Family Drama and Mysteries

The Queen of Suspense. That is the moniker that Dame Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie has become known for. Born on September 15, 1890, Agatha Christie’s road to earning that title was no easy feat. She first started writing detective fiction while working as a nurse during the First World War, making her literary debut in 1920 with the publication of her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Hers was a prolific career that made her climb up to the top of the list of bestselling writers of all time; it is estimated that over two billion copies of her works have been sold all over the world and in different languages. Her literary career spanned nearly six decades and she has gifted the world with some of the most renowned works of detective fiction.

A couple of decades have passed since she passed away but her works remain relevant. Her works have been and continue to be adapted into films and television series. Earlier this year, Death on the Nile, which was published way back in 1937, has been adapted into a film that was top-billed by the industry’s royalties such as Gal Gadot, Annette Bening, and Kenneth Branagh who played the role of one of Christie’s most iconic creations, the diminutive detective Hercule Poirot. Poirot was also introduced through Christie’s first novel and has become the glue that held several of her books. She would create more iconic literary sleuths such as the elderly Miss Marple and the couple Billy and Tuppence but the impact of Hercule Poirot in the world of detective fiction is unmatched, nearly at par with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, Sherlock Holmes.

The iconic Hercule Poirot was once again at the heart of another murder mystery, Funerals Are Fatal. The thirty-third book featuring the renowned detective, the story commenced with a death. In the opening pages of the novel, we learn of the death of Richard Abernethie, a wealthy widower and the oldest child of Cornelius and Coralie Abernethie. Following his cremation, his friend and solicitor, Mr. Entwhistle gathered the surviving members of his family. In Richard’s stately home Enderby Hall, his relatives converged for the reading of his will. The readers were then introduced to an eclectic cast of characters: Helen, the widow of Richard’s younger brother Leo and also Richard’s favorite sister-in-law; Maude, the wife of Timothy who cannot attend the reading because of his disability; George Crossfield, the only nephew of Richard and the son of Laura Abernethie and Rex Crossfield; Richard’s niece, Rosamund Shane and her husband, Michael Shane; Richard’s other niece, Susan Banks and her husband Gregory Banks; and Cora Lansquenet, Richard’s youngest sister.

“Wives madly devoted to unsatisfactory and often what appeared quite unprepossessing husbands, wives contemptuous of, and bored by, apparently attractive and impeccable husbands. What any woman saw in some particular man was beyond the comprehension of the average intelligent male. It just was so. A woman who could be intelligent about everything else in the world could be a complete fool when it came to some particular man.”

~ Agatha Christie, Funerals Are Fatal

On the surface, there was nothing out of the ordinary surrounding Abernethie’s death. It was clearly established that Richard died of natural causes, at least that was what everyone wanted to believe. However, his youngest sister uttered something that caught everyone off guard: “It was murder, wasn’t it?” It was out of character for the socially awkward Cora but, except for a few, everyone simply shrugged off the allegation. They knew that Cora had the tendency to say things that were out of line. Mr. Entwhistle, however, was not taking it very lightly. He was perplexed and found it odd. Did Richard really die of natural causes? Or was he murdered, as his sister has remarked? While there were no pieces of evidence uncovered to elicit even such a hypothesis, somehow, Cora’s remark struck some chords.

Adding a layer of complexity to the case is the fact that each of the major characters in the story had their own reasons to have Richard’s wealth, hence, they had motives to kill him. It was another mystery that was in search of its own solution. Or perhaps not. Following the untimely death of his son due to polio, Richard saw no one worthy enough to inherit his entire estate. Richard was cognizant of the fact that his family was filled with clowns, with several of them having no scruples about squandering their money in gambling and other scrupulous ventures. Meanwhile, Susan shared the same business acumen that her uncle had. Following her cousin’s demise, she was the perfect candidate for heir apparent. But that was not to be since Richard had reservations about having a female member of the family handle his fortune and business solely. Richard’s will, nevertheless, stands with finality. ‘

The novel had all the ingredients of a good mystery novel: a relative who died of questionable causes or at least whose cause of death was inevitably placed under the proverbial microscope due to a careless remark, a family fortune up for grabs, and a motley cast of selfish and greedy family members willing to do anything to claim that said fortune. The drama and tension reached a fever pitch when “another” murder was perpetrated a couple of days following the reading of the will. While everyone was caught off guard and perplexed, Mr. Entwhistle was in control of his faculties. He immediately contacted his friend, Hercule Poirot. It was a plot twist that everyone did not expect.

In what has become a trademark of Christie’s writing, she made her readers believe that they know who the perpetrator is or perpetrators are. Through a sleight of hand, she reels the reader in with her magnetic prose. She makes her readers part of the process of investigating the murder and makes them think. This was also reflected in the nature of Hercule Poirot who relies heavily on his understanding of human nature in order to solve mysteries; this is a character he shares with Miss Marple, another witty creation of Christie’s mind. Poirot rarely relies on physical pieces of evidence but rather on getting to know the possible perpetrators. His process is akin to a mind game. It was a game of chess as Poirot goes head-to-head with a sly perpetrator.

“Any medical man who predicts exactly when a patient will die, or exactly how long he will live, is bound to make a fool of himself. The human factor is always incalculable. The weak have often unexpected powers of resistance, the strong sometimes succumb.”

