We don't need sensitivity readers to save us from Agatha Christie
Offence archeology is obviously a slippery slope
During the COVID lockdown, grumpy from inactivity, I by serendipity fell upon the rebounder — a mini-trampoline — as the perfect lockdown exercise vehicle. (I still love it.) Audiobooks became my constant exercise companion, with crime fiction my bounce-along preference. Eons ago, I read the entire Agatha Christie oeuvre. But, having forgotten who the culprit was in all of them (with the obvious exception of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; Christie fans will understand), I thought it might be fun to revisit them aurally.
It was fun. And now I learn — not with surprise, given the current trend, rampant in the publishing industry, for laundering dead authors’ works of offensive tropes — that HarperCollins, Christie’s publisher, is producing new, racially sanitized versions of her Poirot and Miss Marple novels. The n-word will not be missed, but “Oriental”? And why must a “Nubian boatman” be reduced to “boatman”?
Offence archeology is obviously a slippery slope. Here one can see, in the interest of “sensitivity,” contemporary readers being short-changed, denied the opportunity to familiarize themselves with England’s rigidly classist and decidedly xenophobic society in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the Golden Age of English crime fiction. Millions of people are bored by history books, but find lowbrow fiction from previous eras a useful lesson in social history.
One should remember that the conspiracy theory in The 39 Steps is later proved incorrect. The story spun by this character was a blind, and knowingly played on stereotypes. John Buchan’s genius imaginings expressed by his villain in his novella The Power House, are truly frightening, as they have mostly come true, including the results of abandoning the gold standard to back our currencies, and the malleability of an apathetic public. I am sure the woke would love to cancel this fine writer.
As Lady Mary Wortley Montagu so insightfully observed 250 years ago of novels, a genre then in its youth: “Perhaps you will say that I should not take my ideas of the manners of the times from such trifling authors; but it is more truly to be found among them than from any historian: as they write merely to get money, they always fall into the notions that are most acceptable to the present taste.”
In one 1936 Poirot mystery, for example, a character says: “I never forget a face — even a black one — and that’s a lot more than most people can say.” This comment is casually racist, to be sure, but it portrays the imperial mindset, and the social divide that made any non-white person not so much hated as “unseen.” By comparison with today’s crime fiction, such an observation illuminates the social progress that has been made since Christie’s day. Why excise it then? Isn’t it far better that readers use Christie’s books as a touchstone for the prejudices of her day to show us how far we have come from that benighted epoch?
As a foreigner, and therefore, even after decades in England, never really a social insider, Poirot himself is often the butt of mild xenophobia. That he accepts what we call “micro-aggressions” as a norm of English society — his being taken for French rather than Belgian by insular Brits only vaguely aware of, let alone interested in the difference, is a running joke in the Poirot series — in no way diminishes his warm appreciation for the country that welcomed him as a war refugee or his affection for English individuals he befriends, like his sleuthing foil, the amiable but dull-witted Hastings. (Christie also used Poirot’s occasionally patronizing ruminations on his adopted countrymen’s foibles as a vehicle for gentle criticisms of her own social tribe.)
It’s not as if Christie were a hard-core racist like John Buchan (as Lord Tweedsmuir, Canada’s 15th governor-general), author of the hugely successful spy thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). In that book a leading character, a conspiracy theorist, tells the protagonist that the world’s secret rulers were embodied in “a little white-faced Jew in a bathchair with an eye like a rattlesnake.” I read The Thirty-Nine Steps decades ago. And without need of a trigger warning, as I am not so easily shocked by literary antisemitism. I merely registered the fact that Buchan was free in 1915 to ascribe this opinion to a non-villainous English character, while certain modern writers with similar views — like the late Roald Dahl — knew better than to incorporate overt antisemitism into their fiction.
Christie’s characters, on the other hand, never express such deeply hateful views. Nor — viewing both Jews and Arabs with equal disdain — did she make “Levantines,” European foreigners, or even members of the lower classes the villain in her novels.
In The Secret of Chimneys (1925), “Chimneys” being the country estate where that book’s murder takes place, one of the guests is Herman Isaacstein, a fabulously rich financier. Hook-nosed Isaacstein is characterised as the smartest guy in the room, but also — naturally — inscrutable in that Levantine way. What can a sensitivity reader do with him? Straighten his nose and rename him Angus MacDonald? When a foreign prince is murdered on site, he’s a plausible suspect. Numerous red herrings seem to point his way, but no. The murderer was an Englishman. Noblesse oblige.
Will HarperCollins’ sensitivity readers stop with Poirot and Miss Marple? In one of Christie’s earliest mysteries, The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), the story, with its pearly-white cast of unabashedly imperial characters, is set in South Africa. The protagonist, Ann, a spunky English girl eager for adventure, is frequently saved from mortal danger by Rayburn, a dashing ex-pat nonconformist. When Rayburn proposes — she loves him, but it would mean staying on in South Africa — Ann jokes about the option of going home to England to marry a “dull, steady man.” Rayburn counter-jokes that if she marries anyone but him, “I will beat you black and blue.” She laughs merrily. Hmm. Well, I guess you had to be there.