Monday, 31 August 2009

Murder is Easy (1939)

PLOT: Serial killings! Gay satanists! Sinister villagers! A cat called Wonkey Pooh!


James: How brilliantly unlike Murder At The Vicarage this is - and yet, how also fittingly of the same set. This is the Agatha Christie jigsaw at its best, worked out like a diabolically ingenious game of Cluedo. Valiant hero, Brainy heroine, Kind-hearted Lord of the Manor, Apple-cheeked old lady, Sinister Shopkeeper, Busty Barmaid, Smug Doctor, Grieving Widow, etc... all the pieces are wheeled onto the board, but by making a couple of genius twists, it's a whole new board game.

Just one example is the way that the Lord of the Manor here is ghastly new money. We've had a hint of this before in The Seven Dials Mystery, but the idea is marvellously fledged out here, as we see the many ways in which a little bit of social disorder upsets the entire balance of the village.

The village of Wychwood is halfway between St Mary Mead and the Wicker Man. There's gossip and twinkly old maids, but there's also a sinister tinct of black magic hanging over the villagers. We have a barmaid who is dutifully sluttish, widows who mutter of "something evil" afoot... and we even get... A GAY IN THE VILLAGE!!!

Antiques Dealer Mr Ellsworthy has escaped from The League of Gentlemen. With his hands the colour of a rotten corpse, his strange manners, and his fondness for pagan sacrifice, he's an odd beast indeed, not helped by the epithets "artistic", "mincing", "queer", "Miss Nancy" and even (my! sides!) "gay" that are heaped upon him and his purple-shirted colleagues. It's not even worth trying to reclaim him as a "noble" depiction that clearly belongs to his times - just find him genuinely creepy and disturbing, and quail at the "something unpleasant" which is promised for him at the end of the book. No doubt meted out by God-fearing Christians in a dark alley with hob-nail boots.

Loathe him or loathe him, Mr Ellsworthy is a hint that this is Agatha Christie gone wrong, and marvellously so. The social niceties are barely observed here, as our dim-witted but valiant hero blunders around pretending to research death cults, blithely asking if anyone's raised the dead, missing clanging clues, accidentally falling in love and playing abysmal tennis.

Poor Luke Fitzwilliam makes a great contrast to the Vicar narrator of Murder in the Vicarage. With the Vicar we have, if not an intellectual equal to Miss Marple, at least a decent second, but dear Luke is the fellow Captain Hastings cribbed prep off with mixed results. Forever wandering down lonely lanes, placing himself in jeopardy, and missing big clues, it is, you feel, only his sheer goodness that saves him from being yet another casual victim.

For this is the thing about Murder Is Easy - the death toll is Enormous! Up until this point, we've looked at books with pretty much a single murder and a feeling of brooding menace, but all that's bunged out of the window. This is a gleeful death-a-thon, with the sheer volume of victims adding to the macabre humour of it all. One of the many things wrong with Wychwood is that no-one's really noticed - with people dropping on all sides they're too busy muddling through to think that there's anything wrong. Well, that is apart from a couple of valiant sidekicks and reliable old sorts.

Spoilers:

Of course, the real delight of Murder Is Easy is that it's an Anti-Marple book. Agatha Christie got on to the joke before anyone else - what if the saintly pensioner sleuth committed all the crimes and drove her colleagues to destruction with a merry laugh, a twinkling eye, and a slightly bitter pot of Lapsang Souchong?


Poor crazy Miss Wayneflete is an utter joy. There's really not that much mystery to this book (beyond wailing "How can you not have spotted?" as the hero trots down yet another lonely lane where "anything could happen"), but there's considerable fun in Miss Wayneflete's delight at realising that she's about to get away with it all again. "I know who did it!" Luke will proclaim, causing Miss Wayneflete to give a nervous start, before he announces that it's definitely the earnest young Doctor/ the Lord of the Manor / that Sinister Gay with a fondness for getting cock all over his hands.

