A strange notice appears in the morning paper of a perfectly ordinary small English village, Chipping Cleghorn: "A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks, at 6:30 p.m. Friends accept this, the only intimation." This apparently comes as a great surprise to Letitia Blacklock, the owner of Little Paddocks, as she has no idea what the notice means; she didn't place it and none of her companions knows more than she. Miss Blacklock decides to take it in her stride and prepares herself to have guests that evening. Naturally, the villagers are intrigued by this notice, and several of them appear on the doorstep with awkward reasons but a definite interest. As the clock strikes 6:30, the lights go out and a door swings open, revealing a man with a blinding torch.
The heavily-accented man demands they "Stick 'em up!" Most of the guests do so, believing it to be part of a game. The game ends when shots are fired into the room. The door slams shut, and panic takes hold: in short order, it's discovered that the fuses are blown, the gunman has been shot, and Miss Blacklock's ear is bleeding, apparently from a bullet grazing her earlobe. The most curious thing is the gunman: he is recognised by Dora Bunner (affectionately known as "Bunny", who is an old friend of Letitia and lives at Little Paddocks as her companion) as Rudi Scherz, the receptionist at a local spa, who had asked Letitia for money just a few short days ago.
The police are called in. All clues suggest that the case is merely a strange suicide or accidental death, but Inspector Craddock is uneasy about both possibilities. As luck would have it, Miss Marple is a guest at the very same spa where Scherz was employed. Craddock is advised to involve her in the case, and the two commence working together. At the spa, it emerges that Scherz has a criminal background, but petty theft and forgery rather than any more serious crime. His girlfriend, a waitress at the spa, however, reveals that he had been paid to appear as the holdup man; he believed it was all "a silly English joke", and was clearly not planning on being shot. With this new knowledge, Craddock returns to Chipping Cleghorn. Miss Marple, not uncoincidentally, is the godmother of the local vicar's wife, and decides to stay with her.
The first step is to establish a motive for Scherz's attack on Miss Blacklock. This presents a problem: Letitia has no known enemies. She worked for a successful financier (Randall Goedler) and has done quite well for herself but is not herself wealthy. She does not lead a lavish life and, aside from her house, has only enough to live on. However, she may shortly come into a great deal of money; Randall Goedler's estate passed to his wife, Belle, when he died. Belle is frail and near death. When Belle dies, Miss Blacklock inherits everything. If, however, she predeceases Belle, the estate goes to the mysterious "Pip" and "Emma", children of Randall's estranged sister, Sonia. No one knows where these two are, much less what they look like.
Inspector Craddock discovers oil on the hinges of a door into the parlour (where the shooting took place) thought to be unused, and Bunny mentions that until quite recently there had been a table placed against the door. Craddock travels to Scotland to meet Belle; she mentions that Letitia had a beloved sister, Charlotte, who developed a goitre. Their father, an old-fashioned doctor, tried unsuccessfully to treat Charlotte, but she only withdrew further into herself as her goitre got worse. Their father died shortly before World War II, and Letitia gave up her job with Goedler and took her sister to Switzerland for surgery to repair the defect. The two sisters waited out the war in the Swiss countryside, but before it was over, Charlotte died very suddenly. Letitia returned to England shortly thereafter.
Miss Marple takes tea with Bunny during her shopping trip with Letitia, and Bunny reveals several details about the case: she talks about the recently oiled door she found with the Inspector; she's sure that Patrick Simmons, a young cousin of Letitia, who, with his sister Julia, is also staying at Little Paddocks, is not as he appears; and, most tellingly, she's absolutely positive there was a different lamp in the room on the night of the murder – the one with the shepherdess, not the one with the shepherd that is there now. This tête-à-tête ends, however, when Letitia arrives, and she and Bunny resume their shopping.
