It’s always a huge shame when a book doesn’t live up to a strong opening, and so it is with this underwhelming village murder mystery that joins a short list of Christie novels I’d class as total duds.
The initial hook is really quite superb and got me invested straight away. Our protagonist is Luke Fitzwilliam, a retired policeman who returns to England after many years overseas and ends up sharing a train carriage with a sweet old lady named Miss Pinkerton, who has quite a tale to tell. Turns out, Miss Pinkerton’s final destination is Scotland Yard, where she intends to report her suspicions about a string of seemingly accidental deaths in her home village, Wychwood under Ashe. She claims to know the identity of the murderer, and names the man who she worries is the next intended victim.
Luke believes that the old dear simply has a case of vivid imagination, but a week later he’s disturbed to see a notice of Miss Pinkerton’s death in the newspaper – it seems that the old lady was ran over by a car before she reached Scotland Yard. Even more sinister is a blurb about the sudden death of a village doctor Miss Pinkerton believed to be on the killer’s “to do” list.
Now convinced that something is afoot, Luke heads to Wychwood under Ashe, under the pretense of writing a book on folklore and superstition. He also manages to get a cushy stay at the house of a local lord, by posing as one of the many cousins of Lord Whitfield’s fiancée, Bridget. His writer guise allows Luke to interview the village locals and sneak in questions about the recent deaths; things get complicated on the personal front when he develops feelings for Bridget.
I love Christie’s sleepy little villages with all sorts of dark undercurrents swirling below, and this story had a great potential, especially with a local history of witchcraft thrown in for flavour. Unfortunately, Luke’s investigation soon turns sluggish and tedious. Without fresh clues or trails, or a race against time to prevent more murders, all he can do is theorise endlessly and make his shortlist of suspects fit the murders after conversations with the locals. It got so dull I simply started skipping those speculations, especially since none of them were likely to be correct anyway.
The novel also doesn’t have much to offer in terms of characterisation. Some of my favourite Christie mysteries have a weak protagonist, and some have a somewhat weak supporting cast, but this one fails in both regards. Luke is passable, but rather boring and bland, and he’s frankly a middling detective at best. Imagine a novel where you have Hastings fumbling around trying to solve a crime instead of Poirot, and you wouldn’t be too far off. The locals meanwhile range from forgettable to unpleasantly cartoonish, the worst offenders being childish and self-centred Lord Whitfield and Mr Ellsworthy, an antique shop owner and an alleged resident Satanist. Heck even the eventual murderer is forgettable and their motivations come off as rather silly.
Witchy and prickly Bridget might be the closest thing to a compelling character, but her romance with Luke is the kind of rushed, awkwardly written, cliché-ridden affair that’s plagued a few Christie novels, and worse yet here it’s also front and centre. I rolled my eyes whenever Luke and his lady love had yet another lovers’ spat. Murder Is Easy might not be an outright godawful disaster like Passenger to Frankfurt, but it’s definitely bottom drawer Christie.