Political correctness was not a concept that would have been well-understood in Britain (or its then-Empire) in the 1920s. People of other races or creeds were cheerfully referred to by many as ‘Chinks’, ‘Frogs’, ‘Jerries’ and so on; ‘Dagoes’ were so-called because there was a suspicion that every other man born on the Iberian Peninsular had been christened Diego. This was considered to be jolly barrack-room banter, and no-one thought twice about it.
It is when a certain line is crossed, and perceived racial characteristics become the subject matter, that the bottomless pit starts to open, and there are a few examples in one or two of Agatha Christie’s early novels.
Interestingly, there is hardly any of this to be found in any of the stories featuring narrators (Captain Hastings, Dr Sheppard, Anne Beddingfield and Sir Eustace Pender); they tend to crop in her ‘light-hearted adventures’ featuring the likes of Tommy and Tuppence and other ‘bright young things’.
There is, however, one particular venomous opening to a Poirot book that stands out from the rest.
THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES 1920
One person who never utters a racist sentiment is Hercule Poirot. Here, Poirot discusses Dr Bauerstein (who has just been revealed to be a German spy) with Hastings:
“He is, of course, German by birth”, said Poirot thoughtfully, “though he has practised so long in this country that nobody thinks of him as anything but an Englishman. He was naturalised about fifteen years ago. A very clever man – a Jew, of course”.
“The blackguard!” I cried indignantly.
“Not at all. He is, on the contrary, a patriot. Think what he stands to lose. I admire the man myself.”
The narrator Hastings’ reaction may be explained by the fact that he had been invalided out of the War. Poirot, who lost everything as a refugee from the invading German Army, still manages an even-minded assessment of the doctor.
Dr Bauerstein had even more to lose than Poirot could have imagined: right-wing forces in Germany blamed the ‘unpatriotic’ Jews for the loss of the war, and within a couple of years the Nazi party was featuring mocking caricatures of Jewish people in all its propaganda.
THE SECRET ADVERSARY 1922
This one is a bit more difficult to defend – Agatha Christie was interested in heredity and phrenology … Here are some examples of facial and racial types:
– He was fair, with a weak, unpleasant face and Tommy put him down as being a Russian or a Pole. He was probably about fifty years of age, his shoulders cringed a little as he talked, and his eyes, small and crafty, shifted unceasingly.
– He was obviously of the very dregs of society. The low beetling brows, and the criminal jaw, the bestiality of the whole countenance were new to the young man, though he was of a type that Scotland Yard would have recognised at once.
– “If that isn’t a Hun, I’m a Dutchman!” said Tommy to himself. “And running the show darned systematically, too – as they always do.”
THE MURDER ON THE LINKS 1923
This book is set in France, and narrated by Hastings. Nothing in it ‘leapt to the eye’. Narrated by Hastings.
POIROT INVESTIGATES 1924
There is one story in which reference is made to ‘a Chink’; the person who makes it, as is often the case in Agatha Christie’s stories when someone disparages people of another race, turns out to be the culprit. Narrated by Hastings.
THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT 1924
Set in Africa for the most part, but sweet-voiced throughout – no disparagement of ‘the natives’. Narrated by Anne Beddingfield and Sir Eustace Pedler.
THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS 1925
What would today be seen as far worse than casual racism abounds in this book, especially in description of racial characteristics. Jews tended to get the bulk of it in her early books, but the actual Jewish characters themselves are never the villains and often the opposite. I think that Christie often uses racial stereotyping as a means of mis-leading her readers, who may well have instinctively shared such notions, which were common-place at the time that the book was published.
Here are a few examples, bits and pieces from the text:
‘There was a dago whose life I saved’…
‘Just pulled this dago out of the river. Like all dagoes he couldn’t swim…’
‘I like to see your righteous heat, James, but let me point out to you dagoes will be dagoes’
Hebraic people. Yellow-faced financiers in City offices…’ ‘He had a fat yellow face, and black eyes, as impenetrable as those of a cobra. There was a generous curve to the big nose and power in the square lines of the vast jaw… His voice was deep and rich and had a certain compelling quality about it…’
‘Splendid fellow, Isaacstein …Very powerful personality…’
Herzoslovakians (see also “Dagoes”):
‘Half a dozen men were sprawling round a table. Four of them were big thick-set men, with high cheekbones, and eyes set in Magyar slanting fashion. The other two were rat-like little men with quick gestures …’
‘Merciful heaven! He has married a black woman in Africa!’
‘Come, come, it’s not so bad as all that’, said Anthony laughing. ‘ She’s white enough – white all through, bless her’.
The Rest of the World:
‘I still believe in democracy. But you’ve got to force it on people with a strong hand – ram it down their throats. My belief in the brotherhood of man died the day I arrived in London last week, when I observed the people standing in a tube train resolutely refuse to move up and make room for those who entered… I believe in the brotherhood of man but it’s not coming yet awhile… Evolution is a slow process.’
THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD 1926
Narrated by Dr Sheppard; no offensive sentiments in this one.
THE BIG FOUR 1927
Narrated by Hastings: there is another single reference to ‘the Chink’ by Japp.
THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN 1928
Here is the opening line of this book:
It was close on midnight when a man crossed the Place de la Concorde. In spite of the handsome fur coat which garbed his meagre form, there was something essentially weak and paltry about him. A little man with the face of a rat …
In an Empire where rats ruled, he was the king of the rats.
His face gleamed white and sharp in the moonlight. There was the least hint of a curve in the thin nose. His father had been a Polish Jew, a journeyman tailor. It was business such as his father would have loved that took him abroad tonight.
The electric light was shaded with dirty pink festoons, and it softened, but could not disguise, the girl’s face with its mask of crude paint. Could not disguise, either, the broad Mongolian cast of her countenance. There was no doubt of Olga Demiroff’s profession, nor of her nationality.
I find this genuinely shocking – and we’re still on page one. Agatha Christie always said she could not stand writing this book. Given that it came out the year after an acrimonious break with her first husband, maybe she can be forgiven the hate that drips off the first page. It calms down once the heroine enters the fray.
PARTNERS IN CRIME 1929
Tommy pretends to be able to recognise racial characteristics even when blindfolded. Tuppence confirms it, thereby confirming that she too can discern someone’s origins just by looking at them.
‘The man two tables from us is a very wealthy profiteer, I fancy,’ said Tommy carelessly. ‘Jew, isn’t he?’
‘Pretty good,’ said Tuppence appreciatively.
THE SEVEN DIALS MYSTERY 1929
Bill Eversleigh visits a casino:
The company was extremely mixed. There were portly foreigners, opulent Jewesses, a sprinkling of the really smart, and several ladies belonging to the oldest profession in the world.
This is clearly not a company of which the author approved. The word ‘Jewess’ leaps off the page – who on earth speaks like that, even then? There were plenty of insult-words available in those days (and today) for Jewish people but these are never used: one called people with curvy noses and Hebraic complexions ‘Jews’ and their (usually opulent) better halves ‘Jewesses’ without even thinking of it.
But writers did start to think of it in the 1930s, when the fate of the Jewish people in Europe started to become more apparent (the pogroms in Russia and elsewhere in the 19th century seem to have passed the West by), and these types of references started to be toned down.