Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction - Funerals are Fatal by Agatha Christie

I’m continuing to really enjoy being a part of the alphabet in crime fiction community meme, and once again, thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for organizing it. It’s such a nice way to learn about others’ blogs, and discover new authors and books. This week, we’re on the letter “F,” and my choice for this letter is Agatha Christie’s alliterative Funerals are Fatal (AKA After the Funeral), published in the U.S and the U.K in 1953.

Funerals are Fatal begins directly after the funeral of Richard Abernethie, eldest brother of the Abernethie family and the family patriarch. He’s run the family business since the death of his father, and because he’s the eldest, has always been more or less head of the family and “father” to his younger brothers and sisters. When the Abernethie family members return after the funeral to Enderby Hall, the vast Victorian home of the Abernethies, everyone prepares to hear the reading of Richard Abernethie’s will. An enormous fortune is at stake, since Abernethie was a widower whose only child had died suddenly of polio, and everyone’s eager for a share in it. For example, Abernethie’s brother Timothy and Timothy’s wife, Maude, are suffering financially in the wake of England’s post-war economic difficulties. It doesn’t help matters that Timothy is an invalid and hypochondriac who can’t earn a living. Abernethie’s only living sister, Cora Lansquenet, married a poor and untalented artist and, especially since his death, has had very little money. Abernethie’s sister-in-law, Helen Abernethie, has a nephew in Cyprus whom she wants to educate. His nieces, Rosamund Shane and Susan Banks, also have expensive dreams; Rosamund wants a stage career for herself and her husband, Michael, and Susan has a bold plan to become a beauty-culture entrepreneur.

When the will’s read and it turns out that the Abernethie fortune’s been divided equally among the relatives, the resulting reactions range from Timothy’s anger that he wasn’t chosen as sole heir to Cora’s joy at being able to go to Capri. The news about the money is soon pushed aside, though, by a chance remark that Cora makes: Always known for her “awkward statements,” Cora hints quite openly that Richard Abernethie was murdered. Because Cora has a history of blurting out unwelcome truths at inappropriate moments, the family attorney, Mr. Entwhistle, begins to wonder if Cora was right. The Abernethie family members are also unsettled by what Cora said, and they, too, begin to speculate on whether she was right. The next evening, Entwhistle receives a call from the police at Lytchett St. Mary, where Cora Lansquenet lives; she’s been found brutally murdered. Now Entwhistle’s convinced that Cora was probably right about her brother’s death being a murder, and he decides to consult Hercule Poirot.

Together, Poirot and Entwhistle, along with Inspector Morton, look into what all of the other family members were doing when Cora was murdered; they also start to look into Richard Abernethie’s death. As they do so, they find, in classic Christie fashion, that all of the suspects are hiding something. In the end, it turns out that two simple mistakes that the murderer made are enough to catch Poirot’s attention and put him on the right track, but not before another character’s life is put in serious danger.

Funerals are Fatal is an intriguing character study. Almost all of the members of the Abernethie family keep the reader’s interest, chiefly because they’re not stereotypical. For example, Rosamund Shane, Richard Abernethie’s niece, is, on the surface, a rather empty-headed “ham,” but beautiful actress. As we get to know her, though, we find that she’s much more than that. She’s got an uncanny knack for seeing right through people’s veneers and getting at the truth. Like her Aunt Cora, she also sometimes blurts out statements that are as canny as they are awkward. Gregory Banks, husband of Susan Banks, Richard Abernethie’s other niece, seems at first to be a very nondescript character. He’s a chemist’s assistant who seems almost blindly devoted to Susan. Again, as we get to know him, we see that much more simmers just below Gregory’s bland exterior and as the novel progresses, Gregory becomes compelling, especially towards the end. The same is true of Miss Gilchrist, Cora Lansquenet’s companion and former owner of a tea shop. She strikes the reader at first as a “typical” companion; a little foolish, fond of chatting, a good cook and other than that, not very memorable. We learn, though, that she, too, is more than what she seems. She’s more savvy and intelligent than almost anyone believes.

Christie shows the reader these unusual characters through the brilliant strategy of telling most of the story from the viewpoint of Mr. Entwhistle, the family attorney. While there are some effective changes in point of view throughout the novel, the bulk of the character development occurs as Mr. Entwhistle and Hercule Poirot get to know the characters. This allows for the slow buildup of tension as we find out more about the Abernethies, and it allows Christie to surprise the reader with some unexpected revelations.

The novel also serves as an historical “snapshot” of a postwar England caught between post-Victorian mores and lifestyles and the modern generation. The older characters, for instance, have very different attitudes towards life and towards their inheritances than do the younger characters. We see this at the beginning of the novel as Lanscombe, the elderly butler, prepares Enderby Hall for the arrival of the funeral guests. We also see this as the family members discuss what will happen to Enderby Hall now that Richard Abernethie is dead. The younger family members are only too happy to have the place sold and converted to a hostel, an inn or a rest home. The older family members agree that it doesn’t make sense to keep the house in the family, but they mourn the “old days” much more.

