Monday, June 23, 2008

After the Funeral, by Agatha Christie

Gah! Sometimes I wonder why I even keep this blog--I started it to keep track of what I had read, so that when I came up with some little fact, like "what was that book I read where the car started speaking in haiku?" I had a place to look for the answer.

By the way, the car/haiku book was Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

But why bother, when there are even Wikipedia entries about specific books. I found the entry for After the Funeral when I went looking for a list of characters. See, I listened to this book, and was curious about how one character's name was spelled, as the reader pronounced it with a decided French accent, and I kept getting two characters confused as a result.

Wikipedia not only gave me the characters' names, but also the entire plot of the story, including the trivial little point on which the whole thing turns. I tried not to read anything but the list of characters, but somehow my uncooperative peripheral vision spotted it, and so I knew who dun it.

It's a silly little point too--"how could he have known they served pinot noir with the beefsteak on Tuesday, when he said he hadn't arrived at the club until the cheese course?" sort of detail. In fact, the actual point is that someone mentioned wax flowers, which had been put away before she arrived, so she must have been there before!

At any rate, not one of Christie's best. After the funeral of Richard Abernathy, a wealthy ailing man, Cora Lansquenet (one of the beneficiaries) says "He was murdered, wasn't he?" The next day, she is found dead in her home, victim of an axe murder. All the numerous relatives are questioned, and they are as featureless a group of characters as a collection of chess pawns. While they all have reasons to have killed the old man, and are conveniently alibi-less at the time of the second death, it is hard to care about any of them.

In the end, it turns out that it was Cora's companion Miss Gilchrist, who was the murderer. She arrived at the funeral disguised as Cora solely for the purpose of planting the idea of murder. She then went home, and killed Cora, thus "disguising" the axe murder by creating the presumption of a link between the two deaths.

Why did she do it? Poor Cora had stumbled on a Vermeer that she bought at a jumble sale, and psycho Miss Gilchrist recognized it and wanted it. She was going to sell it and open a tea shop. Okay, say what you will, but that is about the stupidest murder plot I have come across in about 30 years of reading mysteries.

I mean, ignore the storytelling, and reconstruct what happened chronologically. Cora goes jumble sale-ing, and buys this picture. (This is a hobby of hers, and she is always hoping to find something valuable.) Miss Gilchrist recognizes it, but has to keep Cora from having it identified. So the first thing she does is. . .go to the funeral of a relative, disguised as Cora? Oh, not that, because she has to practice acting enough like Cora to fool all her relatives. Then she goes to the funeral solely to plant the suggestion that Richard Abernathy was murdered.

At this point, Cora is still alive. Miss Gilchrist hasn't murdered her yet. So she goes about this elaborate disguise and pathetic attempt to camouflage a murder that hasn't even happened yet! She rushes home, patiently waits until 2:30 to go return Cora's library books (this is her alibi), doubles back, murders her housemate wtih an axe (!), quickly paints over the Vermeer so nobody will recognize it, then re-enters the house two hours later and "finds" the body a half hour after that.


It's just ridiculous. There is no reason that such a goofy plan should ever have worked. It has far too many parts, and requires both significant advance preparation (impersonating Cora) and improvisation (Richard Abernathy died suddenly and unexpectedly). I mean, really! "Oh, Cora found a Vermeer and she has no idea what it is. I do recognize it, and I want it. So I'm going to practice acting like Cora, just in case one of her relatives dies unexpectedly, so I can go to the funeral and make people think he was murdered. Then I'll go home and murder Cora too, and paint over the Vermeer so that when the appraiser arrives, he doesn't see the real painting. But what if no relative dies conveniently--before the appraiser shows up?"

Why not just paint a copy of the Vermeer and substitute it. Cora has no artistic sense--she won't notice. The appraiser won't see a Vermeer--he'll see an amateurish copy of one. Slip away and sell the real one, tell Cora that you received an unexpected inheritance, and go open the damn tea shop!

But this is Agatha Christie, and you have to have dead bodies. Foolish. Silly. I'm glad I got this one from the library and paid no money for it!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bitter Is The New Black, by Jen Lancaster

I picked this one up on recommendation of a member of the MomSquad. (Hi Britt!) I can tell you it wasn't easy to find--Barnes & Noble had it in Biography. Sure, snarky and entitled Jen Lancaster next to thoughtful and in depth historical treatises by David McCollugh and Doris Lessing. No wonder I couldn't find it.

