Murder is Easy is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on June 5, 1939 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in September of the same year under the title of Easy to Kill. Christie's recurring character, Superintendent Battle, has a cameo appearance at the end, but plays no part in either the solution of the mystery or the apprehension of the criminal. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) and the US edition at $2.00.
Luke Fitzwilliam meets an old lady on a train who tells him there has been a series of murders in her village, and that she thinks who will be the next victim. Luke is inclined to dismiss this at first but then the lady is subsequently run down by a car, and her prediction turns out to be correct. He remembers what she said: "Murder is easy."
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Luke Fitzwilliam happens to share a London bound train carriage with Lavinia Pinkerton, an elderly lady who informs Luke that she is travelling to Scotland Yard to report a serial killer, responsible for the deaths of three people: Amy Gibbs, Tommy Pierce and Harry Carter, and that another man, Dr John Humbleby, will be the next victim. Luke, unsure of how to respond, feels that this is unimportant and pays lip service only.
However, he is soon surprised to find the obituaries of not only Miss Fullerton, who has been killed in a hit-and-run car accident, but also a Dr Humbleby, who has died of septicemia. Luke travels to this seemingly quiet village and poses as a researcher for witchcraft and superstition to try and uncover the true murderer. Staying in a large estate with the wealthy Gordon Whitfield and pretending to be a cousin of Bridget Conway, Whitfield's fiance, he makes inquiries into the deaths. He and Conway receive the assistance of Honoria Waynflete, an elderly but observant spinster whom they believe may knows the identity of the person behind the deaths. By asking several villagers, including Mr Abbot, a solicitor who fired Tommy Pierce from his service due to an incident with a letter, the Rev Wake, local preacher, Mr Ellsworthy, an antique shop owner who appears to be mentally insane, and Dr Thomas, Humbleby's medical partner (who had had several rows with Humbleby and would have benefited from his death), it becomes apparent that the deaths were all accidents – Amy Gibbs died after confusing her cough remedy with hat paint in the dark, Tommy Pierce died from falling off the library roof after cleaning the windows, Harry Carter fell from a bridge while drunk and drowned in the mud, and Humbleby died from a cut becoming infected. Luke learns that Mrs Lydia Horton was another victim to these "accidents" – she was recovering from acute gastritis in hospital and was progressively getting better before she had a sudden unexpected relapse and died.
Luke believes Ellsworthy to be the killer – he had shown signs of mental instability, and Luke's suspicions are further aroused after he sees Ellsworthy arriving home with blood on his hands, though this later is proved to be blood from a hen he sacrificed with his friends as part of a pagan ritual. Later on in that day, Luke and Miss Waynflete witness Whitfield arguing with his chauffeur, Rivers, who had taken his Rolls-Royce for a joyride. Shortly after this event, Rivers is found dead, with his skull caved in by a stone pineapple which Whitfield had outside his house for decoration. Later on Luke and Bridget realise they are in love with each other, and Bridget tells Gordon of her decision to break off the engagement. Gordon, ordering Luke to his study, makes a very suspicious statement. He claims that he has divine right of people's lives and that he can call upon God to kill any people that do wrong against him – Mrs Horton had argued with him, Tommy Pierce did mocking impressions of him, Harry Carter shouted at him while drunk, Amy Gibbs was impertinent to him, Humbleby disagreed with him on the village water supply, and Rivers stole his car without permission, and all of them died. As a last warning, he tells Luke that he and Bridget, having wronged him, will soon meet their fates too. This sudden turn of events makes Luke change his mind on the subject, instead believing Whitfield to be the murderer. He consults Miss Waynflete who confirms his suspicions, and tells him of how she knew he was insane – Waynflete and Whitfield used to be engaged together, but one evening Whitfield killed one of her canaries that she kept as a pet, with the appearance that he enjoyed doing it. She knew from that moment on that Gordon went too far on subjects – so far that he would kill even those who wronged him slightly or trivially.
Luke and Bridget decide to stay at Miss Waynflete's house to be protected from Gordon. Luke goes off onto the village to collect their luggage and prepare to leave, while Bridget and Honoria go for a walk in the woods. It is at this point that a sudden twist in the plot occurs – Honoria, of whom Bridget has had a nagging suspicion – reveals herself to be the murderer. During their engagement she killed the canary after it bit her, which prompted Gordon to abandon the engagement. She vowed revenge on Gordon, and decided to have him hanged for crimes he did not commit. She came up with the plan to kill anyone with whom Gordon had any trouble, eventually leading his ego to become inflated and he began to imagine that he had divine powers. Honoria regularly visited Lydia Horton, to whom Whitfield had sent grapes in hospital, and was able to poison her tea. Honoria next killed Amy by swapping the bottles around in the night and locking the door from the outside using pincers – the fact that she died from hat paint would have suggested an old-fashioned touch, linking it to Gordon. She killed Carter by pushing him off the bridge on the day he had a row with Gordon, and pushed Tommy Pierce out of the window while he was working. Whitfield was the one to assign this job to Tommy, so that made him look suspicious.
