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Literature / After the Funeral

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After the Funeral (published in the US as Funerals Are Fatal) is a 1953 novel by Agatha Christie, featuring Hercule Poirot.

Wealthy Richard Abernethie dies unexpectedly, and his several surviving relatives, who hardly keep in contact with each other, gather for the funeral. His much younger sister, the ditzy and dreamy Cora Lansquenet, blurts out that he was murdered by someone of the family, to everybody's apparent shock. Cora is immediately apologetic and says she was mistaken, so the discussion doesn't go any further, but just one day later, Cora herself is found brutally murdered…

There was a Lighter and Softer film adaptation in 1963, replacing Poirot with Miss Marple (played by Margaret Rutherford). The novel also got adapted in 2006 as one of Poirot episodes.

The novel provides examples of:

  • Accidental Misnaming: Timothy calls Miss Gilchrist "Gillespie" and then says it doesn't matter when his wife corrects him. He's a Jerkass.
  • The Alleged Car: Maude drives "a dilapidated car of almost fabulous antiquity." She has to put in a starting handle to manually crank the car, which even in the 1950s marked it as a very old car indeed.
  • Amateur Sleuth: Richard Abernethie's lawyer, friend, and executor Mr. Entwhistle begins to investigate the possibility that Richard was murdered, but eventually decides he's in over his head. Enter Poirot.
  • Awful Wedded Life: By all accounts, Pierre Lansquenet was a terrible husband to Cora. She adored him nevertheless and never forgave her family for their treatment of him.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: The reveal of Rosamund's pregnancy improves her family life a lot.
  • Commonality Connection: Cora left most of her possessions to her niece Susan, who she hadn't met since she was a kid, after hearing about how Susan married someone the rest of the family didn't like the same way she did.
  • Continuity Nod: Poirot recalls "the killing of Lord Edgware" and how "the extremely simple cunning of a vacant brain" almost defeated him. He has to resist the temptation sometimes to overcomplicate things.
  • Conveniently an Orphan: The parents of George, Rosamund and Susan have all been dead for some time (although it's unclear how old the kids were in those cases). This is relevant in that Richard spent the last year of his life "auditioning" his siblings' children to replace his son, who died in an accident, as his heir.
  • Conviction by Contradiction: Poirot deduces that Cora, who showed up at the titular funeral was actually Miss Gilchrist disguised as her. The two clues he notices? One: when Miss Gilchrist later comes to the house where the repast was held supposedly for the first time, she comments on a vase of flowers that she could have only seen if she'd been there before. Two: Cora had a habit of twisting her head to one side when she asked probing questions, but the imposter had practiced her mimicry in a mirror and thus turned her head in the opposite direction . That's enough to start him on a path toward the real motive behind the murder.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Mr. Entwhistle becomes this for the first half of the book before letting Poirot to handle the rest.
  • Diagnosed by the Audience: There is something decidedly off about Greg Banks, the husband of Richard's niece Susan — he's secretive and sulky, and prone to flying off the handle at odd moments. While it's implied that there is some deeper underlying issue, his main problem is that he simply doesn't want to be married to Susan... but can't actually bring himself to say so, between his own inferiority complex and her strong personality, as well as the fact that, by most standards, she's a beautiful, intelligent woman any man would be lucky to have.
  • Disappointed by the Motive: Deconstructed. It turns out that Miss Gilchrist killed Cora to acquire the original painting by Johannes Vermeer that the latter had acquired without recognizing it, in the hopes of selling it for at least two thousand pounds (which, in 2022, is nearly 60,000 pounds). The rest of the family is appalled by Miss Gilchrist seemingly murdering Cora over money, but Poirot correctly deduces that she planned to use the funds as capital to open a tea shop just like the one she'd had before the war, which was her dream. As Miss Gilchrist ruefully describes the shop she so desperately wanted to open, the room grows silent, with no one able to resist getting swept up in the force of her words.
  • Dramatic Drop: Helen drops and shatters an arrangement of wax flowers when Poirot casually mentions that George, a pharmacist, once nearly killed a customer with a bad prescription. The fact that the wax flowers are destroyed later turns out to be a clue.
  • Giftedly Bad: Everybody except Cora sees Pierre's paintings were terrible, and that he cared more about the lifestyle of an artist than in making art (or having a wife). She thinks he was just ahead of his time.
  • Grail in the Garbage: The real motive for the murder. Among all the otherwise crappy art that Cora had acquired over the years was a genuine Vermeer. Miss Gilchrist realized this and hid it behind another painting.
