Murder (Mystery) is Easy

Agatha Christie as a child, promoting the 1977 book An Autobiography, by Agatha Christie, published by Dodd, Mead Publishing House

Agatha Christie as a child, promoting the 1977 book An Autobiography, by Agatha Christie, published by Dodd, Mead Publishing House

Few authors have managed to use the “village” as a background to murder mysteries as successfully as Agatha Christie has. It is a setting she returns to again and again, not just for her Miss Marple stories, but also for many of her Poirot books. As Murder is Easy is quite a short, neat little novel, I’ve chosen it to demonstrate how village life can serve brilliantly as a background to a story, be it romance, horror, sci-fi or a cosy whodunit. The “village” is more than just a “location” in this particular story, it represents the novel’s theme: appearances can be deceptive.

Is this a murder mystery or a romance novel? One isn’t quite sure, for the hero Luke Fitzwilliam, a retired policeman returning to England after many years abroad in the Mayang Straits, is rather inept at sleuthing, but quite skilful at courting gorgeous Bridget, his fellow amateur sleuth.

Published in 1939, the novel does show its age in the way that Luke views his potential future wife at the start of the novel, but rather surprisingly for the era switches at the end to a far more enlightened way of looking at relationships, one that a reader in 2015 can appreciate and understand.

An aptly named Lady

Meeting a dithering old lady on the train to London, Luke is amazed to hear that his fellow passenger Miss Lavinia Pinkerton is on her way to Scotland Yard to report a series of murders. She lives in a small village where several unexpected deaths have led her to believe that a serial killer is on the loose. Lavinia reminds Luke of a much loved aunt, which is why he gives a certain amount of credence to the old lady’s story. His confidence in her is simply based on the fact that favourite aunts, no matter how eccentric, usually know best. And besides, anyone called “Pinkerton” must have a talent for sleuthing!

First edition, published in 1939

First edition, published in 1939

Sinister Village Idyll

Luke is soon haring off to the village where Miss Pinkerton lived. Intent on completing the old lady’s detective work, for the Pinkerton lady herself has been foully murdered before she ever had the chance to cross Scotland Yard’s threshold, Luke is soon faced with a barrel full of red herrings and a list of suspects as wide and long as a village green.

At first glance, the village of Wychwood-under-Ashe is picturesque and tranquil, a little haven among the sheep, wild flower meadows and blue bells. Upon further inspection, however, Luke discovers the village is awash with sinister characters, from the antique dealer with a penchant for satanic rites and pornography to the affable, but arrogant young doctor and the village drunk with a tendency to wife-beating. Even children can be quite nasty, horrid enough to get themselves murdered. Soon Luke’s imagination runs wild. Indeed, the girl Luke falls in love with may secretly be a witch; she resembles a lady with a broomstick Luke once saw in a picture!

Ashe Ridge is not a beauty spot for hikers and bird watchers – it looms threateningly above the village like a vulture waiting to strike at any moment; verdant meadows and fields are more likely to host Walpurgis Night celebrations for a coven of witches than be the setting for toddlers’ teddy bear picnics or village fetes with bunting, tea and crumpets.

Appearances can be deceptive, the author tells us with her setting. And therefore we should watch out for the most unlikely of murderers…

Well-placed Cousins

Luke’s friend in London arranges for him to stay at Lord Whitfield’s mansion in Miss Pinkerton’s village. Whitfield is a self-made man of humble origins, a newspaper magnate who was born in Wychwood-under-Ashe and now lords it over his fellow villagers at every opportunity. A prize bore and self-important puffed-up little man, Lord Whitfield’s behaviour is responsible for much of the humour in this story.

Since Whitfield’s secretary and betrothed is a cousin of Luke’s friend in London, Luke goes undercover, posing as an author researching a book and pretending to be one of Bridget’s cousins. This allows him to stay at Whitfield’s mansion, where Luke enjoy a certain amount of “protection” from nosy village gossips and preying eyes. Romance looms on the horizon as soon as Luke arrives and Agatha Christie has great fun with the English attitude of fair play here. How can Luke call himself a gentleman and remain under the same roof as the man whose betrothed he’s stealing?

Creating Mirror Images

The use of the mansion in a village setting is also a familiar Christie ploy. Here we have another closed and potentially lethal microcosm, even smaller than the village itself. What goes on in the mansion is a mirror image of the village world beyond the wrought-iron gates.

