Should I throw this Agatha Christie book across the room?

My two-month-old is a virtuoso spitter-upper, and after feedings I have to hold him upright for half an hour. Including at 3 AM. So at that bleary hour, with my baby asleep and dribbling, I want to read something entertaining and totally non-taxing. I’ve been flying through Agatha Christies.

I was briefly taken aback in Lord Edgeware Dies when Hercule Poirot, in his infinite wisdom, deduced that a certain character must be driven by love of money because she is a “Jewess.” She was not entirely an unsympathetic character, but she was indeed acquisitive. A couple of other comments here and there appear in other books about “Semitic” and “Hebraic” people, which were not overt but discomfiting. And this was my personal favorite, from Death in the Clouds, about a couple’s first date (NB: at least one of them is a sympathetic character):

It was one of those enchanting evenings when every word and confidence exchanged seemed to reveal a bond of sympathy and shared tastes.

They liked dogs and disliked cats. They both hated oysters and loved smoked salmon. They liked Greta Garbo and disliked Katharine Hepburn. They didn’t like fat women and admired really jet-black hair. They disliked very red nails. They disliked loud voices, noisy restaurants and negroes. They preferred buses to tubes.

It seemed almost miraculous that two people should have so many points of agreement.

A truly enchanted evening, no? One gets the sense Christie is making a bit of fun of the silliness of falling in love, but one does not get the sense that she is particularly critical because they dislike black people and fat women.

David Hume discussed how these sorts of sentences can pop out at you, especially in books from the past:

Whatever speculative errors may be found in the polite writings of any age or country, they detract but little from the value of those compositions. There needs but a certain turn of thought or imagination to make us enter into all the opinions, which then prevail, and relish the sentiments or conclusions derived from them. But a very violent effort is requisite to change our judgment of manners, and excite sentiments of approbation or blame, love or hatred, different from those to which the mind, from long custom, has been familiarized. And where a man is confident of the rectitude of that moral standard, by which he judges, he is justly jealous of it, and will not pervert the sentiments of his heart for a moment, in complaisance to any writer whatsoever.

So should you throw a racist book across the room? Well, it might well be worthwhile to read such a book in virtue of its being a cultural artifact. But what about the book read as a work of art or entertainment? I think there are at least a few criteria that might determine to throw or not to throw.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a moving post that quotes Hilzoy, argues that one should still read such books. That writers-as-teachers are flawed, and yet we can learn from them. Coates and Hilzoy are assuming that the work is aesthetically (or psychologically) valuable. And I agree, the aesthetic value of a book does seem to be a criterion. Without ignoring the racism/sexism/anti-Semitism/homophobia of such works, and even considering such elements as aesthetic defects, we still value what they have to offer. But a book that has less aesthetic value, maybe not so much. Agatha Christie, after all, is not really one of our great teachers nor artists. She is reasonably high on the pure entertainment scale.

Another criterion is, of course, the author’s perceived endorsement. Is the author depicting a racist character of whom she disapproves, or is she communicating her own racist views? I get the sense that Christie at the very least does not disapprove of her racist and anti-Semitic characters. Evidence from her life might confirm this, as Christopher Hitchens said of dinner with her, “the anti-Jewish flavor of the talk was not to be ignored or overlooked.”

Another criterion might be the culture from which the author came. Taming of the Shrew in Shakespeare’s time represented widespread beliefs about women, long pre-dating Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill. It’s discomposing to read it, but what if it were written now, in 2012? The same play, written now, would not represent widespread beliefs. This is arguable, but I think it therefore would constitute an implicit argument for re-subjugating women. It’s making a social point instead reflecting social reality. It would not be just discomposing, but totally repulsive. Christie on this criterion comes out a little better. The books that had these sentiments were written in the 1930s. I didn’t notice anything untoward in her books later than that.

And finally, another criterion is how much of the book is devoted to such statements. If a significant portion of the book is devoted to the degradation of one group or another, then it becomes harder to read. A sentence or two might be skippable. On this criterion, Christie is in the clear. Her bilge is not a substantial portion of the book.