Lavinia Pinkerton observed Honoria staring at Humbleby and Whitfield arguing, realising Honoria to be the killer. Honoria followed Lavinia into London and after Lavinia and Luke had parted ways, Honoria pushed the other woman in front of a car that happened not to stop. Honoria framed Whitfield by giving a nearby witness the registration number of Whitfield's Rolls-Royce. After inviting Humbleby round to her house she was able to cut his hand with scissors and then convince him to let her apply iodine to the wound, which she had infected with pus seeping from her cat's ear. He died a few days later from blood infection. After witnessing Rivers being sacked, Honoria hit him with a sandbag and caved his skull in with the stone pineapple – it would have appeared suspicious as it was a decoration that only Gordon chose. Finally, she drugged Bridget's tea and took her into the woods, where the two of them were talking. Honoria then reveals a knife covered in Whitfield's fingerprints, and informs Bridget that she will kill her and leave the knife at the scene. The fingerprints on the knife, combined with the fact that Whitfield was seen in the woods earlier after receiving a phone call from Honoria, will provide enough evidence to convict him of murder, and he would be hanged. Bridget reveals that she did not drink the drugged tea and fights with the older woman, who has the wiry, mad strength of the truly insane. Luke arrives on the scene and saves Bridget. With the case over, Bridget and Luke decide to leave the village once and for all, to live their lives together as a married couple.
- Harry Carter – the landlord of the "Seven Stars" and a drunkard
- Amy Gibbs – maid of Honoria Waynflete
- Mrs Lydia Horton – Major Horton's wife
- Dr John Humbleby – was a local doctor
- Tommy Pierce – an annoying youth
- Miss Lavinia Pinkerton
- Mr Rivers – chauffeur of Lord Whitfield
- Mr Ellsworthy – the owner of the antique shop, that performs occult rituals
- Dr Geoffrey Thomas – the village doctor (and partner of the late Dr Humbleby)
- Major Horton – a widower who owns bulldogs
- Mr Abbot – a local solicitor who employed Tommy Pierce
Villagers of Wychwood under Ashe
Police and other officials
- Sir William Ossington
- Mr Satcherverell
- Superintendent Battle
- John Reed
- Detective-sergeant Jackson
Literary significance and reception
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The Times Literary Supplement of 10 June 1939 published a review of the book by Maurice Percy Ashley, together with And Death Came Too by Richard Hull which began "A week in which new novels by Mr Hull 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."
After considering in isolation And Death Came Too, Mr. Ashley turned his attention to Murder is Easy and started, "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." After outlining the basics of the plot and the romantic interests of the main character, Mr. Ashley concluded, "He (Luke) is less effective 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."
In The New York Times Book Review for 24 September 1939, Kay Irvin said the book was "...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." She concluded, "The story's interest is unflagging, and the end brings excitement as well as surprise."
William Blunt in The Observer of 4 June 1939 raised a question regarding Christie's abilities to write non-crime fiction, which demonstrates that her nom-de-plume identity of Mary Westmacott was not yet public knowledge: "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 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."
E.R. Punshon in The Guardian's issue of 11 July 1939 said that, "Readers may miss the almost supernatural cunning of Poirot, but then if Luke also depended on the famous 'little grey cells' he would be merely another Poirot instead of having his own blundering, straightforward, yet finally effective methods." Mr. Punshon summed up by saying that the story, "must be counted as yet another proof of Mrs. Christie's inexhaustible ingenuity."
Mary Dell of the Daily Mirror, wrote on 8 June 1939, "It'll keep you guessing will this latest book from the pen of one of the best thriller writers ever."
An unnamed reviewer in the Toronto Daily Star of 2 December 1939 said, "An anemic thread of romance threatens to sever on occasion but the mystery is satisfying and full of suspense."
Robert Barnard: "Archetypal Mayhem Parva story, with all the best ingredients: Cranford-style village with 'about six women to every man'; doctors, lawyers, retired colonels and antique dealers; suspicions of black magic; and, as optional extra ingredient, a memorably awful press lord. And of course a generous allowance of sharp old spinsters. Shorter than most on detection, perhaps because the detection is, until the end, basically amateur. One of the classics."
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
Murder is Easy (1982)
A TV film adaptation was made by Warner Bros. in 1982. with Bill Bixby (Luke), Lesley-Anne Down (Bridget), Olivia de Havilland (Honoria) and Helen Hayes (Lavinia). The plotline was brought up to date and set in the 1980s with Luke being a computer expert instead of a retired policeman. The film was later further adapted for the stage by Clive Exton in 1993.
Agatha Christie's Marple
In 2009, ITV produced a TV film adaptation as part of season four of their Agatha Christie's Marple series. Besides the inclusion of Miss Marple, portrayed by Julia McKenzie, this adaptation deviated significantly from the novel in other areas by removing, adding, and changing characters, adding subplots, and changing the murderer's motives.
Les Petits Meurtes d'Agatha
- 1939, Collins Crime Club (London), 5 June 1939, Hardcover, 256 pp
- 1939, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), September 1939, Hardcover, 248 pp
- 1945, Pocket Books, Paperback, 152 pp (Pocket number 319)
- 1951, Pan Books, Paperback, 250 pp (Pan number 161)
- 1957, Penguin Books, Paperback, 172 pp
- 1960, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 190 pp
- 1966, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 219 pp
The book was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in seven parts from 19 November (Volume 211, Number 21) to 31 December 1938 (Volume 211, Number 27) under the title Easy to Kill with illustrations by Henry Raleigh. The UK serialisation was in twenty-three parts in the Daily Express from Tuesday, 10 January, to Friday, 3 February 1939, as Easy to Kill. All the instalments carried an illustration by "Prescott". This version did not contain any chapter divisions.
- Czech: Vždyť je to hračka (It Is Easy)
- French: Un meurtre est-il facile ? (Is a Murder Easy?)
- German: Das Sterben in Wychwood (The Dyings in Wychwood) [Book Title] / Mörderische Leidenschaft (Lethal Passion) [Title of television adaptation]
- Hungarian: Gyilkolni könnyű (Murder is Easy)
- Portuguese: Matar é Fácil (Murder is Easy)
- Romanian: E ușor să ucizi (It's Easy to Kill)