Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Book Review - Agatha Christie's Murder is Easy

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie
Published by: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication Date: June 5th, 1939
Format: Hardcover, 223 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Luke Fitzwilliam has returned to England from police duty in the Mayang Straits. He's been away from England for years and his return is a mixed bag. He won a packet on the Derby but his train left without him when he was checking the results. Catching the next train up to London he meets Lavinia Pinkerton, an elderly lady who reminds him of his Aunt. Luke humors her and listens to her reasons about going up to London. She believes there is a serial killer in her small town who now has their sights set on the nice Dr. Humbleby and she is determined to tell Scotland Yard all about it because the other deaths were nasty people but Dr. Humbleby is a different kettle of fish. Luke thinks she's an old dear who's a little batty, but when he later reads of her sudden death as well as the death of Dr. Humbleby he remembers her talking about how murder is really quite easy and there's a look in the eyes of the killer. He decides it's only right to investigate. With the help of his friend who happens to have a cousin down in Wychwood under Ashe Luke poses as a writer researching a book on witchcraft and superstitious beliefs that still survive in small communities. Luke hopes this will let him talk about the recent deaths in the town, totaling six when he arrives in the village. But will there be more deaths? And is Luke putting himself in danger by investigating in the first place?

I started this year by reading a murder mystery by one of Christie's contemporaries oddly enough published in the same year as Murder is Easy. Going from No Wind of Blame by Georgette Heyer to Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie the shift is so dramatic it's patently obvious why Christie is the bestselling author of all time and the "Queen of Crime." Instead of waiting hundreds of pages for a crime to actually be committed, Christie starts with a high body count right out of the gate. She builds the suspense while building her characters, instead of focusing on one or the other and therefore sacrificing quality. Heyer spun things out to excruciating lengths and in the end created a book that was unsatisfying more than anything else. If you're going to do a murder mystery, you kind of need both of those elements. My most favorite mysteries are the ones that follow in the vein of Christie; high body counts with quirky characters and a fun enough journey with plenty of red herrings that the narrative is a cohesive whole. Perhaps that's why I love Midsomer Murders so much, if any show followed Christie on body count alone, it would be Midsomer Murders. Also, this isn't to say Christie is infallible... she does trip up and get stuck in her own devices sometimes, Endless Night anyone? But Murder is Easy is thankfully a classic Christie.

Though, for me, there is rarely a book that is flawless. I mean, there are people out there that actually think for something to be perfect there has to be one flaw for them to pick at. I'm not one of those people, though it might occasionally seem so to others. But Murder is Easy did have a big flaw in it's leading man. Yes, let's talk about Luke Fitzwilliam. Luke is... well Luke must not have been very good at his job out east. Or, if he was good at it, it was with a kind of straightforward bluster that can, occasionally, make a decent cop. Why I've come to this conclusion is that he has no natural ability for subterfuge. He's "supposed" to be in Wychwood under Ashe as an author researching a book... does he ever really commit to this cover? No. About five minutes in he's already telling his friend's cousin who is putting him up, Bridget Conway, the real reason he's there. Um, couldn't she be a suspect? Or is she just too pretty? All his questions to the townsfolk are obviously about the recent spat of deaths, he doesn't once really try to talk about superstition and witchcraft. Which is a shame. Because I was kind of looking forward to a witchy element to this book, especially as Christie set the stage with the town's history for supernatural activity, but then she never followed through. The murders took precedent over Luke's cover and, well, I just was annoyed.

But Luke's inability to dissemble isn't nearly as bad as the forced romance between him and Bridget Conway. Christie does seem to have a need to not only solve the crime but to match off a couple by the end of her books. Like catching the criminal isn't enough. For a true happy ending there must be a marriage to boot. It could be a product of her times, this was released in 1939, but still, think of all the romantic partnerships of crime solvers there are... in fact, could we trace this all back to Christie? OK, that's getting off course, but if she's the reason we have everyone from Nick and Nora to Caskett... I think I'll give her a slid. On most. Not on Luke and Bridget. Because seriously, there is NO chemistry between them. None. In a play or a movie you can understand a lack of chemistry, the leads just weren't able to connect. In a book, there's NO reason for this. The author controls everything and there's no moment where you look at Luke and Bridget and go, "yes, they were meant to be." Luke sees a pretty girl and just decides to fall for her. She, for no apparent reason, is willing to give up a comfortable life with a wealthy man just to what? Marry a poor man who is more in love with the idea of her than her? Seriously. They do not a couple make. But Christie needed the supposed connection for the reveal of the killer... so maybe if she had just worked backwards from that a little more convincingly?

Yet it's Christie's ability to throw so many red herrings at us that we feel as if we're at a fish market that makes her books transcend character issues. She is able to believable posit, through Luke's investigation, so many murder suspects that you're never quite sure. Yes, I am one of those people who try to solve the crime as I'm reading, but if it's a good enough ride I can be swept away and buy into the plausibility of any single person being the killer. What I particularly liked was Luke was continually making up lists with reasons why each person was guilty or innocent. Yet his lists often omitted things, or didn't quite convey what I felt was uncovered in interrogations that we got to be privy too. Therefore we are able to see beyond Luke's narrow mind and see that the suspect pool is far bigger. This allows for Christie to go wild with her red herrings. In fact, just simple turns of phrase, assumptions about how people talk, all these play into the eventual reveal. In fact, it wasn't until minutes before the reveal that I had the aha moment. Where I could fully see her intricate web and who was really at the center pulling all the threads. I used to have this wonderful t-shirt that was for Mystery! by Edward Gorey that had a tree with clues, suspects, and the red herrings being the only items in color. I loved that shirt and I think that shirt captures the feeling of reading Murder is Easy. It's all there, it's all perfect, you just have to wait for Christie to pull back the curtain. Because she really is the master at this game.


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