So, weighing it all, I ended up not throwing it against the wall. And not only because I was reading on an iPad.

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. I have this issue when I read “The Sun Also Rises,” which is one of my favorite novels (I’ve read it several times). As you may know, most of the characters are antisemitic and otherwise racist. In that case, it raises the question you do when you say, “Another criterion is, of course, the author’s perceived endorsement. Is the author depicting a racist character of whom she disapproves, or is she communicating her own racist views?” We could probably say that the narrator and the other characters are antisemitic but that Hemingway does not intend his novel to be. And that’s what I want to believe, but I still get the sense that it’s an antisemitic novel. No, I can’t or don’t know how to go about proving it, but that’s just my sense.

    • Lovecraft was absolutely OBSESSED with miscegenation, a very racist idea. OBSESSED. And yet, we are far enough removed that the obsession seems silly.

      Can I gloss over? Can I not read? I dunno. Sometimes, the art _hurts_. Even if it’s unintentional.

      Read an article in the city paper a while back, about a Muslim (who had decent ties to the Jewish community. seemed like a good chap) songster/rapper. But, it jumped out at me —
      in one of his songs, he sang about a “worldwide Jewish conspiracy.” It was kinda apparent from the song that it was just another thing– not an endless harangue about it, or anything. And yet, the words HURT. It made me less likely to actually listen to his music.

      If I ever met the guy, I might try to explain, but I doubt it would go well.

      • Interesting. What are your thoughts on Sun Also Rises, if you’ve read it? For me the tricky thing is that it’s hard to know what Hemingway the author believed and what he wanted his characters to believe (or say or do).

      • Lovecraft was absolutely OBSESSED with miscegenation, a very racist idea. OBSESSED.

        For, or against?

        • He was against it. Mixing the colors gave him the willies. And he knew who the better kind of people were.

  2. Re: Taming of the Shrew (which I’ve never read, although I know the basic plot)

    I think it’s a mistake to say that a work is a piece of its time and leave it at that. It is possible that Shakespeare was writing at a time when misogyny was on the rise in England and Europe and when patriarchy was tightening its grip, aiming to dismantle the cultural spaces that empowered, or at least somewhat protected, women. (Shakespeare’s time was close to the “witch craze” that at least some scholars have interpreted as a renewed attack on women’s cultural spaces.)

    I have to admit that early modern Europe is not my specialty, and that whatever the situation was, it was probably the case that women. as women, were poorly off before and after any re-advancement of patriarchal authority. What I’m trying to say is that “Taming” might very well have been part of a cultural discussion in the late 1500s / early 1600s and might have been more self-consciously intended as an attack on women than it might seem to us.

    I realize I’m being a bit pedantic here and, in truth, a little unfair. Wannabe historians like me are sometimes too quick to point out what they see as ahistoricism when that was only a marginal point of what their interlocutor was trying to say. But I do think the “it was a work of its time” notion ought to be taken with (perhaps a very small) grain of salt.

    • I certainly didn’t mean to suggest it shouldn’t matter at all. Of course it does, and you’d like someone as perceptive as Shakespeare to be on the forefront. I just think it’s somewhat more forgivable. It communicates something much different – more negligence than malice.

      But this point is, as I said, arguable.

  3. But isn’t the point of Poirot to be overly insulting to the French? (which includes making them look bad in every possible light?)

    • Poirot would take offense to that. He’s Belgian!
      To the degree that’s going on (if it is, I suppose it would be the boasting and vanity about his mustaches), it strikes me as affectionate teasing.

  4. My wife and I were watching “Faulty Towers” the other night, and the second episode caught us off guard by a discussion between the main character (John Cleese, who also wrote the series) and another about the difference between a wog and a n*****.
    Also, the original title of Christies “…And then there where none” was “Ten little n*****s”.