  • Grumpy Old Man: Timothy is a Jerkass and hypochondriac who always belittles anyone that doesn't meet his standards.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Several characters note that George isn't "straight", which is why Richard didn't choose him to be the next head of the family. They mean he's untrustworthy, not gay.
  • He Knows Too Much: This is everyone's main line of thinking regarding Cora's being killed the day after Richard's funeral—since she was the one who raised the possibility of his being murdered, it seemed like the killer was out to silence her for what she knew. It turns out that Miss Gilchrist deliberately invoked the trope to cast suspicion away from herself and make Cora's death seem like part of a series instead of an isolated event.
  • Heir Club for Men: Susan is somewhat bitter that Richard wouldn't invest in her beauty company just because she's a woman. She also thinks this is why he didn't select her as his primary heir, although Richard disliking her husband also seems to be a factor.
  • His Name Is...: Helen is about to reveal the strange thing she saw in the immediate aftermath of the funeral, when she is whacked on the head with a blunt instrument.
  • Hypochondria: Timothy Abernethie, Richard's brother and last surviving sibling, is always going on about his terrible health even though physically he's not that badly off.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: The reason why the German translation is titled The Wax Flower Bouquet for a decoration mentioned in passing at most. Miss Gilchrist says the wax flowers look nice on the malachite table, except that she couldn't have seen them – they were only there on the day of the funeral, when Miss Gilchrist was at Enderby masquerading as Cora Lansquenet.
  • Intro Dump: Most of the characters are described over a few pages, when both Lanscombe and Mr. Entwhustle each contemplate them as they get back from the funeral.
  • Impersonation-Exclusive Character: A major part of how one of the murders was carried out: there's only one real murder, and the real Cora Lansquenet is never seen alive. None of the family having seen the real Cora in over twenty years, the woman who impersonates her at her brother's funeral is ultimately revealed to have been her lady-in-waiting Miss Gilchrist in disguise. Gilchrist drugged the real Cora the morning of the funeral and attended in her place — then murdered her that evening, making sure to disfigure the face beyond recognition. Gilchrist's impersonation was perfect, deliberately seeding doubt as to whether Richard did in fact die of natural causes so as to cast suspicion on the rest of the family, even mimicking Cora's painting style... painting over the one painting Cora owned that was actually worth anything so that she could persuade the Abernethies to let her keep it as a memento. Her three mistakes: 1) practicing Cora's trademark Quizzical Tilt in a mirror causes it to appear reversed, 2) remarking on a vase of wax flowers which she could only have seen while she was masquerading as Cora and 3) painting her forgery from a postcard that featured a pier which had burned burned down by the time Cora visited the place.
  • Impostor Forgot One Detail: Miss Gilchrist's impersonation of Cora was almost perfect...except she practiced Cora's known trait of tilting her head when asking questions in a mirror, so she moved her neck in the wrong direction. It's enough for Helen Abernethie to notice something is off, though she can't articulate what until much later in the novel.
  • In the Blood: There is a definite streak among the Abernethie women to fall deeply in love with undeserving husbands who don't love them back half as much.
  • Inadequate Inheritor: Richard Abernethie spent time with all his nieces and nephews in the last few years of his life, looking for one upon which to settle the bulk of his estate. He apparently found them all lacking in some way, with Enderby to be sold off and the estate divided relatively evenly between them. He tried out George, but was put off by his dishonesty. He then turned to Susan, but was unsettled by something about her devotion to her husband Greg.
  • Inheritance Murder: Richard is believed to be murdered by someone impatient to get the inheritance. Cora's death is quickly figured out to be a She Knows Too Much murder precisely because she hardly leaves any inheritance to speak of — a few hundred pounds to Susan and several sketches and a brooch to Miss Gilchrist. In fact, Cora's murder was committed for the inheritance –- among her possessions there is a Vermeer, over which Miss Gilchrist paints a sketch to resemble one of Cora's, while deliberately bringing up the question of whether or not Richard was murdered as a Red Herring. Richard actually died a natural death of his illness.
  • Insufferable Genius: What Cora believed her husband to be. Everyone else knows he was insufferable but definitely no genius.
  • It Amused Me: Rosamund openly admits that she recognized Poirot (he was pointed out to her at a party) from the beginning but let his deception continue because she thought it would be more fun.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: Richard Abernethie had three brothers and three sisters (and despite being the eldest of them, outlives all of them except Cora and Timothy).
  • My Secret Pregnancy: Helen has a son born from a fling after her husband, Richard's brother, died. She pretends he's her nephew due to fearing that Richard would see this as a betrayal and cut her off.