There is the middle-aged poor relation, who talks about nothing but gardening and takes no interest in anything around her, just like the widow of the murdered doctor or the village solicitor. There are the servants who don’t take their employer seriously and try to steal a march on him the moment his back is turned, just like a young murder victim from the village did. There is the secretary who has set her cap at bagging a rich man, just like the old doctor’s daughter, who is secretely engaged to the doctor’s successor.

The very building of Ash Ridge Manor is not what it seems, having started out as a beautiful Queen Anne mansion and now sporting Gothic turrets and other Victorian architectural horrors. Using the mansion on the outskirt of the village also serves to create a “them and us” atmosphere, always good for a few sinister goings-on in a whodunit!

In a typical Christie twist of events, it is Bridget, not Luke, who unmasks the murderer before a few more corpses can litter the blooming countryside. As Miss Pinkerton warned at the outset, the killer is the most unlikely of people, and the revelation is therefore quite shocking. Bridget is in many ways a younger version of Miss Pinkerton, an unlikely sleuth. She is beautiful and accomplished, but not an open or friendly person. Like Miss Pinkerton, Bridget is also blessed with a keen intellect and powers of observation, but this fact is lost on most people, because like Miss Pinkerton Bridget is able to mask her true nature very well. The two women are another example how the use of mirror images, be they locations or people, can create a far deeper meaning and more satisfying reading experience for the reader.

This is also a good opportunity for Christie to highlight another disadvantage of village life and constrast city life versus village life: the lonely spinster who everybody knows, everyone relies on to help out but nobody loves or values.

Nobody believed spinster and “busy-body” Miss Lavinia Pinkerton and that fact cost somebody their life. In London, so Luke’s friend from Scotland Yard confirms, Miss Pinkerton’s suspicions would have been taken seriously. In Wychwood-under-Ashe, however, the local policeman is too narrow-minded to believe Miss Pinkerton.

Many of us, like Lord Whitfield, dream of returning from city life to the rural “idyll” because we imagine we’ll matter more there than we do in the metropolis. This is yet another case of appearances being deceptive, as we see with Lord Whitfield, whose good intensions get up villagers’ noses to such an extent that everybody mocks him, sometimes openly as one chauffeur does to his face and sometimes behind his lordly back, like one young murder victim did.

Catching a Glimpse of the real Miss Christie

Murder is Easy is an enjoyable read, and quite revealing at the very end, when the author lets something of herself shine through. Bridget asks Luke, if he LIKES her, caring far less if he is in love with her.

“Liking is more important than loving. It lasts…I don’t want us just to love each other and marry and get tired of each other and then want to marry some one else.” (Bridget, page 254, line 16, 2/6 Edition published for The Crime Club by Collins)

One feels that Agatha Christie is speaking truly from the heart here, having one failed marriage under her belt and now being secure in a far, far better relationship with her archaeologist husband. Reading between the lines, one suspects the author was dazzled by dashing good looks and romance the first time round, but found her true soul mate after divorcing her two-timing cad of a husband.

Naturally, Luke and Bridget have the good sense to run off to London to start their married life, away from gossip, narrow-mindedness and preying villagers’ eyes.

Lavinia’s right: Murder is easy!

heathersanimations(dot)comOverall, it’s not one of Christie’s best murder mysteries, reminding one too much of plots used for her Poirot and Miss Marple novels, but the author does present us with a truly terrifying killer here and a view of village life that rings true – without the murders, obviously, but with all the resentment and neighbourly feuds that brew up so nicely in closed communities, I can recognised every village I’ve ever lived in. Villages are witches’ cauldrons, where disappointments and dislikes are likely to bubble and simmer quite harmlessly for quite sometime before erupting into something foul and deadly.

At the end the reader is left with the uncomfortable question, if perhaps this sort of thing goes on far more often than one thinks? After which thought my mind drifted off to Harold Shipman and Rose West. Ye-es, it seems that Murder is Easy. There simply aren’t enough Miss Pinkertons and savvy aunts out there to keep us safe!

And, of course, in 1939, when murder mystery fans where nosing through Agatha’s book, London’s children were being evacuated to safer grounds, since the greatest murderer of them all was getting his weapons ready to kill us all…