  5. One of the many reasons I hated 2666, other than its manifestly being a pile of crap, is that it is also manifestly a homophobic book. The author tosses the word “faggot” around (I’ve been told that it’s less offensive in the original Spanish, which I have a difficult time accepting as an excuse) in a completely blithe manner. Sometimes it makes sense, given the context. Other times it is there for no reason I can discern whatsoever. Perhaps if I’d enjoyed the book more, instead of considering it the most overrated drek-fest I’ve ever read, I’d have been willing to cut it more slack. But I didn’t, so I wasn’t.

    • I assume the author didn’t mean “wood kindling.” (If this joke is in poor taste, I apologize.)

      I also wonder about the Dire Straits song, “Money For Nothing.” I should be offended, but I tell myself that they are trying to mimic the way a working-class bigot might talk. (Of course, there’s another assumption in there. that working-class people are anti-gay bigots, that might be (good) cause for offense, too.)

      • I used to be really offended by that song, until someone convinced me that it’s really meant to reflect the opinions of the person supposedly griping about (I believe) Boy George, and not those of the band. When I listen to the song now, it’s what I hear.

        I would tell you to read 2666 and decide for yourself, but I’d never actually want anyone I liked to read 2666.

        • Thanks for implying you like me 🙂 And rest assured, I have no intention of spending the time to read 2666, which I’ve never heard of ’til I read your post.

          As for the Dire Straits song, I do think they are trying to describe what someone is griping about, although I imagine some listeners like what they (in my opinion) misinterpret as an anti-gay position, sort of like the Archie Bunker phenomenon of bigots and non-bigots laughing at the same jokes but for different reasons. Also, concerning that song, I’ve known people who have said they like that song and claim (probably honestly) they don’t even realize that word is used.

          • “I imagine some listeners like what they (in my opinion) misinterpret as an anti-gay position,”

            I mean “an anti-gay position by the band as opposed to the speaker in the song”

  6. One of the questions I usually ask myself when judging the past is a variant of “how will people look at us in 100 years?” Surely they won’t say “Man, they were really on top of things!”, after all. I imagine that we will appear as backwards and immoral to them as 1912 does to us. I asked the question of why we’ll seem so bad to the future of others once and got the answer “eating meat”.

    With that in mind, I ask you to dig:


    It’s 2112. Not the Rush album. Mankind has mastered the concept of vat-grown meat. Factory farming is a thing of the past. Farming, for anything that is not a plant is a thing of the past.

    Imagine that raising animals for no reason but to eat them is discussed with the same moral language as Jim Crow laws or denying women the right to vote. “Do you know how they treated pigs?” “Do you know how they treated chickens?” Perhaps a contrarian here or there would say “maybe most people just didn’t think about it, life involved eating meat for human history prior, after all” and someone else could point out “They had vegetarians. They had vegans. The people who questioned whether honey was a product of exploitation were *MOCKED*. Oh, they knew what they were doing.”

    With that in mind, I’d ask you to imagine someone watching a holovid of Pulp Fiction.

    “They went to ‘Jack Rabbit Slims’ and ordered steaks. Steaks! The waiter even asked if they wanted them ‘bloody as hell’ and neither even *BLINKED*. They both said ‘bloody’. And they smoked those cigarettes while they ate.”


    Now, I don’t bring this up because I think that steaks are immoral (steaks are awesome!) or because I’m trying to trivialize the casual racism of the characters in the books you’re reading.

    I’m just saying that we swim in a sea of casual assumptions. The characters in those books are doing the same and, I daresay, they’d argue to you that they are soooooooo much better than the people from 100 years prior to them. The moral assumptions you’re making would sound as silly to them as my example sounds… even if they did have vegetarians (and vegans!).

    • A couple of points:

      1) I agree to a certain extent, which is why I think the culture from which the book comes is relevant.
      2) yes, cultures in the past thought they were better, too, as the Hume quote shows.
      3) real moral progress, though, has been made. It’s not just different that slavery is no longer morally acceptable, it’s better.
      4) I have no doubt that there is more moral progress to be made and that I hold beliefs that will be shown to be immoral. I don’t know which they are, but just looking at it historically, that’s what I think. But I also think it’s forgivable. There’s a reason we make moral arguments. Very few of us spring forth with a fully formed moral view on everything. We’ve been persuaded to change on one issue or another. There are probably some issues no one has thought to argue yet, or the knockdown argument has not been made yet So I concede that there may be an artwork I find innocuous that should be tossed aside by Zogbert in the year 2112.

