A post on Agatha Christie, in which I examine a vexed and vexing question and come to a (sort of) conclusion
Earlier this month, on the 15th to be exact, The Irish Times published a feature with this provocative title: Agatha Christie: genius or hack? Crime writers pass judgment and pick favourites. The ostensible occasion is the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth, but probably, any excuse to write about ‘the Queen of Crime’ will suffice. Among the authors who contributed to this worthy enterprise are Val McDermott, Sophie Hannah, Linwood Barclay, Laura Wilson, Dror Mishani, and Joseph Finder. Several indicated that it was their youthful reading in the Christie oeuvre that was part of the reason that they themselves entered the field of crime writing.
One person who is emphatically not of this viewpoint is John Banville. Here’s the first paragraph of his comments:
When I was a boy, back around the close of the Stone Age, I was an avid reader of the novels of Agatha Christie. Nowadays I am with Edmund Wilson, the title of whose 1945 New Yorker essay, Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, expresses my feelings exactly. I say ‘novels’, but I am not sure that is what these books are. They more resemble crossword puzzles, and finishing one of them, like finishing a puzzle, leaves one with the same ashen sense of futility and wasted time.
“Ashen sense of futility and wasted time”? That’s a pretty harsh judgment, I think. For my part, when I finish a Christie book or story, I usually think, Well, that was a pleasant interlude – or sentiments to that effect. True, I’m not ordinarily raised to a state of exaltation – but neither am I cast down as Banville apparently is.
At any rate, John Banville has been taken to task for these sour sentiments by Xavier Lechard on his excellent blog Up at the Villa Rose. See “A Neanderthalian view of Christie.”
Meanwhile this past Thursday, the blogger at The Passing Tramp (I believe this is Curtis Evans’s blog) posted a compilation of top twenty Christie books from thirty-one lists. (He also appends a list from The World’s Favorite Christie.) There’s more Christie lore to be found on The Passing Tramp.
And Then There Were None repeatedly appears as readers’ favorite Christie novel. Some years ago, when I finally got around to reading this book, I was already a confirmed Christie fan. With regard to this particular title, I’d been forewarned that it contained some offensive material. Nevertheless, I was stopped in my tracks when, early on, I came upon a tossed off sentence containing a disparaging reference to a particular ethnic group – mine, as it happens.
Reading on, I encountered more of this sort of thing, including the repugnant “n” word, freely used. (It’s worth recalling that this novel has gone through several title changes before acquiring the one presently in common usage. You can find comprehensive coverage of the book’s publication history in the Wikipedia entry, but please be advised: once there, you’ll be confronted by the original, obectionable – at least, to present day eyes – cover image.)
The question arises as to what attitude one is to adopt with regard to these offensive expressions. It’s certainly understandable that a reader might think, “This is intolerable’ and set the volume aside. Or you can cope with your annoyance by remembering the historical context and soldier on, forgiving to an extent but not forgetting.
In her biography of Agatha Christie, published in 1990, Gillian Gill states:
A kind of jingoistic, knee-jerk anti-Semitism colors the presentation of Jewish characters in many of her early novels, and Christie reveals herself to be as unreflective and conventional as the majority of her compatriots.
Then several pages later, on the same subject:
Christie’s anti-Semitism had always been of the stupidly unthinking rather than the deliberately vicious kind. As her circle of acquaintances widened and she grew to understand what Nazism really meant for Jewish people, Christie abandoned her knee-jerk anti-Semitism. What is more, even at her most thoughtless and prejudiced, Christie saw Jews as different, alien, and un-English, rather than as depraved or dangerous–people one does not know rather than people one fears.
Whether the above elucidation can be taken as exculpatory or not depends on the individual reader.
In the years immediately following the Second World War, Dodd Mead, Christie’s American publisher, began to receive objections from the reading public to the anti-Semitic comments found in her books. Christie’s literary agents then provided assurances that such denigration would not appear in future publications. In addition, Dodd Mead was given permission to delete those that were present in existing texts.
I can only assume that later versions of the novels in question – the ones that were ‘scrubbed’ by Dodd Mead – were reissued in their original form. My copy of And Then There Were None was published by St. Martin’s Paperbacks in May 2001.
