“It begins, all this, at a funeral. Or rather, to be exact, after the funeral.”
At its heart, After the Funeral (alternatively published as Funerals are Fatal) is a story of England in transitioning times. The war has led to changes in all layers of society. Not just has the very upper crust seen their standing buckle in light of post war regulations, but those impacts have rippled to the staff or even the pre-war business owner in town. Christie has a knack for telling this sort of story. It’s not just the lord of the manor lamenting that he can’t find a good help anymore, but also the manor’s trained butler questioning his own place in a changing society.
Of course, After the Funeral also features a murder, and a damn fine one. The story unfolds after the natural death of Richard Abernethie – your typical rich corpse surrounded by a family pecking for his inheritance. At his funeral party, socially awkward Aunt Cora remarks to everyone’s horror – “But he was murdered, wasn’t he?” Twenty four hours later and Cora is occupying a coffin – her head nearly severed by an axe.
After the Funeral hits the nail on the head in so many ways that it’s hard to capture it. We have the classic “inheritance crime”, amplified by circumstances that turn it into a “missing will”. Then there’s the haunting question of “what did she know?” – nailed time and again by Christie in works such as A Murder is Announced or Death Comes as the End.
“And suddenly, seeing the picture clearly in her mind, Helen frowned… There was something wrong with that picture…
Was it an expression on someone’s face? Was that it? Something that – how could she put it? – ought not to have been there…?”
Although Poirot shows up eventually to investigate the case, the first portion of the story follows Mr Entwhistle – the family solicitor and executor of Richard Abernethie’s will. He simply can’t shake from his mind the question of whether his employer’s seemingly natural death was foul play. That everyone has a motive is perhaps predictable in this sort of story, but Christie supplies a strong cast of characters to investigate.
It’s through that investigation and those characters that Christie tells the real story. A story of England after the war. Of the fundamental changes to society that perhaps made these very country house murders a quaint relic of the Golden Age. Of course, those plot points are best experienced than described, but they’re the element of the story that sticks with me.
True to her form, Christie took me completely by surprise at the end. This is one of those rare cases where even if you guessed the killer, I still think you would be shocked. I actually had what I still consider to be a really clever alternate solution to the whole thing, but Christie’s solution came entirely out of left field. It’s funny because I’ve been cursed with a knack to see through most of the Christie misdirections that I’ve read, and I thought I had done it yet again. Not the case this time and I’m glad for it.
Finishing a Poirot book is always something to look forward to because I then watch the David Suchet adaptation. Of course this is a form of torture for my poor wife, who can’t stand watching these boring old movies.
The Suchet adaptation of After the Funeral really only maintains a shell of the story. With the exception of the set up of the crime and the solution, nearly everything else goes off script. The movie is still enjoyable, but it scarcely resembles the book. I’m impressed though that they successfully pull off the key misdirection on film.
My wife horrified me by spotting the motive for the murder immediately. I mean, come on, she doesn’t even read mysteries! Of course, she wasn’t interested enough to then tie the motive to the person who possessed the motive, but it’s better than I had done.
After the Funeral concludes my glut of highly recommended Christie books. That’s not to say that I’ve exhausted the best of her work – not by a mile. Rather, I’m changing tack for a bit. After dining on delicacies such as Death on the Nile, Crooked House, and Five Little Pigs, I’m going to try to mix it up more.
Now that I’ve read enough to be convinced that I’m committing to reading Christie – hell, who am I kidding, my first book convinced me of that – I’m going to try starting towards the beginning of her career and reading in order. Throughout, I’ll be interleaving books from elsewhere in her library that I’m curious about, as I’ve found sticking purely to a timeline can leave me feeling a little burned out. Of course, this will probably all backfire on me, and you’ll laugh as I unknowingly continue my binge of top-shelf titles – “Look guys, here’s an early book called The Murder of Roger Ackroyd!!!”
I’m still in love with my own solution to After the Funeral, and I figured I’d discuss it here since most of you have probably already read the book. I’m not going to talk about the real solution, but this is spoiler-related since I’ll be ruling out a solution. If you comment below, please be discreet.
My theory was that the least likely killer murdered Richard Abernethie – Cora. Her remark at the funeral was because being her awkward self, she assumed that everyone else understood that it was murder.
So, if Cora is the killer, then who has the motive to murder her? The only person who lost something by Richard Abernethie’s death – Lanscombe, the butler. He would have found himself in peril of being out of a job in an England that no longer had a place for his type. And that would be pure poetry given the theme of the book.
14 thoughts on “After the Funeral – Agatha Christie (1953)”
I like your alternate theory . . . not so much, Ben! But I LOVE that you loved this, my favorite Poirot. And the fact that you didn’t get the solution makes me very happy! Forwardddddd ——–> to the beginning!!!
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I was absolutely certain that I had the solution. All the better for being shocked in the end.
Brad is right. Your alternative solution sounds like a modern parody of the classic detective story (i.e. horrendous), but glad you liked the book.
I consider After the Funeral to be Christie’s last truly great mystery novel, complete with a smash surprise, before the steep decline begins. You still get some passable or even good novels, like The Pale Horse and Endless Night, but never again would she reach the heights of After the Funeral.
My memory of the Suchet adaptation is better than your description. However, you can probably write that down to my surprise they actually succeeded in making the trick work off the printed page. I never expected the plot would translate so well to the small screen.
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Glad there is a Christie which can pull the wool over your eyes as I have noted that you are quite good at seeing through Christie’s red herrings. The motive in this case is an unusual one, which is equally unusual given it is a later Christie.
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I’m glad you liked this one. So, is your next Christie going to be The Murder of Roger Ackroyd? I understood that was spoiled for you.
No, I think my next book will be The Mysterious Affair at Styles. From that point I’ll be alternating between reading the books in order and throwing in titles I’m intrigued by.
After the Funeral is one of my favorite Christie’s, largely due to a small section near the beginning that tells you nothing and tells you everything. It manages to provide a astonishing reversal with the solution of the crime, and it manages to portray life in post WWII England quite effectively.
Is there something about the David Suchet adaptation that non mystery reader’s find transparent? I watched the episode with one of my cousins a few months back and he managed to not only figure out motive, but culprit as well. Most of the Suchet adaptations aren’t faithful to the books, as you’ll likely find out in the coming months and past Series 9, more liberties are taken with the plots and characters in an effort to either modernize the story, make it focus on a certain theme like religion, or are seemingly done just for the hell of it (Appointment with Death is a atrocity).
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Death on the Nile is amazingly transparent in the Suchet adaptation (although I must admit I saw what was going on while reading the book as well).
So glad I don’t have to eat my hat!!!!!
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Also, on your alternative solution, oh honey…no. Also, please take it down before Sarah Phelps sees it, thinks it’s brilliant, and makes a series of After the Funeral with it.
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Warning – heavy spoilers
You and your fans have put this down for so long, this comment may be too late. I was totally engaged by the story, earlly on surmised incorrectly a different killer (Maude) and found the ending intriguing, but unsatisfying. My complaint is simply that, while Ms. Gilchrist had a motive, it was hardly sufficient for an axe murder. She could easily have obtained the Vermeer through simple theft, disguised as a breaking and entering by a stranger. Cora didn’t know it was a valuable item and wouldn’t particularly have missed it. Gilchrist could have stored it, later sold it and moved away without causing the slightest stir.
A few years on I always seem to forget about this book. It’s enjoyable without question, but doesn’t stand out in my memory. Not one of Christie’s very best.