~ Agatha Christie, Funerals Are Fatal

Time and time again, it has been proven that no case is too tough for Poirot not to crack. Ditching physical evidence in exchange for logic, he slowly built the case while mentally painting the profile of the potential perpetrator. He started creating mental profiles of each character. Mind you, Christie astutely does this while building the readers’ confidence in solving the case themselves. At one point, the reader feels he or she has an iota of who the perpetrator is. Like some of the characters, she made it plausible that a madman has perpetrated the murder or murders. But this is an Agatha Christie mystery and madmen simply do not fit Christie’s, and by extension, Poirot’s idea of the logical. Madmen are too compulsive, too random.

Christie paved the road toward the story’s conclusion with a mix of mischief and wit. Just when the reader believes he or she solved the case, Christie waylays them with a new clue even though the obvious facts of the case have already been thrown before them. Once the mystery is solved, the reader is left astounded. In true Christie fashion, she gives the readers a mindboggling conclusion that was unexpected. In true Poirot fashion, he was to arrive at the bottom of the case through his powers of observation and understanding people, citing “the dangers of conversation.” He further elucidated that “if you can induce a person to talk to you for long enough, on any subject whatever, sooner or later they will give themselves away.” And the perpetrator did! Funerals are indeed fatal.

As is always the case, the most obscure character is the one with the most intent and his or her intent is not necessarily what Christie made the readers believe it to be. That is the sleight of hand in mystery fiction after all and readers often fall for this trick. Lest we forget, Christie is a master of murder mysteries which involved a vast cast of unscrupulous characters; this was clearly evident in her classic works And Then There None and Murder on the Orient Express. Christie has also mastered the art of exposing the complications and the chasms that make up and divide nuclear families. The simplest unit of society, families provide a vast ecosystem worthy of character and psychological studies. It is no wonder that the exploration of family dynamics is a prevalent theme in Christie’s oeuvre.

But Funerals Are Fatal does not reduce itself to another murder mystery or an exploration of family dynamics. Written and set after the Second World War, Christie propped the story with details of how the war impacted society, as captured through the backstories of the characters. Richard, for instance, lost his brother because of the war. Meanwhile, Cora’s paid companion, Miss Gilchrist had to shut down a teashop she owned because of the war. It was an establishment that she cherished but she was forced to give it up due to food shortages. Commentaries on societal struggles following the end of the war were present all throughout the novel.

“What any woman saw in some particular man was beyond the comprehension of the average intelligent male. It just was so. A woman who could be intelligent about everything else in the world could be a complete fool when it came to some particular man.”

~ Agatha Christie, Funerals Are Fatal

Originally published in 1953 as After the Funeral, the thirty-third book featuring Hercule Poirot had the hallmarks of Christie’s masterful storytelling. It had all the elements for another riveting and pulsating mystery fiction. Family dynamics, a subject Christie has masterfully captured through her works, was again at the forefront of the mystery. But Funerals Are Fatal was more than just a typical murder and detective story. Amidst the backstories of the characters, Christie subtly captured the plight of post-war England. Dame Christie is indeed the Queen of Suspense and Funerals Are Fatal further proved her unmatched and timeless talent for conjuring a compelling tale of mystery.

Rating

80%

Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 
23%
Writing (25%) – 
21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

It has been over a decade since I discovered the pleasures of reading an Agatha Christie mystery. It all started with a university friend’s recommendation and when I encountered a copy of The Murder on the Orient Express, I did not give it further thought as I just grabbed the book and purchased it. It marked the beginning of a meaningful reader-writer relationship, more so considering that I read the book at a time when I was losing interest in mystery and suspense fiction. Christie exceeded my expectations and over a decade later, I have read over thirty of her works; that is over a third of her works. Meanwhile, I acquired my copy of Funerals are Fatal half a decade ago. Unfortunately, I never got around to reading the book, hence, its inclusion in my 2022 Beat the Backlist Challenge. Needless to say, I found myself riveted by Funerals are Fatal. I am simply astonished by Christie’s mastery of detective fiction. Poirot, himself a mystery, was a magnificent and memorable creation of literature. His unconventional process of solving a mystery, coupled with Christie’s compelling storytelling, never fails to astound me. At times, I don’t feel the need to solve the mystery myself and just let the story warp itself around me. I did try but my hunches and my instincts are often proven wrong. To more mysteries by Christie! Oh yeah, I forgot, I have two more books I bought together with Funerals are Fatal that I am yet to read. One of them was a book written under her pseudonym, Mary Westmacott.

Book Specs

Author: Agatha Christie
Publisher: Pocket Books
Publishing Date: June 1954
Number of Pages: 213
Genre: Suspense, Mystery

Synopsis

Hercule Poirot went looking for a killer. This is what he found:

  • A bloody hatchet
  • A piece of poisoned wedding cake
  • The corpse of an eccentric widow whose face had been smashed beyond recognition
  • A housekeeper who listened at keyholes
  • Two nieces greedy for money and men
  • And a bunch of quarrelsome relatives who needed cash and weren’t fussy about how to get it.

When he added them all up, Hercule Poirot had everything except one clue.

And he could get that only from the killer!

About the Author

To learn more about Agatha Christie, click here.