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!