“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.”
Luke Fitzwilliam is amused that the sweet old lady sharing his train compartment believes that a serial killer is operating in her village. “A vivid imagination, that’s all,” he thinks indulgently. “Rather an old dear.” It becomes much less funny the next morning, when he reads that she was killed by a hit-and-run driver on her way to Scotland Yard. Could Miss Fullerton’s suspicions have been correct?
To find out, Luke must infiltrate a quiet village and probe its deepest secrets, without rousing the suspicions of a murderer who finds it all too easy to kill.
Murder Is Easy has such a great opening and premise that for a while the rest of the book struggles a bit to live up to them, before finally finding its footing. What could be creepier than having a natter with the grandmotherly lady in the next seat, only for her to confide fears of mass murder? And there’s something truly terrifying about a killer who seems to be murdering their neighbors for the pettiest of reasons, convincingly faking deaths by a variety of causes. The difficulty of committing such crimes is exciting, but Luke is left somewhat at sea by the challenge of solving them.
Luke’s entrance to the village of Wychwood is smoothed by his friend’s cousin, Bridget Conway. Posing as her cousin, Luke pretends to be writing a book about rural superstitions, though he finds Bridget harder to fool than he expected. “She had force, brains, a cool clear intelligence, and he had no idea what she was thinking of him. He thought: ‘She’s not an easy person to deceive.'”
In fact, he finds Bridget more of everything than he expected, which is awkward because she’s engaged to her much-older boss, Lord Easterfield. The press baron grew up poor in Wychwood, and has now returned to his childhood home in grand style. He’s turned the local manor (which once belonged to the Conways) into his dream castle and is almost oppressively determined to improve the town. Bridget is pragmatic about her future with Lord Easterfield.
Gordon, as you should have realized, is a small boy who has not quite grown up. What he needs is a mother, not a wife. Unfortunately, his mother died when he was four years old. What he wants is someone at hand to whom he can brag, someone who will reassure him about himself and who is prepared to listen indefinitely to Lord Easterfield on the subject of himself […] I’m a young woman with a certain amount of intelligence, very moderate looks, and no money. I intend to earn an honest living. My job as Gordon’s wife will be practically indistinguishable from my job as Gordon’s secretary. After a year, I doubt if he’ll remember to kiss me good night. The only difference is in the salary.
As he gets to know the community, Luke discovers plenty of questionable deaths. The problem is that he can’t prove his suspicions. Everyone in the village is hilariously forthright about their hatred for little Tommy Pierce, for example, even his own mother, but the same devilry that made the child so unpopular might have led him to take foolish risks on a rooftop. How can you prove that one person intentionally gave another blood poisoning at some unknown time? It’s just not possible. When a potential victim’s daughter repeats the platitude that in a small village, “everybody knows everything about everybody else,” Luke is quick to correct her. “No one human being knows the full truth about another human being. Not even one’s nearest and dearest.”
This is quite true, but it leaves Luke spinning his wheels until a seemingly unrelated event reinvigorates the investigation. It also breathes new life into the narrative, changing Luke’s interactions with those around him and helping him to interpret old evidence in a new way. The choice of culprit is so sound psychologically that more than one person is able to solve the crime independently, each using a different approach entirely fitting with their own character.
Murder Is Easy is almost a victim of its own success, as a vivid opening gives way to a saggy middle. Despite his colonial police experience, Luke can’t get a handle on the villagers; Miss Marple would have had them all dead to rights at a glance. Luckily, the book rebounds with a strong, satisfying ending that more than matches its chilling premise.
The plot moves very slowly at times in Murder is Easy (1939) because there is a lack of any fresh definite clues or trails so Luke has to resort to theorising, after indefinite conversations with villagers, which I did find a bit boring at times.
Countdown John’s Christie Journal
I have only read this once before and it is much better than I remembered. if I had not come across the killer’s identity from too much Sporcling, I think I would have been fooled again.
Murder Is Easy (also published as Easy to Kill) is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats from HarperCollins.
4 thoughts on “Murder Is Easy (1939) by Agatha Christie”
I think my thoughts are similar to yours. I enjoyed the setup and the choice of culprit. I also think Miss Marple would have fitted in to this book better. I remember one critic commenting on Luke’s ineptitude in the investigation department being all the more stark due to his policing background.
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With Miss Marple, this could have been a real classic, since it has such a great concept and killer, but poor Luke just doesn’t have what it takes. It’s hilarious that he has to keep reminding people he’s a police officer, he’s just so bad at it. He gets there in the end, though.
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Coincidentally, I recently finished “Murder Is Easy” and I have a question concerning the murderer feeding into Lord Easterfield’s head that Providence is meting out justice to anyone who fusses, disagrees or disrespects him. But how would that jump to the conclusion that Easterfield is possibly the murderer that Lavinia Fullerton, from Chapter 1, is talking about? I need some clarification with how Luke would jump to that possibility?
Also, when Lavinia talks to Luke about the goings on in her village, as they alight from the train she’s about to hand him a card, forgetting that it’s the last one on her that needs for Scotland Yard. I was thinking that Miss Fullerton was some kind of private detective or something. I was reading to the end never getting an answer to that nagging question at the back of my mind. Maybe someone can relieve me with answers.
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Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts—my apologies for the delayed response as I have been under the weather lately.
Supposedly, what made Luke suspect Lord Easterfield was the look on his face when talking about Providence striking down his enemies, as Miss Fullerton had also referred to the murderer looking at the future victims in a distinctive way. It’s pretty thin “evidence.” But I can’t help wondering how much of this came from Luke’s feelings for Bridget making him predisposed to suspect his rival. It’s not very honorable to steal your host’s fiancée, but if Lord Easterfield is the murderer, than Luke and Bridget have nothing to feel guilty about. Similarly, Miss Fullerton must have been relieved when her suspicions fell on Lord Easterfield, the newcomer. If he’s the killer, than life in the village will not be disrupted. Both she and Luke make the same mistake of trying to make the evidence (such as it is) fit their theory instead of the other way around.
Good catch on the card. Maybe it’s meant to be an old-fashioned visiting card, like the ones ladies would use for paying social calls? I agree that if it was meant to be a business card, that should have come up again, but the reference is so brief it’s hard to know exactly what kind of card it was.