The Agatha Christie Challenge – Murder is Easy (1939)

Murder is EasyIn which Luke Fitzwilliam, ex-police officer returned from the East, finds himself at the heart of a village where a number of people have recently died – and maybe not by natural causes. He goes undercover researching for a make-believe book and stays with his friend’s cousin Bridget, passing himself off as her cousin. But as murder becomes more and more obvious, he eventually stumbles into discovering who really killed all these people. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

CriticsThe book is dedicated to: “Rosalind and Susan, the first two critics of this book”. Rosalind Hicks, formerly Prichard, née Christie, was Agatha Christie’s only child, born in 1919 and died in 2004. Susan was Susan North, Rosalind’s best friend. The book was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in November and December 1939, at the same time as Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, under the title Easy to Kill (which are the last three words of the second chapter). In the UK it was serialised in the Daily Express in January and February 1939, also as Easy to Kill. The full book was first published in the UK on 5th June 1939 by Collins Crime Club as Murder is Easy; and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in September 1939, but still retaining the original title of Easy to Kill.

detectiveThis is an unpredictable, lively and thoroughly entertaining read, dotted with eccentric characters, fast-paced and full of surprises. I remember that when I first read it I was completely bowled over by the surprise revelation of the murderer – I would never have guessed it. Reading it this time, I quickly remembered who the guilty party was, but that didn’t diminish the enjoyment as you witness the very clever tricks that Christie plays to lead you away from working it out for yourself. But she does give you the clues fair and square, if only you can sort them, wheat-like, from the chaff.

Luke Skywalker meditatingIt’s written as a third-person narrative but very much from the point of view of Luke, the gentlemanly, rather bumbling, occasionally snobbish hero, who only just realises the identity of the murderer in time to prevent yet another death. Christie describes Bridget following one sequence of activity which culminates in a situation of danger, whilst Luke is off on another track. Then, with our heroine in peril, Christie abandons her to follow Luke’s adventures, which both raises tension, but loses momentum. However, the two characters do come together to meet (literally) at a vital moment at the end. This creates a relatively unusual, highly dramatic, and very effective denouement scene. Among the most entertaining parts of the book are those where we see Luke trying hard to understand what’s happening: the chapter entitled Meditations of Luke helpfully runs through all his theories at the time, one by one considering the likelihood of guilt of each of the characters in the story. He doesn’t have little grey cells so much as big vacuous blobs, but he means well. Christie provides the return of Superintendent Battle to act as an official figure of authority, to cross the legal t’s and dot the legal i’s, but he really has very little to do with solving the crime.

PoirotOne of the criticisms of the book at the time was that the reader missed Poirot; but I don’t feel that way at all. I rather felt that Christie had exhausted Poirot’s characteristics by the time that she wrote Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, to the extent that the great man was rather thinly drawn in that book. Instead she created Fitzwilliam, an amenable and rather daring chap who acts on whims and jumps to conclusions; in many ways he’s as useless a sleuth as the reader would be, and the reader rather identifies with his bewilderment whilst envying him his courage. Battle, of course, doesn’t have much in the way of personality, and his few brief pages of appearance in this book don’t lend many further insights into his detecting methods. We will only meet him one more time, in Towards Zero.

NastyThe relatively large cast of characters in this book suitably recreates the hustle and bustle of a busy village, with considerable class delineation between the nice people and places and the nasty people and places. In fact, Christie goes to town with the use of the word “nasty”. Right from the start Luke dismisses the sight of “nasty little houses” from the train; Lord Whitfield is described as a “nasty little man” who owns a string of “nasty little weekly papers”. The much despised Ellsworthy is branded as a “nasty sort of fellow”, having “a nasty mind and nasty habits”, with “nasty friends” who conduct orgies (in the village! Gosh!), whilst the irrepressible and mischievous young Tommy was considered “a nasty little boy”. It strikes me that anyone who isn’t of the right social set was condemned as “nasty” in some way or other. More on the social and class elements of the book later on.