According to Malcolm J. Turnbull, in Victims or Villains:
Although “foreigners” continued to be targeted by the writer from time to time, most strikingly, the household of international eccentrics in Hickory Dickory Dock, with one minor exception Jews ceased to figure negatively in Christie’s work from that time on.
(The exception being referred to appears in They Came to Baghdad, which was published in 1951.)
Agatha Christie wrote an autobiography, the composition of which took place over period of years, roughly from 1950 to 1965. It did not, however, reach the public until after her death in 1976. (It was actually first published in November 1977.) In it, Christie describes her experiences accompanying her husband, the distinguished archaeologist Max Mallowan, on his various “digs” in the Middle East. In the early 1930s, they became acquainted with Dr. Julius Jordan, the German Director of Antiquities in Baghdad.
Dr. Jordan invited the couple to be his guests, along with others, for tea at his house. He entertained them by playing works by Beethoven on the piano. What followed is best told in Christie’s own words:
He had a fine head, and I thought, looking at him, what a splendid man he was. He had seemed always gentle and considerate. Then there was mention by someone, quite casually, of Jews. His face changed; changed in an extraordinary way that I had never noticed on anyone’s face before.
He said: “You do not understand. Our Jews are perhaps different from yours. They are a danger. They should be exterminated. Nothing else will really do but that.”
I stared at him unbelievingly. He meant it. It was the first time I had come across any hint of what was to come later from Germany. People who had travelled there, were, I suppose, already realising it at that time, but for ordinary people in 1932 and 1933, there was a complete lack of fore-knowledge.
She reflects further:
On that day as we sat in Dr. Jordan’s sitting-room and he played the piano, I saw my first Nazi – and I discovered later that his wife was an even fiercer Nazi than he was. They had a duty to perform there: not only be Director of Antiquities or even to work for their country, but also to spy on their own German ambassador.
And finally, this concluding sentence:
There are things in life that make one truly sad when one can make oneself believe them.
End of subject.
I was born into a Jewish family. My parents were first generation Americans, their parents – my grandparents – having emigrated to this country from the Ukraine, then a part of the Russian Empire, in the years immediately preceding the First World War. Ours was not an especially religious household. But we lived in a primarily Jewish city – Miami Beach, Florida, in the 1950s and 1690s. Ethnically we were thoroughly Jewish. Matzoh brei, gefilte fish, kasha varnishkes, temple on the High Holy Days. It was all there.
For me, the practice of the religion and its attendant rituals has largely fallen away. But I am still Jewish, oh yes, to the soles of my feet I am. I’ve been fortunate in experiencing very little in the way of overt anti-Semitism. But I can tell you, on the one or two occasions when I have, it is felt like the proverbial blow to the solar plexus.
Any instance of anti-Semitic expression makes me both angry and sad. I hate any and all expressions of ethnic and racial bias, but of course, one feels it most keenly when it’s one’s own group that is targeted. So how do I feel about the presence of such material in the works of Agatha Christie?
I wish it were not there. I find it frustrating, offensive, dispiriting. And yet…Do I close the book? Do I stop reading? No. I come back to Gillian Gill’s adjectives: ‘knee-jerk,’ ‘unreflective.’ I accept that description of Agatha Christie’s negative portrayal of certain of her Jewish characters. I wish she’d been more reflective. But she was not. At least, not in the early years of her authorial career.
I am speaking as one who continues to read and enjoy the works of this extraordinarily gifted writer of crime fiction. She was not perfect, but then neither am I. I wish I could have known her. I cherish fond memories of visiting her home, in company of the remarkably Christie scholar John Curran.
More on the novels and stories in posts to come. I welcome comments on the above.
Gillian Gill has more to say on this subject in her Christie biography. As for Malcolm J. Turnbull’s book, its full title is Victims or Villains: Jewish Images in Classic English Detective Fiction. It was published by Bowling Green State University Press in 1998. Several years ago, I read a reference to it and ordered it immediately. I then placed it in among my mystery collections and forgot about it. Writing this post served as a reminder that I do in fact own it.
One final word on And Then There Were None. My recollection of the novel – apart from what was discussed above – is that it consisted of an elaborately contrived plot with virtually no attention paid to character development or mood. I admit I’m puzzled by its great popularity.