#53 – After the Funeral – with a special guest AND SPOILERS

For my latest Agatha Christie review I was joined on 9th May 2020 by Brad from ahsweetmysteryblog to discuss everything that happened “After the Funeral”.

Countdown John: You’ve said on your post recently this is the best Poirot which is a big claim. So when did you first read it – early, late, middle?

Brad: I was probably 13 or 14. I think it was one of the first. The first Poirot I read was “Murder on the Orient Express” and this came pretty soon after that and at that time I loved it but I didn’t think it was the best Poirot. I didn’t know there were 31 other Poirots. That feeling has come about because I’m a grown up and I’ve read them all so many times. And is it the best? It’s all personal but it’s my favourite Christie and my favourite Poirot by far.

So I came to it later in my reading of Christie. My parents had a reasonable number on their shelves which I had got through and then we got a number from a friend of theirs who was getting rid of them, possibly because they were now duplicates. How would you describe it in a non-spoilerish way? 

When I first read the Bantam paperback they tried to describe Christie in a more modern way. This is the case of the corpse with its head bashed in and the greedy nieces hungry for money – they made it kind of sensationalist. But really it’s the last great, classically clued Christie. There are some good Christies that come after it but none of them with that sense of the cluing. It’s the last great family mystery. Every time I say this I think of Ordeal by Innocence which is such a different experience but it does have a really interesting family but feels like a really different kind of mystery. I was just listening to the All About Agatha podcast and they had just done After the Funeral and the next book A Pocket Full of Rye which is another family mystery and it’s so inferior as a family mystery in my opinion. So it’s the last great family mystery and the last great clued mystery. From then on she loosened up.

I was thinking how it starts with the butler, Lanscombe, the last of the family retainers, similar to Tressilian in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, and I was thinking is this the last country house mystery or the last family one? And I thought of A Pocket Full of Rye which is family based but different although I like it a lot (which I will go into next month) but that has a more modern setting. And Ordeal by Innocence does have a very different tone in what it is saying and how the plot works.

It’s got a very different butler, A Pocketful of Rye, Mr Crump, who is very Dickensian – a bad butler. I didn’t understand it as a kid, but in that opening chapter Lanscombe is setting us up for the end of this era, the end of GAD. The end of the feeling of old time mysteries with servants. They’re not going to be able to afford him or the house or the staff any more. We’ve all seen that on Downton Abbey. But this time it’s about money. No one can afford an estate any more, not after the war. So you’re not going to have country house mysteries any more in that way.

In the recent books there have been a number of references to post-war fixed incomes having become lower for the middle classes, Miss Marple even, as mentioned in the previous book They Do It With Mirrors, can only maintain her standard of living thanks to the kindness of her nephew, a successful author. 

In They Do It With Mirrors, and it is interesting that it comes before this book, you see what is happening to these houses now. People have to take them over and turn them into schools or prisons or offices or apartments. And it’s funny because that is to me a far inferior book to this one. It’s got some good things in it and whilst it makes use of the house, the juvenile delinquents do nothing for me.

In After The Funeral, the house is no longer going to kept on by the family following Richard’s death. When Poirot goes undercover he is posing as a representative of a fictitious refugee organisation who plan to turn the house into an institute of some kind. 

He’s saying let me take this beautiful country home and fill it with foreigners and the younger generation could care less, they just want to get it off their hands – it’s a real sign of a whole new England. I don’t know that she was making a negative stance of it but Poirot’s alias gives us a chance to look at what was going on in that world, how it was all breaking down, not just the class structure but how the neighbourhoods were going to become integrated.

It’s a nice link back to The Mysterious Affair at Styles where Poirot himself arrived as a Belgian refugee from the First World War.

So, the story begins, as the title say, after the funeral of Richard Abernethie who has died, seemingly after a short illness. Although the doctors said he could have lived on for some time, they’re not surprised. He seemed to have lost the will to live after the recent death of his son and heir. The family have congregated back at the house when his sister drops a bomb into proceedings when says (the tagline on the back of the copy I first read) “But he was murdered, wasn’t he?” Everyone is confused as to where that idea comes from but she rows back and everyone goes home thinking that she is a little bit batty and that’s just the kind of thing that she says.  