There's even a touching psychology underpinning all this. Miss Wayneflete's madness stems from social humiliation, sexual repression and cruelty to budgies, her fragile psyche kept going only by Victorian Values and regular slayings.

This is a joyous, joyous book, and features a welcome cameo from Inspection Battle.

NEXT: The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side

8 comments:

  1. The most baffling thing about Luke's general idiocy is that he's apparently a just-retired POLICE OFFICER! Sigh.

    Good fun, generally, though.

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  2. Oh you're absolutely right. But don't worry - he was only locking up colonials. Probably quite safe at that.

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  3. Bumbling amateur Luke Fitzwilliam does some seriously haphazard detection as the inhabitants of an English village are bumped off in terrifyingly large numbers.

    What’s brilliant about the opening of this book is its banality, as our protagonist shares a train compartment with a completely ordinary little old lady - who then tells him she’s on the way to Scotland Yard to report several murders. Obviously he thinks she’s eccentric and suffering from a vivid imagination, until all the names she’s mentioned start to turn up dead in Wychwood under Ashe.

    Even before people start getting murdered in a bewildering array of methods, this is already the world’s most bonkers village, filled with some odd and larger than life characters straight from central casting - a deeply sinister gay antique dealer, megalomaniacal millionaire, incredibly genteel elderly lady and saintly old clergyman. Luke manages to suspect every one of them at some point for no very good reason, while using the world’s least believable cover story of writing a book on local customs. Since those customs seem to include black magic, that possibly wasn’t the wisest choice.

    This is Christie firmly in the “plucky young couple have adventures and stumble on a solution in the end” mode, as Luke in particular seems to be a bear of very little brain. Everyone concerned seems determined to carry on as normal despite having a local serial killer on the loose, and calling in the police apparently isn’t an option. Sidekick Bridget (who’s engaged to her Lord of the Manor boss, but realises she’d rather marry Luke) does more effective detecting than he does and is ultimately less completely credulous.

    Personally I always find the “homicidal maniac dunnit” solution a bit of a cop-out and a killer who’s literally foaming at the mouth when caught is intellectually unsatisfying (though great fun). There is some psychological basis for the murderer’s actions, but Christie really turns the manic-o-meter up to eleven with their essentially trivial motivation and the completely disproportionate revenge they take. In a nice hat-tip to the author, the murderer reveals they got some of their best ideas from reading detective stories. There’s another outing here for the stolid Superintendent Battle (from ‘The Secret of Chimmneys’ and ‘The Seven Dials Mystery’), but he only turns up in time to snap on the cuffs and doesn’t get the chance to add much to proceedings.

    SPOILERS
    In ‘Murder at the Vicarage’, Rev Clement comments on how easily Miss Marple could get away with murder and that’s pretty much the idea Christie’s playing with in this novel. Our murderer is a genteel, impoverished, astute elderly spinster who’s only too keen to help the detectives – very much a proxy for Marple. Although I can’t help thinking she’s also the sort of killer Miss Marple would have spotted on page 23 without letting quite so many people die. If Miss Waynflete was less frothingly mad, I’m not sure she would ever have been caught by the slightly dim Bridget and Luke, who seem obsessed with motive rather than means or opportunity.
    END SPOILERS

    While some sort of love interest’s de rigour in detective fiction, I never think Christie’s at her best writing romance and this book ends with what must be one of her worst last lines: “We’ve been close to Death for a long time. Now – that’s over! Now – we’ll begin to Live!”.

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  6. Gah! I started reading this when I went to bed a couple of hours ago and Couldn't Put It Down.

    SPOILERS!





    I didn't get it was the mad old woman until only a few pages before Luke and Bridget did. I am stupid. In my defence, though, I'd got the reason for the deaths earlier - I just thought it was probably Bridget.

    The question is, who'll be looking after Wonky Pooh now?

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