“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.
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.