THE BOOK Fontana 1971 pp192
Tom Adams cover features basic elements of the plot, including the murder weapon, the painting of the harbour and a particularly haunting image of an apprehensive nun. Fontana’s 1963 edition, on the other hand, is a crass attempt to cash in on the then-current film series starring Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple. The title, like the film itself, has no association with the story it purports to tell.
The novel was dedicated to ‘James, in memory of happy days at Abney’.1
The Abernethie family is gathered at Enderby Hall for the funeral of its patriarch Richard. After the ceremony is complete, and they are having lunch, one of their number proclaims that Richard had been murdered, and that everyone was well aware of the fact. The family’s lawyer, Entwistle, there to read Richard’s will, is perturbed; he becomes even more so when he hears later that the speaker has been axed to death.
He calls on Hercule Poirot to help; Poirot agrees, and, in the guise of ‘M. Pontarlier’, a representative of a fictional refugee organisation interested in buying Enderby, goes undercover to investigate.
CHARACTERS AND ATTITUDES
The story is (once again) very recognisably set in the post-war years of rationing, refugees and resentment. Some of the resentment is directed at the Education Acts of the previous decade, which, by making free education (and school meals) available to all, whilst raising both the minimum working age and school-leaving age, meant that the availability of cheap young labour to train in service and elsewhere was greatly compromised.
Another feature of the post-war era often referred to in this book is its lawlessness, which is also mentioned in other swigathas of the era, such as A Murder is Announced.
The plot is dominated by members of the Abernethie family, a curious one in which female distaff members are addressed by the names of their husbands: so Helen is ‘Mrs Leo’, even though Leo is long dead, and Maude is ‘Mrs Timothy’.
The younger generation of this family is not interested in keeping Enderby Hall going, even if there had been the servants around to look after it for them. Apart from Timothy, the only surviving one of Richard’s eight children is Cora, widow of a French painter and something of a wild child, treated by the rest of the family with some bewilderment. In fact, she seems to be about the only one to have had any character at all.
Replacing the servant in Cora Lansquenet’s house, and eventually in Timothy Abernethie’s, is ‘hired help’ Miss Gilchrist, down on her luck after the failure of a tea-shop and dreaming of opening a new one.
Poirot’s ‘hired help’, on the other hand, is the estimable Mr Goby, one of Agatha Christie’s finest comic creations.
The grimness of post-war austerity is present throughout the book. The author was fond of her food, and clearly nostalgic here for the days before post-war rationing (and the lack of servants):
The large kitchen range of the days of Victorian grandeur stood cold and unused, like an altar to the past.
Here’s the cook Marjorie on the realities of post-war Britain:
‘It was the night I made that chocolate soufflé that Mr Abernethie died. Six eggs I’d saved up for it. The dairyman he’s a friend of mine. Got hold of some cream, too. Better not ask how.’
Things were also hard for single independent women that ran tea-shops. Miss Gilchrist laments the collapse of her tea-shop which condemned her to a life of drudgery (and invisibility):
‘Yes, I was doing really well and then the war came and supplies were cut down and I went bankrupt.’
Her bitterness shines through:
‘I ought to have seen it sooner – I felt in a vague kind of way I had seen you before somewhere – but of course one never looks much at – ‘
‘No, one doesn’t bother to look at a mere companion-help,’ said Miss Gilchrist. Her voice shook a little. ‘A drudge, a domestic drudge! Almost a servant!’
Inspector Morton’s immediate reaction when he finds Cora beaten to death with a hatchet reveals something about the time that seems to have been forgotten since:
‘Looks as though it’s some chap with a screw loose – one of those adolescent criminals, perhaps – a lot of them about.’
(Running around with a hatchet?)
We are accustomed in the UK today to hear of the ‘great generation’ of WWII ‘heroes’ that gradually came home after 19452. Agatha Christie’s books of the time reflect a different perception. In A Murder is Announced (1950) there is talk of ‘deserters roaming the countryside causing mayhem’; three years later, things don’t seem to have improved. Here is Timothy Abernethie’s judgment on some members of the ‘great generation’:
‘The country’s full of gangsters nowadays – thugs – left over from the war! Going about killing defenceless women.’
At least he didn’t blame the refugees:
Rosamund, however, had only said vaguely, ‘Oh! refugees all over again. I’m so tired of refugees.’ Thus voicing the unspoken reaction of many, who were usually too conventional to express themselves so frankly.
One of Agatha Christie’s finest creations, Mr Goby, considers the ramifications of the 1944 Education Act:
He shook his head sadly and shifted his gaze to an electric plug socket.
‘It’s the Government,’ he told it. ‘And all this education racket. It gives them ideas. They come back and tell us what they think. They can’t think, most of them, anyway. All they know is things out of books.’
And here’s another great one-liner from him:
‘Mr Abernethie enjoys ill-health and the emphasis is on the enjoyment.’
SWIGATHA RATING 8/10
This book has a lot going for it. There is humour and pathos, and it is a hugely evocative reflection of its era; the book is definitely written in greyscale. Its basic plot had been used at least twice before, in short stories, but the motivation is very believable. One gets the feeling that this was an easy book for the author to write, possibly because of where she was when most of it was written.1
WHERE IT LED
This is one of the last of the swigathas that deals with big country houses, old families, and faithful retainers. By the time that Poirot is next summoned to one (Nasse House, in Dead Man’s Folly) the owner has seemingly sold up and retired to live in the entrance lodge.
The lawyer Entwistle, for reasons unknown, had changed his name to Endicott by the time Poirot is consulting him in a follow-up novel (Hickory Dickory Dock).
There is a well-known MGM adaptation, Murder at the Gallop, which runs riot with the plot and replaces Poirot with Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple (I would have kept to the original plot and cast Ms Rutherford in the role of Miss Gilchrist).
The Suchet Poirot version also takes quite a few unwarranted liberties with the plot. It is unable to evoke any of the atmosphere of the book, because, like the rest of the series, the adaptation is forcibly set in 1936. Once again, it dispenses with the character of Mr Goby – what a missed opportunity.
It does, however, boast a truly excellent performance by Monica Dolan, playing Miss Gilchrist.
1 Agatha Christie’s older sister, Madge, was married to James Watts, whose father (Sir James) built Abney Hall in Cheshire, later inherited by his son. AC visited it very many times, and it inspired many of the country houses in her stories. Much of After the Funeral was written there. Her nephew was also named James, but I think this story was dedicated to his father, who died in 1957. Maybe the name Abney was on her mind when she named the family who dominate the story.
2 Long after VE Day and VJ Day, the British Army was involved in knock-on campaigns, notably in Palestine, India and Korea.