After the funeral of the wealthy Richard Abernethie, his remaining family assembles for the reading of the will. The death, though sudden, was not unexpected and natural causes have been given as the cause on his death certificate. Nevertheless, after the tactless Cora says, "It was hushed up very nicely ... but he was murdered, wasn't he?" the family lawyer, Mr. Entwhistle, begins to investigate. Before long there is no question that a murderer is at large.
After returning home from her brother's funeral, Cora Lansquenet is murdered in her sleep by repeated blows with a hatchet. The motive for the murder does not appear to be theft, and the estate that she leaves to her relative, Susan Banks, is comparatively meagre, since the Abernethie bequest is folded back into the estate of her brother, Richard. The suspected motive is therefore to suppress anything that Richard might have told Cora about his suspicions that he was being poisoned. These had been overheard by her companion, Miss Gilchrist.
Entwhistle calls in Poirot, who employs an old friend, Mr. Goby, to investigate the family. Mr. Goby turns up a number of reasons within the family for members of it to be desperate for the money in Richard Abernethie’s estate. Poirot warns Entwhistle that Miss Gilchrist may herself be a target for the murderer.
Cora has been a keen artist and collector of paintings from local sales. While Susan Banks, a suspect, is visiting to clear up Cora’s things, she sees Cora’s paintings and privately notes that Cora has been copying postcards: one of her paintings, which Miss Gilchrist claims were painted from life, features a pier that was destroyed in the war. While she is visiting, an art critic called Alexander Guthrie arrives to look through Cora’s recent purchases, but there is nothing of interest there. Immediately afterwards, Miss Gilchrist is nearly killed by arsenical poison in a slice of wedding cake that has been apparently sent to her through the post. The only reason that she is not killed is that, following a superstition, she has saved the greater part of the slice of cake under her pillow.
Poirot focuses on the Abernethie family, and a number of red herrings come to light. Rosamund Shane, one of the heiresses, is an inflexible and determined woman who seems to have something to hide (which turns out to be her husband’s infidelity and her own pregnancy). Susan’s husband, Gregory, is a dispensing chemist who had apparently been responsible for deliberately administering an overdose to an awkward customer. He even confesses to the murder of Richard Abenerthie near the close of the novel, but is discovered to have a pathological compulsion to be punished for crimes of which he is innocent. Timothy Abernethie, an unpleasant invalid who seems to be feigning illness in order to gain attention, might have been able to commit the murder of Cora, as might his suspiciously strong-armed wife, Maude. Perhaps identifying the murderer may depend on finding a nun whom Miss Gilchrist claims to have noticed ? But what can all this have to do with a bouquet of wax flowers to which Poirot pays attention?
After playing games in mirrors, Helen Abernethie telephones Entwhistle with the news that she has realised something about the murderer. Before she can say what it is she is savagely struck on the head.
Poirot’s explanation in the denouement is a startling one. Cora had never come to the funeral at all; it was Miss Gilchrist, who disguised herself as Cora in order to plant the idea that Richard’s death had been murder. Since no one had seen Cora for many years, and Miss Gilchrist had been able to copy many of her mannerisms, it was unlikely that the ruse would be spotted, except for the fact that she had rehearsed a characteristic turn of the head in a mirror, where the reflection is reversed. When she came to do it at the funeral, she turned her head to the wrong side. Helen had had the feeling that something was wrong when Cora had made her statement, but not realized at the time that it was this incorrectly reproduced gesture. Miss Gilchrist had further given herself away by referring to the wax flowers; these were present on the day of the reading of the will but had been put away by the time Miss Gilchrist (as herself) met the family.
The “murder” of Richard needed to be established so that Miss Gilchrist’s own motive for killing Cora would be obfuscated when she killed her. Miss Gilchrist desperately wanted a painting that Cora had bought at a sale and which she had recognised as a Vermeer. Miss Gilchrist has subsequently painted over the Vermeer with the image copied from the postcard in order to disguise the painting amongst others left to her in Cora’s will.
At the end of the novel, Miss Gilchrist is understandably found to be completely insane.
Unlike Taken at the Flood, in which there is a strong sense of post-war English society reforming along the lines of the status quo ante, After the Funeral is deeply pessimistic about the social impact of war. The village post office no longer handles the local post. Mr. Goby blames the government for the poor standard of investigators that he is able to employ. The family house is sold, and the butler Lanscombe, who had expected to be able to retire to the North Lodge, is forced to leave the estate. A pier from a postcard view has been bombed and the view consequently spoiled. Richard Abernethie finds it impossible to find a single heir worthy of succeeding to his estate and ends up dividing his fortune among family members who seem likely to waste it on gambling and theatre ventures.
Miss Gilchrist describes her idyllic tea shop (in Chapter 4, iii) as a "war casualty". Instead of committing a murder in order to inherit the vast wealth of the Abernethies, she does so for a much smaller sum of money, and one that she can only visualise in terms of recreating her own vision of English life: another tea shop.
Food rationing in England came to an end in the year of publication, but its effect is still felt in the egg shortages that are mentioned in the novel. Throughout, there is a strong sense of the post-war period, including comments on the increased burden of taxation associated with the government of Clement Attlee. Taking all of these elements into account, it is not difficult or fanciful to see in these plot details Christie's disquiet with post-war Britain.
Around this time, Christie began experimenting with the depiction of lesbianism (although she wouldn't actually address the subject directly until almost twenty years later, in Hallowe'en Party), and subtly infers a potential romance between Miss Gilchrist and Cora, describing them as having a 'frenzied female friendship'.
No review of this book appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.
Robert Barnard: "A subject of perennial appeal – unhappy families: lots of scattered siblings, lots of Victorian money (made from corn plasters). Be sure you are investigating the right murder, and watch for mirrors (always interesting in Christie). Contains Christie's last major butler: the 'fifties and 'sixties were not good times for butlers.
In chapter 12, Poirot mentions the case handled in Lord Edgware Dies as being one in which he was “nearly defeated”.
In Chapter 13, Poirot's valet is referred to in the narrative as Georges. The valet's actual name is George, but Poirot always addresses him as Georges in direct speech. This is the first (and only?) time that he is referred to by the French version of his name in the third person narration itself.
This is the first of the Poirot novels in which lesbianism (between a woman and her companion) is discussed as a possible motive. The references to lesbianism are veiled and euphemistic: Inspector Morton refers to it as "feverish female friendship" in chapter 13.
The novel was first serialised in the US in the Chicago Tribune in forty-seven parts from Tuesday, January 20 to Saturday, March 14, 1953.
In the UK the novel was first serialised in the weekly magazine John Bull in seven abridged instalments from March 21 (Volume 93, Number 2438) to May 2, 1953 (Volume 93, Number 2444) with illustrations by William Little.