  • Never One Murder: Richard Abernethie and Cora Lansquenet, and attempted murders of Miss Gilchrist and Helen Abernethie. Subverted: only Cora's murder and the attack on Helen are real. Richard died a natural death and Miss Gilchrist staged and exaggerated her own poisoning.
  • Never the Obvious Suspect: Discussed. Miss Gilchrist is afraid she won't be able to find another position, as everyone will associate her with the murder of Cora. While now a Forgotten Trope, violent, jealous rows between women and their companions were a subject of rumours and fiction in the era, even though Miss Gilchrist and Cora really did get along. Subverted in that Miss Gilchrist is deliberately playing on the stereotype. While she hid it well and Cora never suspected a thing, Miss Gilchrist actually despised her former employer and has deliberately laid out a series of Red Herrings in order to draw attention from herself as the most obvious suspect in a murder she actually did commit.
  • Nothing Is the Same Anymore: One of the book's most prominent themes is how World War II has fundamentally changed all of British society and the people in it. Families have been destroyed, businesses are ruined, and life in general has become bleaker. Miss Gilchrist's motive for the murder is connected to this, as she hoped to steal a rare painting Cora had acquired and use its sale to open a tea shop, like the one she owned before the war; the imagined shop is used as a symbol of how much has changed in Britain and how there's no going back to pre-war days.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity:
    • Miss Gilchrist claims to have no understanding of art and painting, so that nobody would think they are, in fact, able to recognize a Vermeer immediately and later perfectly imitate Cora's style when painting a sketch over the Vermeer to conceal it.
    • Rosamund isn't as oblivious as everyone thinks, but would rather let trouble play itself out — or cause some — than reveal what they actually think. It's more fun that way.
  • Old Retainer: Lanscombe, the faithful butler of the Abernethies, is close on ninety and extremely devoted to the family he has served for many decades. Richard recognizes it as he leaves him an annuity.
  • Only Sane Man: Susan Banks and Helen Abernethie are the most level-headed members of the family.
  • Parenting the Husband: The reason why Maude Abernethie encourages her husband's hypochondria. She has a strong motherly instinct but no child of her own, so she projects all she has onto Timothy. To a lesser extent, this seems to factor in to Greg's issues with Susan — he feels useless because she makes all the decisions and is the breadwinner between them.
  • Phone-In Detective: Mr. Entwhistle doesn't call on Poirot until after about a third of the way through the book, and the investigation is largely carried out between Entwhistle and Susan, with Poirot hovering in the background and only taking the lead for The Summation.
  • Posthumous Character: The story begins with Richard Abernethie's eponymous funeral, and we only get to know him through the memories of his nieces and nephews, surviving siblings, Lanscombe the butler, and attorney and family friend Mr. Entwhistle.
  • Quizzical Tilt: Cora "tilted her head on one side with a birdlike movement" before wondering out loud if Richard was murdered. The manner in which she tilts her head is a Chekhov's Gun.
  • Red Herring: Richard Abernethie actually did die of his illness and his supposed murder was simply Miss Gilchrist deliberately casting suspicion away from herself. There was also no attempt on Miss Gilchrist's life — she sent the poisoned wedding cake to herself, again to make herself a less obvious suspect.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Richard briefly tried to make George one to his dead son but became rapidly disillusioned.
  • Sanity Slippage: The murderer slips into happy ravings after getting arrested, and it is discussed that they might end up in Broadmoor. It's probably the closest Miss Gilchrist could have gotten to a happy ending.
  • Stealing from the Till: Richard's nephew George is a stockbroker who is revealed to have been stealing from his clients, but can cover his theft with the money from his inheritance.
  • Summation Gathering: Poirot gathers all the characters to reveal the killer in his usual style.
  • Supreme Chef: Miss Gilchrist is an amazing baker. Before the war, she used to have a tea-shop of her own. This is why she commits the murder. She wants the painting for capital to open another tea-shop, and never have to work at a demeaning companion job for an insufferable Upper-Class Twit ever again.
  • Villainous Breakdown: After the murderer is exposed and their plans laid bare, they slip into a Motive Rant and, once they've finished, go quietly, as they no longer see the point to life if they can't succeed in their plan.
  • Villainous Lineage: George's father was also apparently a crooked businessman.
  • Wham Line: Cora's remark referring to Richard Abernethie—"But he was murdered, wasn't he?"—is one in-universe. It turns out that Miss Gilchrist, in her Cora disguise, was invoking the trope to arouse suspicion about Richard's perfectly natural death and thus make it seem like Cora was killed because she knew too much about the supposed murder.

Alternative Title(s): Funerals Are Fatal