I’m thinking a couple of years before this, we had Taken at the Flood, which is the same kind of idea where a patriarch dies and everybody’s been dependent on him or were expecting that their lives would be made better after his death. He ‘s going to settle his fortune on them and they are all going to do OK. But in Taken at the Flood everybody lives close to each other – they’re all still connected to each other and they receive Gordon Cloade’s largesse. But here they’re not a close family, they know each other but no one has seen Cora in twenty years. It doesn’t seem that Rosamund and Michael are in any way close to Susan and Greg – they’re completely different kinds of couple. Timothy and Maude are off in their own little world where she is trapped taking care of him and the only one who seems to float from person to person is Helen because she’s stayed close to Richard. And then George is the black sheep. So it’s a weird group that comes together. You couldn’t do this trick with the Cloade family because no one would be fooled by Cora, no one could pretend to be Cora.

The next day Cora is found brutally murdered, possibly the victim of a burglary gone wrong, or perhaps she has been silenced. Entwhistle, the family solicitor begins his own investigation into whether there is a link between the deaths of Richard and Cora.

And that is why the passage at the end of chapter 3 is so interesting. I remember reading this – when I was a kid and read Agatha Christie I almost never got them right, I was always surprised, I was surprised by this one – where it shows them all going home and wondering about what’s going on and at the end of the chapter there is this scene at the buffet at Swindon where “the lady in wispy mourning and festoons of jet was eating bath buns and drinking tea and looking forward to the future. She had no premonitions of disaster. She was happy.” And what I took from that is that Cora said what she did deliberately. She threw that bomb into the funeral to cause some kind of trouble. Now they never say the name “Cora” so we don’t know who it really is but we think it’s Cora – it sounds like Cora, she’s dressed like Cora, she knows what she just did and I thought that was just chutzpah, a nice Jewish word, chutzpah on the part of Christie to kind of rub it in our face – and not only that she doesn’t like the tea – it’s like saying look at me, look at me! I love that.  She manipulates us into thinking maybe it wasn’t just Cora running off her mouth but that she had a purpose in doing that and before we can find out what that purpose is somebody kills her. So I interpreted that as maybe she knew who the killer was – we find out later that Richard visited her – maybe she’s a blackmailer.

I can’t remember how I would have seen that when I first read it as I read even more quickly then than I do now so I wouldn’t have picked up on the significance of her not being named, whereas reading it again and comparing it to the rest of the chapter where everyone else is named, it’s so obvious.

I think I’m a very slow reader because of Agatha Christie. I used to read quickly and missed everything. All those verbal clues that we just read right through. I started to read much more methodically and it’s killing me because I can’t get through a book any more.

I’m deliberately reading more slowly with my Christie re-reads as I’m taking notes and thinking more about them. And in other GAD reading I’ve slowed down a little to think about where the story is going but not too much as I still want to be surprised. I love the fact that this book works because we are readers of mystery fiction. When Cora puts the idea out that Richard was murdered we go “of course he was” because this is a detective story – we are expecting a murder to have happened. And then the second murder confirms the first murder and then there is an attempted poisoning and finally someone is hit over the head so we have a sequence of four murders/attempted murders. There is the trope that is over a hundred years old that says where do you hide a murder – amongst a series of murders. But this is a step on from that because you hide a murder amongst an imaginary series of murders.

Yes, you either hide a murder in a series of unrelated murders or you make everyone believe that the real murder is a side effect on a fake murder or an unimportant murder – Cora had to die only because Richard died – and then nobody is looking at why Cora had to die.

When the police initially look into Cora’s murder, they say that if it wasn’t for what had happened after the funeral, that the companion would be the prime suspect. And then there is the attempted poisoning of Miss Gilchrist, which makes it seem that she is in danger.

