- First published: UK: Collins, June 1939; USA: Dodd Mead, September 1939, as Easy to Kill
‘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 any one would suspect!’
This tale of multiple murders in an English village with a history of witchcraft, “so smiling and peaceful — so innocent — and all the time the crazy streak of murder running through it”, is a good Christie, and anticipates Towards Zero (1944). Retired policeman Luke Fitzwilliam’s detection largely consists of talking to suspects in an amateur way. It’s the first case without Poirot in ten novels, and more of a suspense mystery than the elaborate cases Poirot solved. The choice of victims and methods — a series of highly suspicious “accidents” — is excellent, as is the choice of suspects, including an antique-dealer given to conjuring up the powers of darkness, and the local self-made squire, who sees himself as “the instrument of a higher power”. The particularly memorable and surprising murderer, at once a pillar of society and a cunning lunatic, is unmasked in a highly exciting climax, showing Christie’s masterly handling of tension.
“Yes, murder,” the elderly lady in the railway carriage was saying. “You’re surprised, I can see. I was myself, at first. I really couldn’t believe it, I thought I must be imagining things. I might have been the first time, but not the second, or the third, or the fourth. After that, one knows.”
“So many murders!” murmured the other occupant of the railway carriage. (Probably Scotland Yard got half a dozen old ladies a week coming in burbling about the amount of murders committed in their nice quiet country villages. There might be a special department for dealing with the old dears!) “So many murders! Rather hard to do a lot of murders and get away with it, eh?”
Miss Pinkerton shook her head. “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 one would suspect…”
But is it the last person you would suspect? Surely you won’t let Agatha Christie fox you again. It would be “again”, wouldn’t it?
Only one woman in this quiet English village scented murder. “It’s very easy to kill,” she told Luke Fitzwilliam, “if no one suspects you.” But before she could name the killer, she, too, was struck down. And Luke, just back from police duty in the Straits Settlements, found himself facing a new kind of menace.
“Accidental death,” the coroner called it, when Amy Gibbs drank poison by mistake, Harry Carter slipped off the footbridge, and Dr. Humbleby died of an infection. But Luke had been a policeman too long to accept such a gruesome array of coincidence without wondering. When his curiosity got the better of him, and he undertook a private investigation, he expected to turn up something; but before the case was closed, he had unearthed more than even his most extravagant suspicions had warranted.
Observer (William Blunt, 4th June 1939): EMBROIDERY IN BLACK
For once Hercule Poirot is left in peace to tend his vegetable marrows. He is, after all, no Frankenstein’s monster, and his creator shows that she can produce as good and satisfying a pattern as ever and leave the little superman out of it. In Murder is Easy, the grey cells of the detective work no more efficiently than our own. He picks the wrong man, lets his best beloved put herself in the power of the actual murderer, get thoroughly muddled, and in every way is a delightful contrast to Monsieur Poirot. A retired Indian policeman, coming home to settle, gets himself left behind on a station platform, and coming on in a local train chooses a carriage because its occupant reminds himself of the Aunt Mildred who let him keep a grass snake when he was a boy. The old lady chatters away to him, and lets out that she is on her way to Scotland Yard because she is convinced that a whole series of deaths in her village are the work of a single person, and that more are to come. “Murder is so easy.” The policeman hopes Scotland Yard will be kind to her, and is shocked next day to learn from the newspaper that she has been run over in Whitehall. A little later he is disturbed to see that the village doctor, whom the old lady had mentioned as the next victim, has suddenly died. And so the story begins. I should hate to have to state on oath which I thought was Agatha Christie’s best story, but I do think I can say that this is well up in the first six. The humour and humanity of its detail raise a question to which only one person can give an answer. Agatha Christie has grown accustomed to working her embroidery on a background of black. Could she, or could she not, leave death and detection out, and embroider as well on green? I believe she is one of the few detective novelists who could. If she would let herself try just for fun, I believe it would be very good fun for other people, too.
Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 10th June 1939): A week in which new novels by Mr. Hull [And Death Came Too] and Mrs. Christie appear should be a red letter week for connoisseurs of detective fiction. One must, however, reluctantly confess that neither of them is fully up to standard…
Mrs. Christie has abandoned M. Hercule Poirot in her new novel, but it must be confessed that his understudy, Luke Fitzwilliam, a retired policeman from the Mayang States, is singularly lacking in “little grey matter”. Poirot may have recently become, with advancing years, a trifle staid, but absence makes the heart grow fonder of him. Travelling up to London in a slow train Fitzwilliam shares a compartment with an old lady who assures him that she is on her way to Scotland Yard to tell them how a whole series of murders, disguised as accidents, has recently taken place in her village. Fitzwilliam takes her to be a crank until he notices in a newspaper the next day that the old lady was killed by a motor-car while crossing Whitehall. This decides him to go down to the village and carry out a private investigation. Here he is fortunate in that he meets the betrothed of a wealthy and incredible newspaper proprietor and falls in love with her and she with him. But he is less effective as a detective than as a lover, which is not surprising since neither he nor the reader is provided with any clear clues pointing to the fantastically successful murderer. The love interest scarcely compensates for the paucity of detection and the characters verge on caricature; nor is Fitzwilliam able to recapture vividly enough the circumstances of the earlier murders.
Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 23rd June 1939): In Murder is Easy Mrs. Christie is not seen at her best. For one thing, Poirot is not playing: and his understudy, a retired Indian policeman, though competent and likeable, cannot hold a candle to the Belgian star. Perhaps not so competent: at any rate, I had no difficulty in spotting the murderer, though in Mrs. Christie’s previous books I have seldom been within a mile of him. Still, the book opens very nicely, and the love-story is agreeably developed.
The Times (4th July 1939): Murder is Easy, on the other hand [from Edward Acheson’s Murder to Hounds], definitely sets out, it seems, to thrill the reader as well as to exercise his wits. It falls short on both attempts, although no book by Miss Agatha Christie can fail to be readable. Poirot in this story of village murder is replaced by a police officer from the Far East, and the reader’s efforts to spot the criminal will hardly be more successful than were Luke Fitzwilliam’s, unless he plumps for the most unlikely character. Murder in Wychwood-under-Ashe proves too easy altogether for credibility.
Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 11th July 1939, 330w): Altogether the story must be counted as yet another proof of Mrs. Christie’s inexhaustible ingenuity.
Sat R of Lit (23rd September 1939, 40w): Dunder-headed detective and far-fetched finish pretty nearly spoil story that has authentic Christie touch in the characterisations. Irritating.
Books (Will Cuppy, 24th September 1939, 200w): Even if the fiend seems hard to swallow, Easy to Kill contains some clever plotting and enough casting of suspicion to keep you guessing like mad.
NY Times (Kay Irvin, 24th September 1939, 200w): One of Agatha Christie’s best mystery novels, a story fascinating in its plot, clever and lively in its characters and brilliant in its technique.
New Yorker (30th September 1939, 40w): Easy reading, but mystery addicts will be able to spot the murderer before Mr. Fitzwilliam does—a warning to all policemen never, never to fall in love.