Funerals are Fatal isn’t what’s often called a “light” mystery. However, there are some comic moments and characters. Timothy Abernethie’s obsession with his own health is so ridiculous that it’s comical; so is his refusal to do anything for himself – unless it’s important to him. There’s a scene in the novel during which the family members are together for the weekend, deciding which items of Richard Abernethie’s they would like to have. At one point, Timothy Abernethie and his nephew, George Crossfield, get into a ludicrous argument about a Spode dessert service that’s only ended when George admits he’s only been baiting his uncle, and doesn’t really want the dessert service. What’s so effective about these light moments, though, is that they are underlaid with the tension of relatives at each other’s throats for money, suspicion that one of them is a murderer, and the all-pervasive sense that everyone is hiding something.

I recommend Funerals are Fatal for its moody atmosphere, its surprising twists and compelling characters. Fans of Poirot will appreciate his masterful deduction of the truth. Those who are less enamored of Poirot will appreciate the taut plot and the fact that Mr. Entwhistle, Inspector Morton, and one of the family members have as much to do with the solution of the case as Poirot does.

A few interesting tidbits about Funerals are Fatal:

Poirot gets a great deal of his information about the Abernethie relatives from Mr. Goby, an interesting character who appears in several other Christie novels, such as The Mystery of the Blue Train, Third Girl, and Elephants Can Remember. Mr. Goby is a nondescript seeker-out of facts who has a legion of informants, all with accurate information. When he reports to his clients, he never makes eye contact, but always provides a wealth of detail.

There’s a reference made to Funerals are Fatal in Hickory, Dickory, Death (AKA Hickory Dickory Dock), in which Poirot investigates the murder of a young woman in a student hostel. At one point, Poirot consults the family attorney for one of the students, one Mr. Endicott, who mentions Poirot’s fine work in “the Abernethy case.” Interestingly enough, the lawyer’s name in this novel is Endicott, whereas it’s Entwhistle in Funerals are Fatal, and the family’s surname is slightly differently spelled. The reference, though, seems clear.

15 comments:

  1. As always, Margot, a really thorough look at an excellent book. I haven't read that one for *ages.* You've made me want to go pull it out again. Thanks!

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  2. Elizabeth - Thanks for the kind words : ). This is really such an interesting one, psychologically... I'm glad you like it, too.

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  3. Oh I do remember liking this one a lot - perhaps as you say because Poirot isn't quite so centre stage as he normally is and I do like the Entwhistle character.

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  4. Bernadette - I like Entwhistle an awful lot in this novel, too. He's got a great perspective, he's wise, but he's also not unapproachable. He even has a sense of humor. I rather wish Christie had made him one of her recurring sleuths, actually.

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  5. I vaguely remember this one Margot, and am now looking forward to my re-read of it. Thanks for making it your entry in the Crime Fiction Alphabet F. Can you also submit it to the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge?

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  6. Reading the review, I wish to re-read the novel. I have kind of forgotten the story.

    Here is my Crime Fiction Alphabet: F post!

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  7. Kerrie - Thanks : ). I'm glad the post reminded you... And yes, of course I'll add it to the ACRC.

    Gautami - Thank you : ). I'm glad you're interested in the story again; it's a good one.

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  8. I was not quite certain I had read this one until you mentioned Cora and her ´awkward statements´. It is so funny, these details we will remember.

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  9. I thought I had read every Christie but I don't remember either the title or plot.

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  10. Dorte - How right you are! It's always those odd little details that stick in our memories. I've often remembered odd little quotes or character descriptions or scraps of dialogue, rather than the title or protagonist of a book.

    Patti - It's not one of her most famous, and it goes by more than one title, so I'm not surprised you haven't run across it. I've found that it's not always easy to find those lesser-known works...

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  11. I need to reread this...or read it for the first time; I honestly don't remember if I've read it or not! That period in England fascinates me; it really was a huge adjustment for everyone. Rationing was still on-going. Years and years of hardship and sacrifice did not result in flowers and honey for many. It must have been disheartening for many to realize the country they had fought for would never be the same.

    Elspeth

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  12. Elspeth - Oh, I find that time period fascinating, too! One really gets a sense of that weariness, that adjustment, etc., in this novel and in Taken at the Flood(AKA There is a Tide). I recommend that one, too. Both really address the issue of changing times, a world lost, and a whole new reality to face.

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  13. A good assessment of a truly enjoyable book, with a clever hidden motive. I too like Taken at the Flood, with its very complex plot.

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  14. Thank you, Martin. I really enjoyed this one, as well. I'm glad you brought up Taken at the Flood, too. It really is both enjoyable and complex.

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