Fenny StratfordThis book has an unusually large number of references to trace and obscure textual points to investigate – so here goes! The place names of Fenny Clayton and Wychwood under Ashe are both inventions of Christie but I’m sure you can think of places that they sound like (Buckinghamshire boasts both Fenny Stratford and Steeple Claydon within about ten miles of each other, for example). Luke says he has returned from the Mayang Straits, which is also not a clearcut location, even though it sounds it. There is a small town by the name of Mayang Imphal in the Indian state of Manipur, and there is also a district, associated with black magic, named Mayong in the state of Assam. There is even a county called Mayang in the Hunan state in China, but it’s unlikely that Luke would have been working there in the 1930s. Mayang Straits sounds as though it should be near Malaysia or Singapore… but no.

RavenThere are several quotations to explore. When we first meet Luke he’s a mass of quotations: “The wrong is done, past all recall – weep we never so bitterly we can never bring back the dead past – Quoth the raven “Nevermore” – The moving finger writes; and having writ moves on, etc, etc and so on and so forth.” Not that easy to extricate: working backwards, the moving finger comes from Fitzgerald’s translation of the Omar Khayyam; Quoth the raven comes from Poe’s poem The Raven; weep we never so bitterly is reminiscent of a passage from Jeremiah 22:10; the wrong is done currently escapes me. Any ideas, team?

Doctor Fell“Fiddle dee dee, fiddle dee dee, the fly has married the humble bee” hums Luke, as he thinks of the character of Dr Humbleby. This is apparently an old-fashioned nursery song; but as no one ever sang it to me in my nursery, I’ve never heard of it. When interviewing Miss Humbleby, she explains her father didn’t like Dr Thomas. “I do not like thee Dr Fell, the reason why I cannot tell” is his response. This is a nursery rhyme, apparently written by the satirist Tom Brown in 1680 in response to the Dean of Christ Church’s expulsion of Brown with the caveat that if he could translate a Martial epithet, he would be re-admitted. Brown decided to damn Fell for ever more with his response.

Frances CornfordOne chapter is entitled “Oh Why do you walk through the Fields in Gloves?” This is a quotation from Frances Cornford’s 1910 poem, “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train”. The verse sparked a lot of light-hearted criticism at the time from worthies such as G K Chesterton and A E Housman. It’s an appropriate title for this particular chapter, but I’ll say no more. Towards the end of the book, one character quotes Kipling with the words “he travels the fastest who travels alone”. This is from his poem The Winners, published in 1888.

blue-moneyThere are also some words and phrases that I had never encountered: Luke is initially described as recently back in England with money to blue. To blue? Is that the same as money to burn? Basically yes. It’s mid-19th century slang (so it must have been old-fashioned when Christie used it) with the definition of blue as “to spend, waste, squander go through lavishly, recklessly, or extravagantly, especially with regard to money”. Think of it as sounding like the past tense of to blow. When Luke is first going around asking questions about rural folkloric practices, he cites “ill-wishing or overlooking, there’s another interesting subject”. Overlooking? Today we think of that as simply meaning accidentally to forget to do something. But it’s also a late 16th century term meaning to bewitch. Mrs Church describes Harry Carter as “a low class fellow and half-seas over most of the time”. Half-seas over? This is a 16th century term for being drunk. I’m beginning to wonder if Christie had swallowed an extremely old dictionary.

PeplumDescribing Ellsworthy’s friends at the Bells and Motley (there’s a pub of the same name in The Mysterious Mr Quin – it’s not that common a name to bear such regular repetition), Lord Whitfield describes: “a female with no eyebrows, dressed in a peplum, a pound of assorted sham Egyptian beads and sandals”. A peplum? It comes from the Greek word for a tunic and is a short overskirt that is usually attached to a fitted jacket, blouse or dress. You knew that already? Well, I didn’t.