I’m grateful that I didn’t read this at this agefor the first time as now when someone gets poisoned and doesn’t die that makes them rise to number one on my list. So why don’t we see that? I think part of it is because for me Miss Gilchrist is one of the greatest characters Christie created. She’s just so great. I believe her. They talk quite openly about the idea of two women getting queer, getting weird together because they’re trapped, they’re lonely, they don’t know what’s happening and so things go wrong between them. They consider Miss Gilchrist but then she’s so disarming and the whole thing with the wedding cake and sticking a piece under your pillow and all that – it’s all so sweet, that I just dismissed her.

I think the touch of having the cake under the pillow because she’s managed to save the evidence in a subtle way. She hasn’t brought it to anyone’s attention. The doctor has worked it out for himself, that although she is past the age where marriage is likely, it is something that she might have done, and so he is the driving force in having it tested. 

And there are two other reasons for me not to suspect Miss Gilchrist. Number one, Cora’s murder is so brutal – you think it’s the work either of a man or a younger woman – someone ruthless, Rosamund could do it, George could do it, or either of the husbands. It’s hard to imagine Helen or Maude or Timothy doing it. Christie does this in other books – pushing you towards the younger generation when actually it is one of the older characters. Number two is that Miss Gilchrist has no connection to Richard so if you buy into the idea that Cora was killed because of Richard then it doesn’t make any sense. Even if it was separate then you’re dealing with two murderers – someone who murdered Richard and Cora knows that – and then Miss Gilchrist just kills her, that seems so un-Christie-like as everything usually goes together so well. So I never suspected Miss Gilchrist.

I never did either. Someone recently posted something on Facebook saying that the brutal manner of the murder did not fit with the identity of the murderer. But I think it’s violent because it is someone pretending to be a criminal who is caught in the act. I think also, because of what is shown at the end that there was a tension between Miss Gilchrist and Cora who she sees as a very stupid woman, who thinks she knows about art but can’t recognise a Vermeer. There is a genuine hatred and frustration there which at the point of the murder spills out. 

Yes, I mean she hated Cora. It’s perhaps the weakest part of the book that Cora has got this valuable painting by a fluke. But it brings home to Miss Gilchrist what an idiot Cora is, especially about art which is something that she really did know about because of her father.

The position of Miss Gilchrist as a live-in companion is interesting, with the class issues that are involved and the insecurity of that role. She’d lost her tea-shop because of the war – she’d had something and she lost it and is forced into taking this position, not quite as a servant – she certainly doesn’t see it that way (or if she does she doesn’t admit that to others) – she doesn’t do the “rough” – another lady comes in to do what are presumably the more menial tasks.  When she goes to Timothy and Maude’s she is a little bit above the cook and the cook does defer to her. She says she has never been trained for anything, although she has tried a couple of jobs that haven’t worked out, similar in some ways to Dora Bunner in ” A Murder is Announced”. But at least Dora has a friend from the past in Miss Blacklock who is willing to take her in and the relationship is not quite as unequal.

Miss Gilchrist’s status as companion brings out one of my favourite clues in the book. Companions are always fluttering about and people try to ignore them. I’m thinking of Miss Lawson in “Dumb Witness” – everyone looks at her like “who is this woman?” And she’s always chatter-chatter-chatter. And that is what Miss Gilchrist does – always trying to be pleasant and chattering away. So when there’s the incredible scene where they’re sitting around the dining table discussing who’s going to get what because Richard didn’t specify that. So who’s going to get the Spode and who’s going to get this and that. And Miss Gilchrist just wants to chime in. She wants to be a part of things even though she knows people don’t really pay much attention to her. So she casually says “Oh, yes. The wax flowers look lovely on the green malachite table.” And that’s the  greatest clue! Christie set that clue up so well because the breaking of the flowers happens in a really dramatic scene where Helen hears something, so we’re focussing on that and not on the flowers. And so step by step Miss Gilchrist incriminates herself because she wants to be a part of things. She wants people to pay a little attention to her and to play her part in making people feel good.