      • I apologize in advance for further “mansplaining” but you’ve got me chewing on stuff.

        To begin with, you’ve got me thinking even more (especially with your use of the word “should” in your last sentence) about what is going to be found offensive by future generations.

        I mean, Pulp Fiction contained the following: people shooting other people. Forced sodomy. People killing other people with swords. Threats of torture being used as the big laugh line. Cocaine/Heroin mixups. Smoking. Oh, so very much smoking. At Jack Rabbit Slims, John Travolta takes two bites of his steak, sits back, and lights up. Oh, my atheist god, do I want a cigarette right now.

        What did I imagine the folks of the future finding offensive? The bloody steak itself… and this is completely understandable (at least to me, anyway) within my own narrative.

        When we read a book about a murder or a whole bunch of murders and, eh, it’s cool. Except for the casual racism on the part of the detective. *THAT* gets categorized as offensive. The murders? Eh. They’re setup. They’re fantasy. They don’t mean anything because they’re fiction.

        Going back through my movie memories, I’m reminded of Natural Born Killers and Death Wish and The Brave One. Natural Born Killers was considered an indictment of society (specifically the OJ Trial) while The Brave One was considered a downright scary movie because of what it meant when it came to our faith in our systems.

        I’m going back and remembering the criticism of Natural Born Killers and the stuff that bothered me (the casual murders in the diner, the faces Woody Harrelson made to the woman he tied up) didn’t get mentioned in movie reviews as much as what the movie *MEANT* when it came to Us As A Society and stuff like the OJ trial.

        The Brave One, by contrast, got pilloried as a revenge fantasy that was downright scary for what it meant about our society. A remake of Death Wish (of all movies!). A commercial for private gun ownership! A commercial for murder!

        The things we find offensive about culture (and about other cultures (and about past cultures)) seems to me to indicate much more about us than about the other cultures. Even if we tell ourselves that the other cultures are “ours” first.

        • Actually, this is a topic I’m writing a paper on right now. What makes for those pop-out sentences that Hume talks about, ones where you stop going along with the fiction. It gets very complicated very quickly. They’re not only moral cases either – imagine a fiction that depicted knock knock jokes as the absolute funniest thing that ever was. There are a bunch of others.

          Not really dealing about when you should give up on a novel, but why certain things stick out and others don’t.

      • Just off the top of my head, realizing that and (to a great extent) acting like brown people are people and eating farmed meat is (by most moral accountings we’d do) a lot better than not realizing that or acting like brown people are people and eating (perhaps somewhat less intensely induxtrially) farmed meat. So I don’t think it’s that crazy to think we are that much better than them (though that is definitely mitigated by the fact that most of us were born into a world that accepted it – the really excellent ones are the ones who did the work of figuring it out and getting the idea accepted).

        But more broadly, it’s not the case that all revolutions in moral attitude represent actual moral advances of equal magnitude (or indeed are based on legitimate moral propositions). Even if society comes to accept that the way we treat animals is broadly wicked, both as relates to agriculture, and in other ways (such as testing of medical and nonmedical products), it doesn’t necessarily follow that those future generations will regard the advance that results as equal to the advance that was the realization that human beings with different skin color are not of presumptively different moral value. Nor would it necessarily be the case that the magnitudes of those two advances were in actuality equal.

        For my part, I do tend to cut the people of earlier generations a bit of a break on what I take to be their moral shortcomings for accepting of the prevailing attitudes of their times, so long as they were not the ones actively resisting the broad change in moral sentiment when the period of the tipping point against them came. So, I don’t hold slaveholders of the eighteenth century for their way of life as much as I blame the leaders of the Confederacy for fighting to preserve that way of life. I don’t blame the white people of the South in the time of Jim Crow. (The KKK I give no quarter to at any time in its history, however.)

