eighty years ago, during the Christie's considerable heyday as a mystery writer.

In the United States Murder Is Easy was originally published under the title Easy to Kill, perhaps because in 1935 American mystery writer Armstrong Livingston had used the title Murder Is Easy for a novel.  (The next year, contrarian Richard Hull asserted Murder Isn't Easy.)

Although maybe not, because the title Easy to Kill had already been used too, eight years earlier, by American mystery writer Hulbert Footner, for one of his Madame Rosika Storey mysteries.  So both titles, really, had been previously "taken."

Daniel Gardner, The Three Witches from Macbeth
NPG, London
Anyway, Christie's novel, under whichever name you care to call it, has special distinction for me, because it was among the first Christies I ever read. 

Forty-five years ago, in the summer of '74, my family and I were living in Mexico City, where my father taught at the National University.  One day at Sanborns department store I, just a wee young lad back then, was along when my mother bought, at fourteen pesos apiece, four paperback Pocket Christies.  These were The ABC Murders, And Then There Were None, After the Funeral (titled Funerals are Fatal) and, yes, Murder Is Easy (still titled Easy to Kill). My Mom had good taste in Christies!

I read all four of these Christie novels myself that summer, up in our apartment while curled up on an upholstered brown, yellow and orange love seat in a corner by a big window overlooking the street.  The only one of them I still have, complete with the fourteen peso stamp inside, is Murder Is Easy.  This edition had been published in March of 1974.

I was all of eight years old at this time and these books--along with my Mom's Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines (in the latter I remember a story called, I think, "The Machete Murderer," about a maniac who chopped up women with a machete, that scared the hell out of me)--constituted my first "adult" reading.  You can see how I was fated to be a mystery reader!

my pb copy, which makes me think
Diana Rigg and Rod Taylor
What do you think?
I have to admit each of these ingenious Christies bamboozled me utterly.  When I read these books again years later, I had forgotten many details of the plots, yet in each I recalled the identity of the killer, which had come as a tremendous shock to me each time.  (The first Christie in which I ever correctly deduced "whodunit" was Towards Zero, which I read at the age of seventeen.)

I read Murder Is Easy again in 2007 and again just a few days ago for this blog post, and I remain impressed with the skillful plot construction.  Most mystery writers have, let us say, X, the obvious suspect, and Y, the real culprit.  However, Christie holds in her hand Z, the "real" real culprit, if you will, while she tries to force Y on you.  In Murder Is Easy, you can see how cleverly she tries to lull you into suspecting Y and thinking how clever you are the the whole time, when you're really just being deviously led up the a deadly garden path.

Murder Is Easy also benefits from a marvelously memorable and sinister opening.  The novel's hero, Luke Fitzwilliam, a relatively young retired colonial policeman (happily he already has "a pension, with some small private means of his own"), is traveling by train to London on his return to England when he encounters Lavinia Pinkerton, an elderly spinster (or an "old pussy" as they say in the book, a term which I found tremendously funny even as an innocent eight year old). 

Ditheringly Miss Pinkerton tells Luke that she is on her way to Scotland Yard to report that a certain someone in her village, Wychwood-under-Ashe, is systematically knocking off the inhabitants, already having killed several people, with another slated for imminent extermination.  She doesn't give this fiendish person's name.

This is great stuff for a mystery fan, with perfect conversational cadence:

Luke's eyebrows rose.
The old lady nodded vigorously.
"Yes, murder.  You're surprised, I can see.  I was myself at first...I really couldn't believe it.  I thought I must be imagining things."
"Are you quite sure you weren't?" Luke asked gently.
"Oh, no."  She shook her head positively.  "I might have been the first time, but not the second, or the third, or the fourth.  After that one

Helen Hayes as Miss Pinkerton and Bill Bixby as Luke Fullerton
in the 1982 American film version of Murder Is Easy

Luke thinks the ironically named Miss Pinkerton is highly imaginative, if not gaga, but then finds the next day that she has been killed, run over by a Rolls Royce which didn't stop.  I say! 

And then he learns that the person in the village whom Miss Pinkerton predicted would be killed next has suddenly died too!  Well, what else is there for Luke to do but travel to Miss Pinkerton's lovely but somewhat sinister village (as the name suggests there is a history of witchcraft there) and investigate the strange matter for himself, under the guise of an author who is researching a book on folklore?

Once at Wychwood, Luke meets--and within three days falls in love with (ah, books!)--bewitching (heh), raven-haired Bridget Conway, whom, Christie unsubtly informs us, looks like she could be a "girl on a broomstick flying up to the moon...."  Unfortunately, Bridget is already engaged to marry the local boy made good, portly, pompous and proud Lord Easterfield, a publishing tycoon who seems modeled after real life contemporary figures like Viscount Rothermere.  Bridget, who comes of local decayed gentry though she doesn't go on about it, has been serving as as Easterfield's admiring secretary.

first Viscount Rothermere
Bridget is a great character, rather cynical (some would say just realistic) and, like a lot of women in Christie's works, decidedly smarter than than the hero.  Luke in fact struck me as a real dunderhead, and it's probably a good thing for the colonies that he retired from the police at such a young age.  He's so naive he probably still believes in the stork.