The DerbyThere are yet still more references to clarify. Two publications are mentioned, the Daily Clarion and Good Cheer. The Daily Clarion continues to publish – in Princeton, Indiana, so I doubt it’s the same one. Good Cheer is an international magazine for people who are DeafBlind written by people who are DeafBlind; so again, I think we’re talking about inventions by Christie. The book starts with Luke having a bet on the Derby, with the winner coming in at 40-1. In those days, the Derby was always run on the first Wednesday of June – so that was the 7th June 1939 or 1st June 1938, depending on which race Christie might have been referring to. Alas, there is no such horse as Jujube II winning either of those races; Bois Roussel won in 1938 and Blue Peter in 1939.

Standard SwallowLavinia Pinkerton laments the fact that Second Class carriages had been abolished, leaving only 1st class and 3rd class. Most railways had abolished 2nd class at the latter end of the 19th century – although apparently the Great Western Railway kept them going until 1910. Mrs Pinkerton also concerns herself with people not getting a dog licence (abolished in 1987) and strict observation of lighting-up time (half an hour after sunset, but becoming rapidly antiquated as more and more cars have their lights on permanently.) On the subject of cars, Luke’s friend Jimmy Lorrimer drives a Ford V 8, a popular car launched in 1932, whilst Luke has bought a second hand Standard Swallow, like Major Eustace in Murder in the Mews, so that must be one of only 148 cars to be built by the Swallow Coachbuilding Company (later Jaguar) between 1932 and 1936 (according to Wikipedia).

Nevinson witchWhen Luke first sees Bridget, he is instantly put in mind of the picture of Nevinson’s Witch. That meant nothing to me, so I researched, and discovered the artist Christopher Nevinson. He was a pacifist, working as a volunteer for the Red Cross on the front line as a driver, stretcher-bearer and hospital orderly between 1914-15. Gifted, but unpopular, the critic Charles Hind observed “It is something, at the age of thirty one, to be among the most discussed, most successful, most promising, most admired and most hated British artists.” Among his most celebrated works was An Inexperienced Witch – and if that’s how Bridget first appeared to him, I don’t think she’d be that flattered.

EuclidLuke’s initial reflections on the evidence he’d garnered (in the chapter, “Possibilities”) results in his dismissing his own opinions and reflecting “how nicely Euclid put things”. I wasn’t sure what that referred to. Euclid, of course, was a Greek mathematician, often referred to as the “father of geometry”, born around 325 BC. But as to his work, you’ll have to ask someone else. Wikipedia advises that among his legacies is a system of rigorous mathematical proofs that remains the basis of mathematics to this day – so maybe that’s what Luke’s thinking about.

Sabbatic-GoatDr Thomas is a keen reader; on his latest list is Kreuzhammer’s Inferiority and Crime which he offers to lend Luke. Sadly this riveting read seems to have been an invention, as does the equally Germanic sounding Wellerman Kreitz Research Laboratories, which Lord Whitfield had recently graced with his presence. Shame – they both sound highly authentic. One of the characters is often likened to a goat in appearance, which gives rise to discussion about why the goat is often linked to evil. It’s because of the “Sabbatic Goat” of Eliphas Levi. Again, in case you haven’t read the book, I’ll say no more.

PoundYou may well know that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There aren’t very many instances of it in this book, but a couple bear examination. Luke’s win on the horses came in at £100. In today’s values that translates to over £4500 – that’s quite some win. The value of being married to Lord Whitfield is estimated as receiving a £100,000 settlement; instead of earning £6 a week as his secretary. The settlement figure is the equivalent today of £4.5 million; the secretary wage a paltry £275 a week. That’s an annual salary of about £14,000. Not very generous, is he? Johnnie Cornish left Bridget for a plump widow and an income of £30,000 a year – that’s a very tempting £1.3 million a year, plus a bit more. You can’t really blame him, can you?