        I realize that tipping points are not always apparent at their front edges, and so this is not that forgiving of a standard. I think that is an okay thing. It preserves a category of action that we can condemn, while not making the category so braod as to be meaningless. i may end up on the sharp end of it, but I’ll probably be dead, so that’s okay. If it helps advance what I don’t now take to be that compelling a moral cause but in fact is (namely, animal rights against being raised for food and eaten by humans – I think overt cruelty to animals is wrong, but that carnivore(ism?) is just too much the rule throughout the animal j=kingdom for me to think that humans also engaging in it can be clearly wrong; again perhaps that will sound comically wrong to future generations) for me to be held up as the embodiment of evil in my generation, because in fact the tipping point is now and I just don’t see it yet, then so be it – that is a good thing in its way. If the tipping point comes during my lifetime and I recognize it, hopefully I’ll have the strength to adjust my views and behavior accordingly.

        I guess basically what I’m trying to say is that this all isn’t quite as hard as it seems. Of course many of our generation’s practices are genuinely morall better than earlier ones, but of course we don’t judge the individuals of those earlier times *entirely* by the standards we’ve since developed and ourselves had the advantage of being morally inculcated in. At the same time, of course neither does this mean that we let those individuals entirely off the hook or fail to recognize the moral superiority to them of any of their contemporaries whom we can identify as having been ahead of the moral curve. We can of course expect similar treatment from our moral betters who are not yet born and had their chance to create the world that we don’t exist in. I think I’m treating people before me fairly by using this approach, and I think if a roughly similarly one is used to evaluate my life and actions, I won’t feel unfairly treated. And moreover, why would I care? Hell, I’ve experienced legitimate moral reprobation against my own actions by my contemporaries and come through it okay; perhaps even improved for it. There are worse things than being morally judged (like, perhaps, being eaten?).

        • I don’t blame the white people of the South in the time of Jim Crow.

          Yikes, didn’t finish what I intended to say in that sentence.

          I don’t blame white people in the South in the (earlier part of) of Jim Crow (say the ’20s-40s) who approved of that regime as much as I blame Bull Connor, the people who jeered and (I think) spit on the Little Rock Nine, etc., who resisted hen the tide of came was pretty clearly inexorably rolling in. Who actively resisted rather than learning and adjusting to a righteous moral wave.

          As I say, I’m really not how far out on the surf the moral wave relating to animal rights is right now. I trust my future betters to figure it out in hindsight, however, wish them best in that endeavor, and grant them all the license they want to take to blame me morally as they see fit.

          (Side note to Jaybird: perhaps it’s because I don’t think there is a real moral fabric of the universe, but rather just think that morality is an emergent phenomenon of human (and perhaps animal) interaction that I am so unclear on where this all stands.)

          • I think you’re using the benefit of 20/20 hindsight a bit much.
            We can see a progression from one thing to the next from our side of time.
            From the other side, it must certainly appear a bit more sporadic and random.
            Some things are truly transformational.
            As a coin and a candle appear to be much the same thing from the view of a table top, with perspective we can see easily that the two are dissimilar.
            We are as yet extraordinarily primitive as a species.

          • I think I’m discounting against 20/20 hindsight quite a bit, tbh. I thought that was pretty clearly my point – to say about how much. Obviously, everyone can do this his own way. You’re more than welcome to lay out your approach.

          • Perhaps this sounded more definite than I intended:

            Of course many of our generation’s practices are genuinely morall better than earlier ones, but of course we don’t judge the individuals of those earlier times *entirely* by the standards we’ve since developed and ourselves had the advantage of being morally inculcated in. At the same time, of course neither does this mean that we let those individuals entirely off the hook or fail to recognize the moral superiority to them of any of their contemporaries whom we can identify as having been ahead of the moral curve.