Jen Lancaster is about one economic cycle behind my life, and she was lucky beyond belief at the start of her professional career. After taking eleven years to graduate from college (or so she says), she entered the workforce during the dot com bubble when venture capital was flowing freely and it took tow people and a Power Point presentation to start a new company. Remember when people used to say insane things like "Profit doesn't matter--this is the New Economy"? That was Jen Lancaster's life, and she lived it to the limit. She was apparently a really good salesperson, made a lot in commissions, and spent it all. She had a very expensive rental apartment, dozens of designer clothes, bags, shoes, the absolute top shelf in liquor, perfume, cosmetics. She used her money to play and pamper herself and apparently believed that she deserved it all.

And the the bubble burst.

To be fair, it must be heady to be young and contextless, living in a big city with what feels like unending financial success. I am risk averse, and so I would never have made the kind of money she made (what if I didn't make any sales? Then I wouldn't get paid? No thank you sir!), but I also can't imagine living from paycheck to paycheck at that level either. Reading the first part of the book is like peeking into a world that I thought only existed on television. Who buys these $400 handbags? Who wears these $500 shoes? How can you actually justify those kind of expenditures--don't you have anything better to do with your time and money than just shop and spa?

Well, there is eating out and drinking too, I guess.

So the first third of the book lovingly details Jen at the top of her world, drinking wildly, treating people like crap, acting exactly like an obnoxious and entitled 20-something. She is hard to like. Sure, she has a smart mouth and is occasionally very funny, but man did I pity the people around her.

So, when the dot com bubble burst, she lost her position. While it's slightly less damaging on the ego to lose a job in an economic meltdown like that, it makes future job prospects that much more dim--she found herself competing with hundreds and hundreds of equally qualified people. And guess what? You know that saying "Be nice to other people on the way up, because you will meet them again on the way down"? Jen wasn't very nice.

But she's not worried, because she is as fabulous as she thinks she is, right? It's just a matter of hours before somebody else hires her! So she makes some great decisions, like canceling her COBRA coverage to buy new boots, because they were so cute she just had to have them. And she figured she could get coverage on her live-in boyfriend's insurance as a domestic partner, right? Wrong. "Domestic partner" benefits are for same sex couples who CAN'T get married. Heterosexual couples have to be married to qualify.

Well, she can't reinstate the coverage once she canceled it, so she keeps the boots. Until her dog eats them.

Things continue to get worse and worse, as she cannot find work anywhere. After about a year, her boyfriend gets laid off too. Two unemployed people, an EXPENSIVE rental apartment, expensive tastes and an unrealistic relationship to money. And still Jen continues to refuse to live in reality. Things get bad enough that they have to leave their apartment because they can no longer afford it. They find a real estate broker and Jen finds something wrong with Every. Single. Place. She vetoed one place because the kitchen had an electric stove, and she doesn't even cook. Really, at some point I wasn't sure which I wanted to do more: slap her silly, or shake her boyfriend until his teeth rattled for being such an enabler.

Jen doesn't step into the real world until she finds her now-husband unable to get out of bed. They didn't have enough money to buy both food and his anti-depressants, so he stopped taking his medication. And Jen realizes that he has sacrificed his mental health to keep her from realizing how bad things were. And we finally see her start to grow up.

She looks in her closet and recognizes that a designer purse represents the monetary equivalent of two months of their utilities--and she only used the purse twice. Her collection of shoes for summer would have paid for a summer's worth of groceries. All the things they can't afford now could have been paid for if she had saved that money instead of spending it so profligately.

It is when they are about to be evicted from their cheaper apartment and have to go live with her parents that things start to get better. Fletch gets a job. Jen's blog rants have captured an editor's attention and she gets a book contract. At the end, she feels like she can do better, now that she has a second chance, and the book ends with a ring of maturity.

Since that time, Jen Lancaster has written two more books and is working on her fourth. I have picked up her most recent one, Such a Pretty Fat, which I am willing to read to see if the Sadder But Wiser Jen can be funny without being so damned irritating.