Sunday, 14 November 2010

After the Funeral (1953)

Plot: Nun of it's what it seems.

Look out! There's mis-direction thundering through this book. The identity of the killer is boldly given away very early by a stray comment about the pleasing nature of a bath bun. But even so, this is just an audacious hint that what seems to be a country-house murder is Anything But.

Yet more proof that Christie changes with the times is that she's prepared to write a book with such a novel twist on The Butler Did It. You think (for quite a while) that this is all about the murder of a man with a legacy and his frankly awful family – but this is, instead, not about these people at all. To say the family are entirely red herrings is slightly unfair, but they are mostly ghastly window dressing for a very subtle crime.

When the unveiling happens, Christie's prose is at its best with the killer's description of their goals in life:
“One can occasionally get quite nice china – export rejects – not that awful white utility stuff.... Oak tables and little basket charis with striped red and white cushions.”

This is followed by the gasp “I've never imagined a lady-like murderer”. It's the “-like” that's deadly. The killer even shouts “Of course, one never looks much at...”. This isn't quite a middle-class mystery, but Christie shows that she's quite prepared to get inside the heads of people you assume she wouldn't have much time for.

In some ways the killer is a redrawing of Dora Bunner from A Murder Is Announced – someone with reduced circumstances but no poverty of ambition. And, frankly, one of the messages about this book is that good money is wasted on bad people.

Christie has visited this idea in books like A Pocketful Of Rye and Taken At The Flood – the idea of a cursed house full of vile people gradually reaching a kind of grace, but in this book almost the entire cast are rotten – beyond one smart daughter with a good head for business (but no head for men).

If Christie's having fun with her formula, she's also having fun with Poirot, who enters the mystery with an elaborate disguise, only to unveil himself equally elaborately - “Hercule Poirot at your service.”. The reaction is priceless:
“His name seemed to mean nothing at all to them.”

This is a book in which the perpetually retired Poirot has finally passed from fame. It's telling that he's more plausible disguised as a eurocrat than as a detective. We also get a return of Mr Goby, the investigator who only makes eye contact with inanimate objects and who uses nuns as enquiry agents... which leads us to the book's best red-herring, the Nuns! They flit sinisterly through the book, crow-like portents of doom, but in the end, do they have any relevance? Or are they simply more clutter to distract us all from a really audaciously disguised mystery?

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