That evening, Letitia arranges a birthday party for Bunny, complete with almost everyone who was at the house when Scherz was killed; and she asks Mitzi (a somewhat paranoid young refugee who helps keep house and cooks for her) to make her special cake, which Patrick has nicknamed "Delicious Death". This was while post-war austerity rationing was in effect – butter and eggs were hard to come by even in a rural community, and the chocolate and raisins used in the cake were very difficult to get. A box of chocolates is also a present. Bunny loves chocolate but it gives her a headache and she can't find the aspirin she bought. She takes some of Letitia's aspirin instead, lies down for a nap – and dies.
Miss Marple visits Miss Blacklock, who mourns Bunny and starts crying. Miss Marple asks to see photo albums which might contain pictures of Sonia Goedler, Pip and Emma's mother, but all photos of Sonia were taken out of the albums recently, although they were in place before the death of Rudi Scherz. Through deduction and re-enactment, Misses Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd (two spinster farming companions present at the time of the Scherz shooting) figure out that Miss Murgatroyd could see who was in the room as she was standing behind the door when it swung open; she couldn't have seen Rudi as he was on the other side of the opened door, but she could see whose faces were illuminated by the torch beam. The two women conclude that the person who wasn't in the room (and therefore not seen by Miss Murgatroyd) could have sneaked out of the room when the lights went out and come around behind Scherz and shot him and at Miss Blacklock.
Just as Miss Murgatroyd remembers the one person not in the room, the stationmaster calls to notify them that a dog has just arrived. As Miss Hinchcliffe drives away, Murgatroyd runs into the driveway, shouting "She wasn't there!", but is later found murdered and never gets to reveal what she means. Miss Hinchcliffe returns and meets Miss Marple. They discover Murgatroyd's body, and a distraught Hinchcliffe informs Miss Marple of Murgatroyd's cryptic statement.
At Little Paddocks, Letitia receives a letter from the real Julia Simmons in Perth. She confronts "Julia" with the letter, and "Julia" reveals that she is actually Sonia's daughter, Emma Stamfordis, masquerading as Julia so that she could attempt to gain a portion of the inheritance from Letitia and let the real Julia spend time pursuing an acting career. Julia/Emma insists she is uninvolved in the assassination attempt – she was a crack shot during the French Resistance and would not have missed at that range, even in the dark – nor did she wish to prevent Letitia from inheriting Randall Goedler's estate. She had intended to ingratiate herself with Letitia and try to obtain a portion of the money, and once the murder took place, had no choice but to continue the masquerade.
Phillipa Haymes (a boarder at Little Paddocks and a young widow) sneaks into the kitchen to speak to Julia/Emma, but Julia/Emma sends her away before finding out what Phillipa had to say. That night, the vicar's cat, Tiglath Pileser, knocks over a glass of water onto a frayed electrical cord, which causes the fuses to blow, and the final clue falls into place for Miss Marple. Inspector Craddock gathers everyone at Little Paddocks and launches the final inquest, which is interrupted by Mitzi, crying out that she saw Letitia commit the murder. The inspector continues with his questioning, and quickly insinuates that Edmund Swettenham who, with his widowed mother, was also present at the shooting, is in fact Pip. However, Phillipa comes forward and confesses she is Pip. Craddock accuses Edmund of wanting to marry a rich wife in Phillipa by murdering Letitia. Edmund denies this and as he does so, a terrified scream is heard from the kitchen.
Everyone heads to the kitchen to find Miss Blacklock attempting to drown Mitzi in the sink. Miss Blacklock is arrested by a local constable who has been hiding in the kitchen with Miss Marple, who imitates Dora Bunner's voice to make Miss Blacklock break down. Miss Marple explains it quite simply: it wasn't Charlotte who died in Switzerland, but Letitia. Charlotte, aware that Letitia was in line to inherit a fortune, posed as Letitia and returned to England; few people knew Charlotte, as she had been a recluse before leaving England, and a slight change in Letitia's appearance could be explained away to casual acquaintances by her time abroad during the war. She only needed to avoid people who knew Letitia well, such as Belle Goedler, and to always cover her throat with strings of pearls or beads to hide the scars from her goitre surgery. Bunny was one of the few people who remembered Charlotte as Charlotte, but by then, Charlotte was so lonely that she allowed her old school friend, fallen on hard times, to move in.
