Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie


published 1939

Murder is Easy 1


[Bridget and Luke are discussing Amy Gibbs, who died from drinking hat paint]

Bridget said: “I’ve thought all along that there was something wrong about it.”

“Why exactly?”

“Hat paint, to begin with.”

“What do you mean, hat paint?”

“Well about 20 years ago, people did paint hats – one season you had a pink straw, next season a bottle of hat paint and it became dark blue – then perhaps another bottle and a black hat! But nowadays – hats are cheap – tawdry stuff to be thrown away when out of fashion.”

“Even girls of the class of Amy Gibbs?”

“I’d be more likely to paint a hat than she would! Thrift’s gone out. And there’s another thing. It was red hat paint.”

“Well?”

“And Amy Gibbs had red hair – carrots!”

“You mean it doesn’t go together?”

Bridget nodded. “You wouldn’t wear a scarlet hat with carroty hair. It’s the sort of thing a man wouldn’t realize…”

 
observations: Murder is Easy wouldn’t make it onto my top 5 list of Agatha Christie books, nor my top 10 either, but I love this bit of detection: the perfect Clothes in Books moment. It demonstrates clever thinking, and as Bridget says, a woman’s clue. There’s also the casual snobbery - ‘girls of the class of Amy Gibbs’ - that Christie was surely reflecting, not inventing. And the point she makes that posh girls can end up looking shabbier than low-class ones - this features also in The Body in the Library and The Moving Finger. There is a reference later to the silly cheap silk stockings young Amy insisted on wearing – as in The Mystery of the Blue Train, and my Guardian article on the subject.

I also like the reference to the disposability of fashion – every generation thinks the new one is much more careless, less thrifty. ‘They buy new when they have a perfectly good old one in the cupboard!’ Her complaint sounds very modern, so how splendid that people were saying it in 1939. There should be a name for this kind of item, where you are surprised to find an idea or complaint was not invented right now by your contemporaries.


My good friend Curtis Evans, of the Passing Tramp website, has just happened to point out an article in the Pharmacy Times on poison in Christie – it doesn’t mention hat paint, so I will offer my own researches in the subject…

I tried to find more references to hat paint in fiction, but there seems to be only Agatha Christie – I probably need a hardware shop’s catalogue to find out more. But there IS a reference to it in a document from the US Environment Protection Agency: as it says in the book, the paint is oxalic acid, and one of the uses of this is listed as ‘bleaching straw hats.’ This is repeated in many chemistry books, one suspects that it has been copied from one to another. And oxalic acid is used to restore a soldier’s helmet on this blog, helpfully called War Hats.com.

Back to the book, which doesn't have Poirot or Marple, but has a bit of everything else - rich men, spinsters, doctors, beautiful women, all tied up and dumped into a village with a serial killer on the loose. There is also  witchcraft and a rather ill-natured portrait of an antique-dealer who is clearly meant to be gay. I liked his visitors coming down for a witches’ Sabbath:
A man with shorts, spectacles and a lovely plum-coloured silk shirt. A female with no eyebrows, dressed in a peplum, a pound of assorted sham Egyptian beads and sandals. A fat man in a lavender suit and co-respondent shoes.
Not exactly blending in at the local pub. These fancy-dress goers (from an entry on Laurie R King’s Justice Hall) perhaps give a flavour:

 
Murder is Easy 2

 
Christie quotes several times from the Frances Cornford poem of 1910, To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train (it’s the one with the line O fat white woman whom nobody loves) – this is quite unusual. Although Christie was very well-read, and very much au fait with current trends, in her books she tended to use cultural references from the far past.

The top picture of different-coloured straw hats is from Kristine’s ever-useful photostream.























20 comments:

  1. Oh you have reminded me of one of my favourite books by one of my favourite writers - Douglas Adams' The Meaning of Liff which is a dictionary for things that there aren't any words for in English (but should be). The notion of things being in existence long before you thought they would have been definitely deserves a word.

    I can't really contribute anything further - I know nothing about hat paint - and nothing about this book - I think I have only ever read one non-Poirot/Marple book of Christie's and it didn't do much for me so I never bothered to repeat the process.

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    1. Oh yes, that was a very funny book wasn't it? I should work on a word for my concept....

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  2. Moira - I have to agree with you that this isn't Christie's best. But yes, that hat paint scene is nicely done. Hat paint shows up in Cards on the Table too, and it's just something we don't use these days. Really interesting!! And you know, there's that sort of snobbery in so much crime fiction. I may do a post on that...

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    1. I KNEW it turned up in another one, but couldn't think which - I might have known you would know! thanks for the reminder. And yes please, a post on snobbery in crime fiction would be great....

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  3. Hat paint also shows up in Christianna Brand's "Death In High Heels".

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    1. Excellent thanks Noah, I can make a collection of references. It's funny, if you google it you get nothing of any help, it must be something that existed below the radar...

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  4. In Death in High Heels the girls using oxalic acid to clean a hat - but it doesn't work very well. Somehow it gets into the curry... Sadly there is too much of a detective who is supposed to be appealing, and not enough of the girls and the shop.

    Amy Gibbs is also referred to as "that girl Amy" - another clue that she is not One of Us. (Shes a maid.)

    There's a rather wonderful film version with Bill Bixby, Olivia de Havilland (yes, really), Shane Bryant, Helen Hayes, Timothy West, Leigh Lawson and Lesley-Anne Down.

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    1. That's quite a cast - I feel I did see that one years ago, but have no memory of it, I must look it out.
      The young women in Death in High Heels aren't proper shop girls, ie common, are they? I'm trying to remember how Brand gets round that.
      The best dress shop is in Elizabeth Taylor's Game of Hide and Seek.

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  5. I love those hats. I had not heard of hat paint, although it makes sense.

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    1. I know, it's quite a good idea, isn't it, so long as you don't poison anyone! Are you still working your way through Agatha Christie?

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    2. I have read one Christie this year, not reviewed yet. It is one of my goals this year to continue on that, but we will see.

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  6. Moira, I don't have a favourite out of the few Agatha Christie books I have read and barring one Tommy and Tuppence novel, I haven't read any non-Poirot or non-Marple books. My plan to read her novels in chronological order is on the back burner for now.

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    1. It's quite a commitment to read them all Prashant - I read them when I was much younger, and had more time....

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    1. You're going to have to read some of her sooner or later...

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  8. This is one of the first Christies I ever read, and I still remember being thrilled by the 'least likely suspect' solution. Very clever, and somehow typical of her to come up with such an idea.

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    1. That's a great description of the ending, the perfect Christie twist where everything switches around.

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  9. Now that is going to niggle away at me! I read something a while ago about hat dye and it being the cheap way to change one's hat every Summer, but I'm damned if I can remember where I saw it. Straw hats, that is.
    I haven't read this particular book, although I do like Agatha Christie, my late Grandfather was also a fan.

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    1. Make sure you tell me if you think of it, please. I am so interested in these little things, that must have been part of life but don't surface except for the odd whispering reference, because they were such a mundane part of life.

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