As you say the flowers were to do with Helen, and Susan and Rosamund are warring over the table, so neither element has anything to do with Miss Gilchrist and yet they are pointing to her. And this is where Poirot is vindicated when earlier he thought to himself “There would have to be conversation. Much conversation. For in the long run, either through a lie, or through truth, people were bound to give themselves away.” Here because Miss Gilchrist admits to knowing something that she couldn’t possibly have known or thinking back to a specific earlier title someone doesn’t know something that they should. Either way, having too much or too little knowledge will give rise to a clue. 

On the “All About Agatha” podcast they were complaining that in “They Do It With Mirrors” there were no mirrors – it was just a metaphor for a magic act – but here there is a mirror issue with Miss Gilchrist being a reflection of Cora rather than Cora herself which is what Helen notices and the podcasters felt this was a stupid clue. They felt “does anyone pay attention to that” and I don’t know, I’m willing to give people the benefit of the doubt in a murder mystery. Stuff happens that doesn’t happen in real life. I guess there is a point there that after twenty years of not seeing her, would Helen really recognise that Cora was doing everything in reverse, the trick with the head and all that? What do you think?

I think it works as a clue. It is said that when she felt something was wrong it was when they were all looking at Cora, so that sense should have been about Cora rather than one of the other observers. I don’t think it is completely out there because I think we have all sorts of odd things in our memories which we don’t often think about, but when something jogs it, we can have a sudden realisation. I have no problem with it as a clue.

We also have the appearance of sinister nuns who may be up to no good. One visited Cora’s house before the murder and then Miss Gilchrist is spooked by one at Timothy and Maude’s. 

That’s just weird. I went along with it as a kid. Actors are often murderers but here, which is refreshing, the actors are red herrings. So Rosamund and Michael, who could easily disguise themselves as nuns, could get a “Murder in the Cathedral” costume so it kind of plants that idea. Although for me, when I was thinking of who would dress up as a nun, I kept thinking of George. I just felt George Crossfield would cross-dress, you know, so that’s who I was always suspicious of in that regard. I couldn’t imagine Susan or Greg dressing up as nuns. So I guess the nuns keep getting brought up to give the idea of an outsider. You would know this better than me but do you think it has anything to do with anti-Catholic sentiment? Like a good God-fearing Church of England person would be suspicious of nuns?

I don’t think so. I think it is just the idea of a person being covered up apart from the face so that it is a good disguise. Just thinking about it now, having seen it mentioned on “Horrible Histories” yesterday, there was an idea in the Second World War that German paratroopers would disguise themselves as nuns.

One nun looks like another, so there is an anonymity about them. No one pays any attention to them as an individual, so it would be very easy for an innocent Miss Gilchrist to be fooled by someone passing themselves off as a nun.

Once they have all reassembled at Enderby and Poirot is thinking about motives for the murders and he goes through each person and says to himself “Even Miss Gilchrist might have contemplated murder if it could have restored to her the Willow Tree in its lady-like glory!” But the exclamation mark shows us that he thinks of it as a joke. But the tea-shop is mentioned all the way through.

It’s the best motive in murder mysteries. I love this motive. I know that Sophie Hannah loves it too as she wrote the introduction. But that’s brilliant writing. The fact that Christie lets Poirot say “here’s the case – if this old lady did it, she did it to get a tea-shop” and then we’re going  “well that’s ridiculous” and so we cross it off. I love that.

The only slightly surprising thing I find reading it now is that at the end is that Susan is shocked at Miss Gilchrist having committed a brutal murder for only five thousand pounds, and maybe that is just because she has received an inheritance so much greater, but in 1953 five thousand pounds would still have been a massive amount of money for most people. It’s going to get you more than just a tea-shop. I’m sure I’ve heard my parents talk about house prices in the early seventies still being a few thousand pounds.