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Murder is Easy:

Publication Details: 1939. Fontana paperback, 4th impression, published in February 1966, in an era too tasteful to list a sale price on the back cover. The cover illustration by (presumably) Tom Adams shows two direct clues and one indirect one: a dead canary (which is almost too appropriate), some spilt medicine (presumably meant for Amy Gibbs) and a spider – by which I can only infer that he’s pointing out the spider’s web of intrigue that the book contains. It’s quite effective and sufficiently intriguing to draw a casual reader in.

How many pages until the first death: 10, but that’s misleading. Miss Pinkerton has already told us about four previous deaths, assumed by her to be murders. One thing’s for sure, in this book you’re never too far from a dead body.

Funny lines out of context: Remarking on Ellsworthy’s Bohemian friends arriving for the weekend, Bridget affirms: “Says the gossip writer: “Someone has whispered that there will be gay doings in the Witches’ Meadow tonight.””

Memorable characters:

This book is littered with interesting characters, some of whom only play a very small role. Lavinia Pinkerton, for example, is portrayed as something of a dotty old lady but there is something of the Miss Marple about her, with her suspicions, if not her solutions.

I like the accounts of Major Horton and his wife – with their (probably) stormy marriage. As Christie states: “Luke thought that Major Horton’s married life must have been more like a military campaign than an idyll of domestic bliss.”

Christie goes to town on painting Ellsworthy as unpleasant a character as possible, primarily by dwelling on his apparent effeminacy. Miss Humbleby says he staged a “queer ceremony” with some “queer-looking people”. Luke describes him as a dilliettante, and a poseur; whereas Major Horton calls him “Miss Nancy”. I think his opinion is pretty clear.

Bizarrely, some of the more interesting people are those we never meet because they’re already dead! I bet Harry Carter and Tommy Pierce had a few tales to tell.

Christie the Poison expert:

There are so many deaths in this book, it was beyond doubt that poison would play its part. Luke’s friend Jimmy refers to the Abercrombie case, “for feeding the local vet with arsenic, then they dug up his wife and she was full of it, and it’s pretty certain his brother-in-law went the same way […] the unofficial view was that Abercrombie had done away with at least fifteen people in his time.” Although this sounds remarkably believable, I can’t find any reference to it in real life, so I guess Christie invented it. Luke correctly guesses that Mrs Horton was killed by arsenic poisoning, and not acute gastritis. Amy Gibbs drank hat paint (whoever heard of that? It was already a very archaic concept when this was written) instead of cough linctus, which resulted in oxalic acid poisoning. Today it’s mainly used in bleaching and cleaning products and it can be found in rhubarb leaves. That’s why your mother taught you only to eat rhubarb sticks.

Class/social issues of the time:

As usual, class rears its ugly head, but in a number of subtle ways. Luke’s initial observation of the “nasty little houses” he sees from the train show his innate snobbery towards anything less than posh and refined. In conversation with the working-class Mrs Pierce, her description of “a lovely lot of new houses, some of them with green roofs and stained-glass in the windows” causes him to shudder. Wychwood-under-Ashe is an immensely class-ridden community, with Dr Humbleby described by the vicar Mr Wake as “greatly beloved by the poorer classes”; he also considers Mrs Church to be “not, I fear, a very estimable woman”, and indeed, when we meet her, Mrs Church wants to find out if there is a reward on offer before offering any information – how base of her. Snobby Luke concludes that he will have to “move in lower social spheres” to ascertain the information he wants; and even Bridget bemoans the fact that her previous beau dumped her for someone with “a North Country accent” – how humiliating. Miss Waynflete says of Ellsworthy, “he keeps the new antique shop but he is actually a gentleman”, with that old-fashioned, upper middle-class, mild scorn for anyone in trade or with new money.

