Thursday, June 05, 2014

Christie's Underappreciated Classic

I hadn't been born on this day 75 years ago, but, based on my studies of history, I think I can guess what the mood was like.


Less than three months later, World War II began when the Nazis invaded Poland. In the months leading up to it, there were all sorts of global political maneuvers going on.

Five years later, almost to the day, the Allied invasion of Normandy marked the turning point in the conflict.

Most of that was looming in the future when Agatha Christie wrote "Murder Is Easy," the detective novel she published in Great Britain on this day in 1939. (When it was published in the United States in September, the title was changed to "Easy to Kill.")

With so much uncertainty in the world, I guess Christie felt compelled to return to a more traditional plot. Comfort food for mystery readers, you might say. It took place in a sleepy English village. It had a loquacious vicar and an equally loquacious old maid. It had an overbearing captain of industry and his beautiful fiancee — and others, all of whom made for a delicious list of suspects from which to choose.

It also boasted Christie's trademark brilliant plot and clue placement.

But "Murder Is Easy" often gets the short end of the stick, probably because so many other Christie books that were published in the late 1930s had more complicated stories or took place in more exotic locales.

One of Christie's prominent detectives at that time was a fellow named Superintendent Battles, and he does show up at the end of "Murder Is Easy," but nearly all the heavy lifting is done by a character named Luke Fitzwilliam, a retired policeman who, to my knowledge, never showed up in another Christie novel.

Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing depends on one's perspective, I suppose. I have heard several Christie readers say they wish she had chosen to use Fitzwilliam in other books, but Maurice Percy Ashley, writing in London's Times Literary Supplement, said Fitzwilliam, a protege of Christie's detective Hercule Poirot, was "singularly lacking in 'little grey matter.' "

In fairness to Fitzwilliam, the case was baffling. On a train to London, he struck up a conversation with an elderly lady, who told him she was on her way to Scotland Yard to report what she had concluded was a serial killer on the loose. This killer, she said, already had been responsible for three deaths, and she identified by name the person who would be the fourth.

Fitzwilliam dismissed the conversation as the ranting of an elderly woman — until he saw the name of the alleged fourth victim in the obituary column. But the problem was that the man was not the fourth victim. He was the fifth. The old woman had been the fourth.

Had I been reviewing the book 75 years ago, I would have proclaimed it a classic.

But it is an understated and underappreciated one.