I never considered that when I was young but there is a difference in class. To Miss Gilchrist five thousand pounds would be enormous and it would give her exactly what she wants. In a sense she’s not greedy, she doesn’t want to be rich, she wants to go back to doing what she did so well before the war ruined everything. The war ruined everything for a lot of older women. They got kicked out of jobs and lost whatever they had – their husbands, their sons, their livelihood because no one could afford to pay them. “A Murder is Announced” is another of my favourite books and one of my favourite scenes is when Dora Bunner is having tea with Miss Marple and talking about what her life became and I think that is what happened to Miss Gilchrist too and to just get something back makes for a huge motive. To not be stuck with this crazy lady who doesn’t pay any attention to her. Obviously we focus on the bigger motives because those inheriting from Richard are going to get a lot more.

It’s interesting thinking about that now, where we are with coronavirus, and the whole economic consequences that there will be from it, is thinking about what society is going to do for the people who have already lost jobs or are going to lose jobs. How as a society are we going to look after people? In the UK we have the unprecedented situation of the government paying 80% of the salaries of people who have been furloughed and can’t work but that can’t carry on indefinitely. After the Second World War there was a massive re-building programme. How are we going to do that this time round? 

Number one, for me, I’m very lucky. As a teacher I’ve remained salaried even though I’m struggling teaching from home. I’m getting my monthly paycheck and that will continue as far as I can see until I retire and draw my pension. But I know that there are millions of people who aren’t getting a salary and are in a terrible situation. So I’m trying to give some money to organisations that can support them. Although there were thousands of people dying in WWII there was this cause to defeat Nazism that made people feel that they had to keep going even with rationing and the whole of the countries’ energies going to the war effort. We’re breaking down social structures by sending every able-bodied man to war. They made sacrifices because it was worth it. And right now for me, what’s boggling my mind is that I understand that our economy is in terrible shape, but the idea that we are willing to risk people’s lives to re-open the economy, it doesn’t make any sense to me. We have to feel this pain and deal with this pain and measures of relief within that situation until we are all safe to go back to work. And then the rebuilding will happen. After WWII our president set up many structures to re-build the world and give people work. They’re talking about the need for infrastructure and other things that will put people back to work after the virus. I find that tension between economic disaster and global health hard but interesting.

I’m also in a fortunate position as I can work from home which is going fine but I think generally it is better paid work such as office jobs which can be done from home and lower paid work such as retail, which was struggling before the pandemic, which can’t be done from home. I can stay safe at home, going out occasionally to shop for food and yet when the government say that it is safe enough people will need to put themselves on the line because they need to work and that doesn’t seem right.

In the book, it’s eight year’s since the end of the war but rationing is still in place, black market activity is taking place. The consequences of what we are living through now will last a long time and we are going to need to get our heads around that.

In a real life situation people suffered great loss during a crisis like WWII or the present times and they try to make use of what is around them to work their way back to some measure to be able to survive and thrive. I guess the big sin for Miss Gilchrist is that she saw an opportunity to jump back into what she had before because society was not set up so that she could. Particularly in 1953 who’s going to let a middle-aged woman have a loan? So she jumped at her chance and in doing that made choices – she’s a very sympathetic murderer, but she’s evil. You feel for her but she did the wrong thing. And she did it really well which makes it worse in a way.

It’s interesting that at the end of the book it’s implied that she may well end up in Broadmoor rather than going to prison because she’s lost her reason after being arrested but both Poirot and Mr Entwhistle agree that she was sane when she committed the murder. Her insanity is only a result of her being found out which is shown really well in the David Suchet adaptation where after she shows her contempt for Cora and gets angry when the policeman says she must come with him, she twists and changes in a Gollum-like manner and says “Oh, I’ve been very stupid, very stupid. I’m sorry, I’m sorry” and you see that mental breakdown from where she thought she had achieved her aim and now it has been taken away. I can’t remember that happening with any other Christie murderer who does go insane after the fact. 

I don’t ever remember feeling  this was about a killer in her books. As a kid, why would I care about a little old lady like that, but now that I’m getting closer to little old ladyhood myself, I’m like “yeah, you have dreams” and then the dreams are destroyed. A lot of people are going through this right now and their dreams are shattered. I’ve got so many kids like this – no prom, no graduation. But then no college, no job, what do I do? Her life was taken away from her by the war and I feel for her, I do, I feel for her. She tried to get it back. And for women in those days, how many options did she have? Especially lower middle class women.

