1939 marked the conclusion of the most prolific decade of Agatha Christie’s career. Coming off nine straight novels in a row featuring her Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (including the classics The A.B.C. Murders and Death on the Nile), Christie ended this streak with two stand-alone mysteries that shared one trait – both were concerned with the machinations of a serial killer – yet diverged dramatically in terms of style, structure and tone. The latter of these two is perhaps Christie’s most famous work and has justifiably taken its place at the top of “Best of . . . “ lists since its publication. I’m speaking, of course, of And Then There Were None (and its variant titles, all beginning with Ten Little . . .) with its boldly audacious premise brilliantly executed and with one of the darkest endings of this, or any, writer’s work.
Compared to that, Murder Is Easy (known in the U.S. as Easy to Kill) is a much more conventional novel, firmly planted among the “village mysteries” in which Christie specialized. Still, the opening hook is one of Christie’s best, and the solution lives up to all expectations. In addition, the novel features one of my favorite Christie plot devices, which Lavinia Pinkerton, the old lady who gets the ball rolling here, refers to as “the look on a person’s face.” Throughout her career, Christie employed that look, often a stare over someone’s shoulder. The question would seem to be: What has this person seen, and how does it relate to this case? Of course, nobody who engages in the look ever says, “Oh my gosh! I’ve just realized that the missing kipper is an important clue!“ or “Would you look over there? Lady Reville just dumped arsenic in Sir Gervase’s cocktail!” And sometimes the look means . . . something else! One could equate this technique to the dying message in an Ellery Queen novel – the dangling of something colorful, a more unconventional clue than the cigarette butt or stray fingerprint, that needs to be correctly interpreted in order to help solve the case – except that the challenge with a dying message is the need to explain a victim’s purpose for leaving such an obtuse clue, while Christie never disappoints us as to the reason a person didn’t come out with an explanation for the look.
In Murder Is Easy, the look is used in a very different way, as revealed by the novel’s set-up:
Luke Fitzwilliam, who has recently given up his post as a policeman in the Mayang Straits, is traveling to London to stay with a friend. In a first-class carriage, he meets Miss Lavinia Pinkerton (who was given the name Fullerton in the American edition in order to destroy a great joke . . . honestly, I don’t know why they bothered!). The old lady reminds him of his Aunt Mildred, so he graciously listens to her chatter. She is on her way to Scotland Yard to report her suspicions that a murderer is on the loose in her little village of Wychwood-Under-Ashe. Four people have died, and Miss Pinkerton suspects that the local doctor will be next. Her explanation reveals a decidedly shaky moral compass on the old lady’s part:
“Carter, of course, drank, and Tommy Pierce was a dreadfully cheeky, impertinent little boy, and bullied the tiny boys, twisting their arms and pinching them. I didn’t feel quite so badly about them, but Doctor Humbleby’s different. He must be saved.”
I can’t help wondering: had the killer focused only on those people she didn’t like, would Miss Pinkerton have let the killer go on killing? With the good doctor’s life at stake, however, Miss P. springs into action! She then gives Luke his first clue: her awareness that all these late villagers have been victims of the same killer springs from a “special look” she has seen the killer give each one just before he or she died.
But wait, it gets even better. As the train pulls into the station, Luke, who realizes that Miss P. will be given the special treatment reserved at Scotland Yard for all loony old broads, gently admonishes her with, “Well, so many murders! Rather hard to do a lot of murders and get away with it, eh?”
To which Miss Pinkerton replies, “No, no, my dear boy, that’s where you’re wrong. 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.”
If only Miss Pinkerton could have told Luke more, but she hurries out of the train, only to become Victim Number Five. Luke reads her death notice in the London paper the next morning and shrugs it off as an unhappy coincidence. But then, a week later, he reads of the death of a certain Dr. Humbleby of Wychwood-Under-Ashe, and he wonders . . .