Luke wanders around questioning a number a rather cardboard villagers under his flimsy guise as a folklorist.  Unfortunately unconvincing is the local witch coven leader, an effeminate antiques dealer with fluttering hands named Mr. Ellsworthy.  Christie seems to want to portray him and his acolytes comically, as in the following passage, where a decidedly rational Bridget is speaking:

"Three extraordinary people have arrived at the Bells and Motley.  Item one, a man with shorts, spectacles and a lovely plum-colored silk shirt!  Item two, a female with no eyebrows, dressed in a peplum, a pound of assorted sham Egyptian beads and sandals.  Item three, a fat man in a lavender suit and co-respondent shoes.  I suspect them of being friends of our Mr. Ellsworthy!  Says the gossip writer: 'Someone has whispered that there will be gay doings in the Witches' Meadow tonight.'"

the satanism in Murder is Easy is kind of goofy
(like Aleister Crowley here, pictured in regalia)
I think Christie's urge heavily to satirize "queer" people gets the better of her here.  If the witch cult is so silly, why should we fear it or suspect it of any truly dangerous underhanded doings?  Her contemporaries John Street, John Dickson Carr and Gladys Mitchell, who actually seriously studied witchcraft scholarship (or what was deemed scholarship at the time), wrote about this sort of thing more convincingly.

There's some additional infelicitous writing here, in my view.  Murder Is Easy was written during the height of what we might term Christie's pregnant ellipses phase, when she relied heavily on suspensive dots (...) to convey suspense or rumination, as here:

"What's true?"
"The look on a person's face..."

In my '74 Pocket edition, the editor (I assume) eliminated the ellipses entirely, and I can't say I miss them.  Indeed the editor went further and eliminated actual passages from the original edition, like this one, about Luke's first encounter with Bridget:

He had had an unacknowledged picture at the back of his mind during his voyage home to England--a picture of an English girl flushed and sunburned--stroking a horse's neck, stooping to weed a herbaceous border, sitting holding out her hands to the blaze of a wood fire.  It had been a warm gracious vision...

Now--he didn't know if he liked Bridget Conway or not--but he knew that that secret picture  wavered and broke up--became meaningless and foolish...

Unless you've ever been enchanted by the vision of a woman stooping to weed a herbaceous border (and even know what a herbaceous border is), this passage may have limited impact, so perhaps the editor was right in deleting it.  There also is such a lot of punctuation in that passage!

just in case you were wondering...
all it needs is the hand of a flushed and sunburned Englishwoman....

Christie's romantic writing in general can get rather novelettish in this novel:

She said in a small childlike voice: 
"Luke, I'm frightened...."
He said, "It's all over, darling.  It's all over...."
She murmured:
"Be kind to me please--please.  I've been hurt so much."
He said: "We've hurt each other.  We won't do that anymore."  

Another minus is when Christie slips into those "there was/were" passages when describing a place or room:

There were shops, small Georgian houses...there were picturesque cottages....There was an inn....There was a village green.....

There were some Dresden china shepherds and shepherdesses....There were framed water-colours....There were some photographs....and some good furniture....

The ellipses are all mine here....

Utilitarian writing, to be sure, but hardly entrancing.  Of course at the opposite end is someone like PD James who was known to devote pages and pages to room description, which could get rather tiring, unless you are really into interior decoration.

Generally Christie's characterization of women is much more engaging that it is of men.  Lord Easterfield you remember, but Luke is a conventional dull hero type and Ellsworthy is a lazy caricature.  (Mr. Pye in The Moving Finger is better done if you go in for queer stereotypes.)  The other male characters are utterly forgettable, aside from the retired Anglo-Indian major, who, however, is like every other retired Anglo-Indian major you find in Christie. (And they are plenteous in the Christie canon!)

a magical mystery
Even with the plotting there are a couple of false steps.  Bridget has an aunt named Mrs. Anstruther who seems to serve no discernible purpose in the novel that I could see (Was she there to chaperone Bridget?); while the late doctor's widow, Mrs. Humpleby, functions improbably as a late stage deus ex machina to prod Luke into finally doing something sensible.

What Christie really excels at are, at one end, her smart and bold modern women and, at the other, her splendid "old pussies."  (There's also an actual pussy, Wonky-Pooh, Miss Pinkerton's memorably named Persian cat.)  I love whenever Christie is writing about them.  And when the novel builds up to its climax in the final fifth of the novel, it gets superbly eerie again, with one of the author's finest finishes.

And for that I will forgive the lovey-dovey stuff (with yet more ellipses) at the end. In some ways Christie's village mystery novel is like an Edgar Wallace thriller, but the plotting is better than what you usually find in Wallace.

I would have loved for there to have been one final twist of the knife in Murder Is Easy, but convention at the time would not have had it (although John Dickson Carr might have done it).  After all, you can't expect to get a timeless mystery masterpiece like The Burning Court or And Then There Were None every year!


  1. The "old pussies" may once have been "bold, modern women"!

    1. It would be interesting to speculate on the career of one of them in Murder Is Easy.