            I very much meant for this to imply that, while I have a hrad time imagining that a version of this isn’t how just about everyone ultimately approaches this problem, that with in that there is a pretty broad range of specific outcomes that someone might fall along. So, when i say it’s not that hard, I mean schematically it’s pretty straightforward (not that other approaches must be nonsensical, I just doubt many people don’t look at it basically this way), but that within that obviously people are going to come to a range of conclusions. As, basically, is illustrated in Rose’s next thread, where the question is pretty much comprehensible to everyone, but not everyone would necessarily agree about all the specific propositions.

        • Yes, that’s true. Nor is it necessarily the case that the arc of the moral universe always bends toward justice. This is a lot of what I meant to say in the comment above.

  7. Jack enjoys The Hardy Boys and Hannah and Jack are both fans of The Bobbsey Twins.

    Dinah, of course, is a wonderful person in The Bobbsey Twins, but she definitely follows a lot of the crass stereotypes of mid-20th-century writers for persons of color (see also: every minor black character in all the Thin Man movies, although those are much worse).

    The Hardy Boys books that I have are the ones from my childhood, about a third of which I picked up at the used book store (reminds me, must write a post about the used book store) and are thus the original editions.

    There’s been a couple of times when I’ve revised the language while reading them. I’m not sure I actually approve of this method, but there’s a difference between sanitizing the past (which is an approach I don’t like) and keeping things age-appropriate. I’ve wondered how the books change in the later editions; I have later edition copies of some, and earlier edition copies of others, but only a couple where I have both copies. I’ll have to check them and compare them to each other.

    Shorter comment: I think about this all the time, but I haven’t really gotten anywhere with it yet.

    • Are there any black characters in the updated version of the Chip Hilton books? I don’t know which would be worse: how odd it would be for a high-school and college athlete nowadays to have no black teammates, or how ham-handed the insertion of race would likely seem.

    • Haven’t gotten there with my kids yet….wonder what I will do.

  8. I’m too late to all this (how the hell did I miss it?), but I just wanted to express my both my admiration as well as a bit of jealousy that you’ve both tackled and clarified something I’ve been interested in as well. It’s a very subtle topic, this. And a deep one. I hope you share your thoughts with us as the paper your writing develops.

  9. Let me make this real simple for you.
    A little lesson in Human Being 101:
    This is something that truly angers me.
    You see, my grandfather was an Indian who had cut his hair and moved to Texas and told people that he was a Mexican in order to find work.
    These days, some people want to call him a “Native American,” like he didn’t know who in the hell he was.
    I don’t really care about my grandfather so much. He’s long dead by now. And I really don’t care so much about “his memory” or “all the things he went through.”
    Nope. I don’t care.
    That was then, and this is now.
    And now, people think that they can play like this or that never happened by some mechanization of sanitized language.
    Q. How do we forgive the past?
    We don’t. There’s no need to. For us to even think something like that is stepping far beyond our bounds.
    It was a different world then. This is a different world now.
    You can’t judge the winter by the preceding summer.
    But I want to show this to you:
    There are children that will wake up hungry tomorrow.
    And no one on this thread is likely to offer any food to a one of them.
    No sanitized language or politically correct expressions will fill them.
    And yet we speak of this sanitized language and these politically correct expressions as if they are great, weighty, and meaningful.
    And we wonder about some (distant!) time when the things we casually accept will be called into question.
    That’s how primitive we are.

    • Let me make this really simple for you.

      That we don’t feed all the starving children will not make it any better that we also barbarically raise animals in torturous conditions for slaughter, if in fact that turns out to be barbaric. So yeah, it still matters if that’s barbaric. And that may end up being clear to future generations, while it isn’t entirely clear to us. The only reason we today know that the racist regimes of the past were wrong is because people over time came to realize that, and that notion was broadly accepted and then subsequently confirmed over time. So the progression over time really does matter. But of course you’re right, we do always live only in the eternal Now. So that all is something of figment to us, it’s true. So the device of considering the view of future generations is ultimately just a device: we try to step outside of our own perspective using the experience of remembered history and try to see what we do now more clearly. It’s not actually about what they will think about us.