Another of Christie’s developing themes is the role of women in society. As we’ve seen in her earlier works, she’s no feminist. In this book, when Luke tries to praise Miss Waynflete’s intelligence, the older lady gently corrects him: “that’s very nice of you, Mr Fitzwilliam, but I’m afraid women are never quite such deep thinkers as men”. Luke is also taken by the quiet beauty and vulnerability of Miss Humbleby, and wrestles (briefly) with his own desire to protect her: “It was true that Rose Humbleby had recently lost her father, but she had a mother, and she was engaged to be married to a decidedly attractive young man who was fully adequate to anything in the protection line. Then why should he, Luke Fitzwilliam, be assailed by this protection complex? Good old sentimentality to the fore again, thought Luke. The protective male! Flourishing in the Victorian era, going strong in the Edwardian, and still showing signs of life despite what our friend Lord Whitfield would call the rush and strain of modern life”. Christie never challenges Luke on this position. Indeed, in conversation with Mrs Church, when he asks her whether Amy had any boyfriends, his reaction to her veiled assent is “she preferred the sterner sex.” Sterner sex?! That would have had him laughed out of town in my youth.

As usual, any mention of politics always comes from a right-wing perspective. The “fierce looking Colonel” who gets in Luke’s train becomes incensed at what he reads in The Times and spends half an hour moaning about “these damned Communist agitators”. To be left-wing is to be equated to the criminal fraternity, as in Lord Whitfield’s description of Carter – “a drunken ruffian […] one of these socialistic, abusive brutes”.

A couple of other subjects get the Christie treatment, some of them not found quite so frequently in her works. There’s a sideswipe at modern art: “”I shall have to adopt a disguise,” said Luke with a sudden grin. “What do you suggest? Artist? Hardly – I can’t draw, let alone paint.” “You could be a modern artist,” suggested Jimmy. “Then that wouldn’t matter.”” Christie derides Ellsworthy’s appearance as the height of effeminacy: “Mr Ellsworthy was a very exquisite young man dressed in a colour scheme of russet brown. He had a long pale face with a womanish mouth, long black artistic hair and a mincing walk.” Even vivisection raises its ugly head; Lord Whitfield visits the Wellerman Kreitz Research laboratories, much to the dismay of Mrs Anstruther: “”They use guinea-pigs, I believe – so cruel – though of course not so bad as dogs – or even cats.” “Fellows who use dogs ought to be shot,” said Major Horton, hoarsely. “I really believe, Horton,” said Mr Abbot, “that you value canine life above human life.” “Every time!” said the major. “Dogs can’t turn round on you like human beings can. Never get a nasty word from a dog.”

Classic denouement: Unusual, effective and exciting, but you couldn’t call it a classic. There is an incredibly tense scene, where it looks as though one of our heroes is going to be murdered with no hope of being rescued; and then to make the agony of suspense even stronger, the story cuts away to another character, following their story for a few pages; only for the two threads to come together at the end of the chapter. As a result you have excitement, followed by a slight sense of lost momentum, and then the denouement comes almost in retrospect as Battle explains, to those people still present, what actually happened. But there isn’t a J’accuse moment as such.

Happy ending? Yes. Clearly our sleuthing team have fallen in love and all’s right with their world.

Did the story ring true? The story has perhaps more unlikely coincidences than most, from Jimmy’s connection to Bridget, the murderer’s knowledge that Miss Pinkerton was going to Scotland Yard (wouldn’t she have kept that a secret?) and the fact that the car that killed Miss Pinkerton hadn’t stopped. If it had, then it would have been a very different story!

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s an extremely enjoyable read; pure whodunit escapism, with quite a lot of humour and some memorable characters. And a lot of deaths often lifts a whodunit, in a ghoulish sort of way! 9/10.

And then there were NoneThanks for reading my blog of Murder is Easy and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is And Then There Were None. Apologies that my copy is from the 1970s, so has the original British title. Frequently cited as Christie’s masterpiece, I’m very much looking forward to reacquainting myself with it. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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