This opening is much more straightforward and than that of And Then There Were None. We don’t really understand what is happening on Soldier Island for several chapters, but here Christie lays it out for us: someone is wiping out the population of a small town, and they’ve gotta be stopped! Luke, representing all virile young ex-policemen who are uncomfortable with retirement, sets off under the guise of writing a book about small town British folklore and customs and tries to ferret out the killer. He sets up in the mansion of Lord Whitfield, a pompous self-made millionaire who has lucked out by snagging a beautiful, much younger woman, Bridget Conway, to be his fiancée. Bridget has agreed to pose as Luke’s cousin and helps him with his inquiries. Of course, along the way, romantic sparks fly!
Looking for a maniac who is above suspicion and who fixes each victim with a crazy look before doing the deed is no small task, especially since Luke knows nobody in the town and has never seen this look himself. (He will see it near the end of the novel, but he may not recognize what he has seen until it is too late to prevent another murder.) It also paints Christie into something of a corner: how do you spread suspicion amongst people who are supposed to be above it? For instance, Dr. Humbleby disapproved of his young partner, Dr. Thomas, both for his modern methods and because Thomas has fallen in love with Rose Humbleby, the Doctor’s daughter. What do we do with such a powerful motive – cross Dr. Thomas off our list?
This question keeps popping up as Luke gets to know nine or ten of the more prominent villagers, and, truth be told, their characterizations vary in quality. In fact, the novel tends to bog down in the middle, as Luke’s investigations take him in a desultory fashion through some of the local scandals, including the possibility that a coven of witches has set up shop among the locals.
Wychwood-Under-Ashe doesn’t come into focus the way some of Christie’s better villages do: Lymstock in The Moving Finger, Chipping Cleghorn in A Murder Is Announced, and of course Miss Marple’s own St. Mary Mead. It also doesn’t help that most of the victims are people we never met or cared about. Thus, while each death in And Then There Were None ratchets up the suspense because we do know these characters, we know why they’re being killed, and because we figure that with each death the possibility of the killer’s identity shrinks, in Murder Is Easy we’re more concerned with trying to find the pattern of why these unknown people are dying in order to discern who is killing them. That turns out to be more intellectually stimulating than emotionally satisfying.
Until the end! It all becomes much more worthwhile at the wrap-up because the reason for all the deaths is interesting and because Christie manages to make the revelation of the killer’s identity a surprise despite the odds. The final showdown with the murderer, now in full maniac mode, is the best-written scene in the novel and fulfills the promise of its opening chapter. One can understand at last how horrified Miss Pinkerton must have been when she recognized this acquaintance of hers as a killer.
In 1982, an adaptation of this novel was produced on American TV. I have to say that, given the variable quality we Americans have lavished on British detective stories, this one was quite faithful to the source. It also featured a wonderful cast, including Helen Hayes, Olivia De Havilland, Lesley-Anne Down, Jonathan Pryce, Freddie Jones and Timothy West. Only Luke was miscast with American actor Bill Bixby.
In 2008, the novel was adapted as part of the Miss Marple series. Instead of Luke Fitzwilliam, Miss Marple herself meets Lavinia Pinkerton on the train. And from there the story disintegrates into one of the most execrable abominations ever visited upon Christie’s work. Characters are dropped and added, the deaths are shown onscreen and the methods made as gruesome as possible, and an incestuous rape becomes the foundation for the murders. All of Christie’s charm is eliminated as the producers gave the finger to Christie fans in their search for an audience of 15-year-old boys. Not even the presence of Benedict Cumberbatch can save this one, and it is no wonder that the series was cancelled soon after. Shame on them!
Nobody will ever hear me argue that Murder Is Easy comes close to the specialness of And Then There Were None, but it is a charming mystery that deserves your attention. And if you want to explore that “special look” in some of Christie’s other mysteries, I highly recommend A Caribbean Mystery and The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side and, to a lesser extent, Appointment With Death and Death Comes At the End.