Scherz could have ruined everything, however. He worked at the Swiss hospital where Charlotte had been treated and could identify her as such, which is why Letitia/Charlotte hired him to come to Chipping Cleghorn and "hold up" a room full of guests. She blew the fuse by pouring water from a vase of flowers onto the frayed cord of a lamp, slipped out the second door, stood behind Scherz and shot him. She then nicked her ear with a pair of nail scissors and rejoined the others, playing the part of perplexed host.
Bunny became the next target because she knew too much. Bunny had an eye for detail, but was prone to slip-ups: on several occasions, she referred to Miss Blacklock as "Lotty" (short for "Charlotte") instead of "Letty" (short for "Letitia"), and her conversation with Miss Marple in the cafe proved fatal.
Amy Murgatroyd, the final victim, was also killed for guessing too much and for coming to the realisation that Letitia/Charlotte was the one person, beside herself, whose face was not illuminated by Rudi Scherz's torch. The tall, strongly built Hinchcliffe, when she learns who murdered her companion, has to be physically restrained from doing harm to Letitia/Charlotte.
Mitzi and Edmund had been persuaded by Miss Marple to play parts in tripping Charlotte Blacklock up; Miss Marple's plans were almost brought down when Phillipa admitted to being Pip, but Inspector Craddock thought quickly enough to turn around and claim Edmund was after Phillipa's money. In the end, Phillipa/Pip and Julia/Emma inherit the Goedler fortune; Edmund and Phillipa get married and return to Chipping Cleghorn to live.Miss Jane Marple
Inspector Dermot Eric Craddock
Letitia Blacklock, lady of the house, in her 60s
Dora Bunner, her elderly fluttery childhood friend, usually known by her nickname, "Bunny"
Patrick and Julia Simmons, Miss Blacklock's spoiled and foolish young cousins (who call her "Aunt" due to the difference in ages)
Mitzi, Miss Blacklock's foreign housekeeper and cook, a young refugee
Phillipa Haymes, a young widowed paying guest/gardener with a young son at boarding school
Colonel Archie Easterbrook, blustery old colonel just returned from India
Laura Easterbrook, his considerably younger, glamorous wife
Mrs Swettenham, elderly lady who dotes on her son, Edmund
Edmund Swettenham, cynical young writer
Miss Hinchcliffe, physically fit, tough lady farmer
Miss Amy Murgatroyd, Miss Hinchcliffe's sweet-dispositioned, giggly companion
Belle Goedler, dying widow of Letitia's former wealthy employer
Julian Harmon, the vicar
Diana "Bunch" Harmon, the vicar's wife
Tiglath Pileser, the vicarage cat
Rudi Scherz, a young man of Swiss extraction, the receptionist at a local spa
Myrna Harris, girlfriend of the latter, waitress at local spa
Chief Constable George Rydesdale, Craddock's superior
Detective Sergeant Fletcher, assisting Craddock
Sir Henry Clithering, retired commissioner of Scotland Yard, old friend of Miss Marple
After five years of not reviewing any of Christie's detective novels, Julian MacLaren-Ross in The Times Literary Supplement was lavish in his praise of the book in the issue dated 23 June 1950: "A new novel by Mrs Agatha Christie always deserves to be placed at the head of any list of detective fiction and her fiftieth book, A Murder is Announced, establishes firmly her claim to the throne of detection. The plot is as ingenious as ever, the writing more careful, the dialogue both wise and witty; while suspense is engendered from the very start, and maintained skilfully until the final revelation: it will be a clever reader indeed who anticipates this, and though Miss Christie is as usual scrupulously fair in scattering her clues, close attention to the text is necessary if a correct solution of the mystery is to be arrived at before the astute Miss Marple unmasks the culprit." The review concluded, "Miss Christie has several surprises up her sleeve besides the main one, and (this much may be said without spoiling the reader’s pleasure) she once again breaks new ground by creating a weak and kindly murderer who is yet responsible for the deaths of three people: that such a character should, in the last analysis, seem credible, is a tribute to the author’s psychological acumen and originality of concept."