      • the device of considering the view of future generations is ultimately just a device

        Every tool is known by its function.

        But the concept that we are still fairly primitive as a species is separate from any person or class of persons who might view us to be so.

    • > There are children that will wake up hungry tomorrow.
      > And no one on this thread is likely to offer any food to
      > a one of them.

      Not tomorrow, no.

      But there’s at least one person on this thread who offers up food to *some* of them, some times.

      • That is commendable, and needed.

        I was trying to draw the distinction between people and words.
        People are more important.
        In many ways, we are still trying to come to terms with the level of technology that we have available.
        I can communicate instantaneously with people in other nations. I could eat lunch three states away. Neither is a super-human feat. These things are common-place.

  10. I’ve been re-reading Agatha’s novels lately in order of when they were written/published and I’m currently up to Hickory Dickory Death from 1955. I’ve been surprised at the number of politically incorrect or downright offensive asides from some of the characters which I hadn’t remembered from when I first read the books 15 to 20 years ago. Overall the number of “icky” remarks per book is relatively low, but when added up across the large number of her novels, it seems like a lot. Without excusing Agatha for whatever prejudices she may have had, it’s important to remember she was a product of her time and that her views (or her characters’ views) probably reflected sentiments not uncommon among her class in insular Britain during the time period in which the books were written. According to my Agatha Christie Companion (and I believe as mentioned in her autobiography), she eased up on the anti-Semitic remarks in her books after meeting a Nazi-sympathizer and being shocked at his views. I noticed that Murder with Mirrors, a post-WWII book, was heavy on anti-Italian sentiment, and there are plenty of other books with anti-foreigner or simply anti-anyone-who-isn’t-white-and-British remarks.

    Hickory Dickory Death contains a few interesting remarks about blacks (like black nurses are nicer than English nurses) made by Miss Lemon, Poirot’s secretary, but at the same time, the novel centers on a hostel that is shared by students of several nationalities and races somewhat peacefully (well, aside from some petty theiving and murder, neither of which are related to the race of the inhabitants of the hostel). A Jamaican girl is fondly referred to as “Black Bess” which is supposedly a moniker Bess is perfectly comfortable with. When the owner of the hostel believes racism may be a motive behind the petty theivery, she declares that the Americans care about race and the Americans are to be appeased, so the Indian, African and other non-white students should be tossed out of the hostel. Mrs. Hubbard (Miss Lemon’s sister) strongly rebukes this sentiment and refuses to do any such thing. In the early novels, many comments are made without anyone expressing an opposing view; in the later novels, while some remarks are still made without notice, others are followed by another character’s disagreement or disapproval of racist attitudes. As history progresses and attitudes change, these attitudes are reflected in Agatha’s books. (I’m hoping that my re-reading of the last quarter of the novels will follow this pattern!)

    Agatha may not be “literature” per se, but as the most widely published author (second only to Shakespeare and the Bible), she can’t be ignored. And Then There Were None still reigns as the world’s best-selling mystery novel and is a masterpiece of the mystery genre. Originally titled Ten Little Niggers (after the 1860 poem of that name around which Agatha created her story), it was re-titled later as Ten Little Indians which was deemed to be less offensive. A recent Harper paperback version of And Then There Were None has the poem changed to “Ten Little Soldiers” and the action takes place on Soldier Island (as opposed to Nigger or Indian Island). The idiom “there’s a nigger in the woodpile” which appeared twice in the text was also removed and replaced with different lines. I’m not sure that sanitizing books is a good idea (especially not to classic literature like Huck Finn where the language is integral to the meaning and nature of the book), but aside from throwing the book across the room, it’s either sanitizing minor occurences unimportant to plot or understanding as you’re reading that the books were written a long time ago when such comments were probably tolerated in polite society without anyone (or at least anyone white and British) thinking twice.

    • Very interesting. Glad to hear from someone proceeding systematically, and the detail from her life about the Nazi sympathizer does help explain some of the drop off in anti Semitism.

      Also interesting that she had those views given how widely traveled she was.

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