The class thing does play into it. She tries some other work, but, without being too harsh, has she really tried. She sees it as common and below her station in life. There can be options if you want to take them. In one Christie a maid is actually a middle-class girl who needed work because her family has lost their money and she was prepared to do whatever was necessary to earn an honest living. But then she was younger.

We see other women who have become impoverished. Miss Barton in The Moving Finger has to take rooms with her maid and rent out her house because she can’t afford the upkeep any more so there was a lot of that happening. The other thing is that it is a matter of pride. There are several episodes where Miss Gilchrist bakes for people – Timothy complains about her but says “Boy! Can she cook” and she makes scones for Susan. Everyone loves what she makes and she takes great pride in that and she wants to share that artistry with other people. And Cora wouldn’t have appreciated any of it. She was so wrapped up in own craziness. She wouldn’t have suggested investing in Miss Gilchrist so that she could open a shop. Miss Gilchrist just wants to get some worth back in society.

Well we’ve covered a lot here. Any final thoughts?

This where we start to see Poirot’s reputation fading and this was mentioned in the podcast so I’m not being totally original. They look at him and go “who is this guy? Is he a hairdresser?” He’s no longer the world famous detective and so while we watch Miss Marple deal with the changes in her world in a more serious way for Poirot it’s all about these blows to his ego. People don’t appreciate him like they used to. Maybe it had happened a little bit in “Mrs McGinty’s Dead” but it’s really happening here that we are seeing that the younger generation have never heard of him. The older generation thought he was dead. So this book is a shift in how Poirot’s going to be depicted for the rest of Christie’s career.

Recurring character development

Hercule Poirot

Solved a small domestic problem for a Continental butcher who in return is now “sympathetic to him in the matters of the stomach”. It appears that he may be getting more than his ration book would allow.

Some friends of Helen Abernethie knew him, though she had assumed he had died long ago.

Goes undercover at Enderby as M. Pontarlier of UNARCO (his made up United Nations Aid for Refugee Centre Organisation).

Signs of the Times

“‘Suddenly, at his residence’ that’s what it said in the paper.” said Cora, nodding her head. Although standard wording when announcing a death, possibly a hat-tip to Christianna Brand’s 1946 novel “Suddenly at His Residence” aka “The Crooked Wreath”.

Mr Entwhistle thinks about a number of famous murderers including Seddon and Nurse Waddington. Frederick Seddon (1872-1912) poisoned his lodger Eliza Mary Barrow and was found guilty, mainly because he chose to give evidence in his own defence and did so very arrogantly and condescendingly.  Dorothea Waddingham (1899-1936) turned her house into a nursing home and killed two of her patients with morphine.

In connection with Cosmetics and Beauty, Miss Gilchrist mentions Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein. Florence Nightingale Graham (1881-1966) started to trade under the name Elizabeth Arden in 1910 when she founded the Red Door salon in New York. By 1929 she owned 150 salons across Europe and the USA. Helena Rubinstein (1872-1965) started her business in Australia making Crème Valaze before moving to London and then New York. Arden and Rubinstein became life-long rivals, although the latter said in a somewhat backhanded compliment “with her packaging and my product, we could have ruled the world”.

George Crossfield may be involved in black market activity and Miss Gilchrist is lavish in dispensing Timothy and Maude’s tea and sugar ration.

Rosamund talks about a revival of “The Miracle”. This is a wordless play from 1911 by Karl Vollmöller which tells the story of a wayward nun.

References to previous works

Mr Goby, who had previously appeared in The Mystery of Blue Train, is used here organise the investigation into the circumstances and movements of the suspects.

There is a slightly spoilerish reference to Lord Edgware Dies.

Inspector Morton remembers Poirot from the Pangbourne Case. I can’t remember if that was the location of one the earlier novels or short stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “#53 – After the Funeral – with a special guest AND SPOILERS”

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