Maurice Richardson, in the 4 June 1950 issue of The Observer said, "For her fiftieth book she has chosen a snug, residential village setting with her favourite detective, silver-haired, needle-sharp spinster, Miss Marple, making a delayed appearance. Not quite one of her top notchers, but very smooth entertainment. The Prime Minister (Clement Attlee), who is her fervent admirer, might fittingly celebrate this jubilee by making her a Dame." (It took until 1971 for Christie to be awarded the DBE).
Norman Shrapnel in The Guardian's issue of 9 June 1950 noted that this was Christie's 50th book and said that the murderer was "run to earth in a brilliantly conducted parlour game".
An unnamed reviewer in the Toronto Daily Star of 30 September 1950 opined that "A Murder is Announced displays all the adroit and well-bred legerdemain one has come to expect from Agatha Christie... This jubilee whodunit is as deft and ingenious a fabrication as Agatha Christie has contrived in many a year."
Robert Barnard: "Superb reworking of the standard Christie setting and procedures, marred only by an excess of homicide at the end. The book is distantly related to "The Companion", in The Thirteen Problems."
In the "Binge!" article of Entertainment Weekly Issue #1343–44 (26 December 2014 – 3 January 2015), the writers picked A Murder Is Announced as an "EW favorite" on the list of the "Nine Great Christie Novels".
The Goodyear Playhouse showed an adaptation by William Templeton in 1956 with Gracie Fields as Miss Marple, Roger Moore as Patrick Simmons and Jessica Tandy as Leticia Blacklock.
Leslie Darbon adapted the novel into a stage play in 1977. It was first presented at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, by Peter Saunders – who brought Christie's The Mousetrap to the stage – and then on 21 September 1977 at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, which he then owned. The play first toured Australia in 2013 with Judi Farr as Miss Marple, Robert Grubb as Inspector Craddock, Libby Munro as Phillipa Haymes, directed by Darren Yap.
The novel was adapted by Alan Plater and filmed in 1985 with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple and Ursula Howells as Miss Blacklock, directed by David Giles for the BBC series Miss Marple. Only a few changes were made: Mitzi was renamed Hannah and is said to be Swiss (in the book, her nationality is unknown) and in the novel the vicarage cat was male and called Tiglath Pileser. In the film the cat was female and called Delilah.
In 2005, it was part of the first season of the ITV series Agatha Christie's Marple which featured Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple, Zoë Wanamaker as Letitia Blacklock, Keeley Hawes as Phillipa Haymes, Elaine Paige as Dora Bunner, Cherie Lunghi as Sadie Swettenham, and Catherine Tate as Mitzi. While the basic plot is retained from the novel, most of the characters in this adaptation have been heavily altered.1950, Collins Crime Club (London), June 1950, Hardcover, 256 pp
1950, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), June 1950, Hardcover, 248 pp
1951, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, 229 pp
1953, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 191 pp
1958, Pan Books, Paperback, 204 pp (Great Pan 144)
1965, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 246 pp
1967, Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, 288 pp
1967, Greenway edition of collected works (Dodd Mead), Hardcover, 288 pp
2005, Marple Facsimile edition (Facsimile of 1950 UK first edition), 7 November 2005, Hardcover ISBN 0-00-720846-4
The novel was serialised in eleven parts in the Daily Express from Tuesday, 28 February to Saturday, 11 March 1950. Five instalments carried an illustration by long-term Express artist Andrew Robb. This version did not contain any chapter divisions and contained only about half of the text that appeared in the book publication, totally omitting chapters five, six, seven, fourteen and the epilogue. It had been planned for this serialisation to take place closer to the eventual book publication in June 1950 but it was pulled forward by Christie’s literary agent Edmund Cork in an effort to boost interest at the ailing box office for the play Murder at the Vicarage.
In the US, the first publication was in the Chicago Tribune in forty-nine parts from Monday, 17 April to Monday, 12 June 1950.