Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Traditional Agatha Christie Tale

"Men always tell such silly lies."

Agatha Christie
Funerals Are Fatal (1953)

The concept of a remake is hardly an alien one in the 21st century.

There are frequent remakes — or re–imaginings, as they are sometimes called — in the movies and on TV. Cover versions of old hit songs become hits themselves.

In fact, as I recall, remakes weren't new even in the late 20th century.
But, although it was before my time, it seems to me that remakes were far more rare in the mid–20th century — when Agatha Christie published "Funerals Are Fatal."

"Funerals Are Fatal" was published in the United States 60 years ago — in March of 1953 — and it was something of a remake in the sense that it was Christie's return to the formula that made her so popular in the '30s and '40s — a sprawling Victorian mansion with a sprawling Victorian family and lots of money up for grabs following the death of the eldest sibling.

And a butler.

I am not the Agatha Christie aficionado that my mother was, but one of the things that stood out for me when I read "Funerals Are Fatal" was the presence of the butler.

As long as I can remember, "the butler did it" is a cliche that inevitably is dragged out whenever a murder mystery is the subject of conversation. Almost without exception, all the murder mysteries that I read that were published after about the mid–1900s had no butlers.

In fact, in my lifetime, it seems that, whenever a butler has shown up in a book or a movie about a fictional murder, it has been as the setup for jokes based on the cliche.

"Funerals Are Fatal" actually did have a butler, but he was a rather minor character in the story. He had been the butler of the mansion when the now–deceased head of the house was bringing up his orphaned siblings, but the butler was a very old man by the time of the story so he was never a very plausible suspect as a multiple murderer.

And that, essentially, was what Hercule Poirot, Christie's most famous (and most lucrative) detective, faced in this story.

First, the eldest sibling died suddenly but apparently from natural causes, causing the scattered family to be summoned for a reading of the will — at which the dead man's only surviving sister ponders, "but he was murdered, wasn't he?"

Initially, that point wasn't clear — but what was clear was that the dead man's sister was herself murdered — in her own bed the day after her brother's funeral.

And then her paid companion nearly died from arsenic poisoning from a sliver of wedding cake. The niece of the dead man had declined to share the cake with her.

(Paid companion seemed, on the surface, to refer more to a business relationship, but as one so often had to do with Christie's works, it was necessary to read between the lines. I haven't read all of Christie's works, but it sees to me this was the first of her books — at least, it is the earliest one in which Poirot was a character — that mentioned lesbianism, even indirectly.)

In the course of his investigation, Poirot encountered the usual assortment of red herrings tossed in his way by Christie. All part of the formula.

Another part of the Christie formula involved having Poirot gather all the principal characters together for observation, and that happened in this book, too, but then there was a twist. The widow of the dead man's brother was struck on the head as she was about to reveal by telephone what she found odd on the day of her brother–in–law's funeral.

Two dead, two others who appeared to have dodged a bullet.

In typical Christie fashion, the explanation for everything was complex, but that must have been what longtime Christie readers liked about it. It had all the elements of the traditional Christie tale that her fans loved so much.

As I say, it was a remake — or, perhaps more accurately, a rehash — of the things that had worked for Christie in the past.

So it is ironic, I suppose, that very few screen adaptations of the story have been made.

Ten years after the book was published, a movie that was based on it was made — but the movie was called "Murder at the Gallop," and the detective was not Poirot but Miss Marple, Christie's second most popular detective (but her personal favorite).

More than 40 years later, a TV adaptation was made, but it, too, had numerous character and plot changes.

To date, no adaptation of "Funerals Are Fatal" that is true to the story has been made — not even under the original title Christie gave it, "After the Funeral," under which it was published in the United Kingdom in May 1953.