The 1930s was the most prolific period for Agatha Christie in terms of detective fiction output, and many of them are not mentioned here; stories featuring Miss Marple, for example, and the many set in the Middle East rarely feature casually racist or nationalist characters.
But there are plenty that do, and some of it is pretty offensive.
THE MYSTERIOUS MR QUIN 1930 SHORT STORIES
Mr Satterthwaite and Mr Quin were two of Agatha Christie’s own personal favourite characters, and they are characterised with more subtlety than others from the period (the 1920s).
But not always … here is Satterthwaite the snob (and apparent anti-semite anti-foreigner etc):
Mr Satterthwaite had seen the Countess at Monte Carlo for many seasons now. The first time he had seen her she had been in the Company of a Grand Duke. On the next occasions she was with an Austrian Baron. On successive years her friends had been of Hebraic extraction, sallow men with hooked noses, wearing rather flamboyant jewellery.
“I mean, you know all the Duchesses and Earls and Countesses and things.”
“A good many of them,” said Mr Satterthwaite. “And also the Jews and the Portuguese and the Greeks and the Argentines”.
“Eh?” said Mr Rudge.
“I was just explaining,” said Mr Satterthwaite, “that I move in English society.”
From The Soul of the Croupier.
THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY 1931
Everything’s going to be all right, so cheer up. I am working like the worst kind of nigger to find out the truth. What an idiot you’ve been, darling.
Emily Trefusis writes to her fiancé.
PERIL AT END HOUSE 1932
Some of Agatha Christie’s references to Jewish people in the 1920s books make this reader shudder, so it was with some trepidation that I looked for her characters’ descriptions of Jim Lazarus. Here’s Nick Buckley’s:
He’s a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one.
A tall, fair rather exquisite young man, with a rather fleshy nose and over-emphasised good looks. He had a supercilious manner and a tired drawl. There was a sleekness about him I especially disliked.
I dismiss the long-nosed M. Lazarus who is offered fifty pounds for a picture that was only worth twenty (it is odd, that, when you come to think of it. Most uncharacteristic of his race)
So far, so 1920s. However, this time she has Lazarus emerge as the kindest and shrewdest character in the book, and providing the love interest to boot. At the end, Poirot even asks the clever Lazarus to explain to him something he cannot understand.
LORD EDGWARE DIES 1933
The future Lord Edgware introduces himself to Hastings:
‘What I say is one face is very like another face – that’s what I say. If we were a lot of Chinks we wouldn’t know each other apart… Anyway’, he said, ‘I’m not a damned nigger….’
He continues with his alibi:
‘When uncle’s lifeblood is flowing, I am whispering cheerful nothings into the diamond encrusted ears of the fair (I beg her pardon, dark) Rachel in a box at Covent Garden. Her long Jewish nose is quivering with emotion.’
‘There was something strangely likeable about the young man.’
However, it should be noted that Hastings’ judgment of character is always suspect, and also that titled characters rarely get a good press in Agatha Christie.
THE HOUND OF DEATH 1933
These stories were written in the 1920s and before, but there is but one character reference that might lead one to suspect it:
He had once hear her summed up as “Six foot one of Jewish perfection”. A shrewd portrait, he thought, as he remembered her unusual height and the long slenderness of her, the marble whiteness of her face with its delicate down-drooping nose, and the black splendour of hair and eyes.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS 1934
The nature of this story is such that the range of characters covers a wide variety of nationalities and social positions, from Russian Princess to Italian chauffeur. There is plenty of inter-racist mockery amongst the passengers – “Poor creature, she’s a Swede” – but this proves to be a device intended to conceal their closeness and respect for one another.
THE LISTERDALE MYSTERY 1934
Here is a typical example of early-Christie descriptions of her Jewish characters, from Swan Song (again, most of the stories in this collection were written in the 1920s):
He was a tall man, clean-shaven, with a frame rather too well covered, and clothes that were rather too faultless. His hair was very black and shining, and his teeth were aggressively white. When he spoke, he had a way of slurring his ‘s’s’ which was not quite a lisp, but came perilously near to it. It required no stretch of imagination to realise that his father’s name had probably been Cohen.
The character here presented (Mr Cowan) is the main witness of events in the story and a perfectly decent person. It does seem extraordinary to readers today that she felt the need for such an introduction.
WHY DIDN’T THEY ASK EVANS? 1934
The issue of class is raised in the book, in part because of the long-standing friendship between Bobby Jones, the local vicar’s son, and Lady Frances Derwent, daughter of a Lord.
The Derwents were, perhaps, a shade more friendly than they need have been as though to show that “there was no difference”. The Jones, on their side, were a shade formal, as though determined not to claim more friendship than was offered them.
One quote from Lady Frances is very revealing (and true):
Nobody looks at a chauffeur the way that they look at a person.
THREE ACT TRAGEDY 1935
Egg Lytton-Gore’s voice rang out: “Oliver – you slippery Shylock!”
“Of course,” thought Mr Satterthwaite. “That’s it – not foreign – Jew!”
This exchange sounds awful to us today, but Egg is being affectionate, and she and Oliver Manders depart the story arm-in-arm.
DEATH IN THE CLOUDS 1935
The French police (in the character of Fournier) are portrayed as somewhat more intelligent than Inspector Japp: they actually reason Poirot’s hints for themselves and come out with the right answers.
Although half of the story takes place in France, there is little of the national stereotyping that one can find elsewhere. Swigatha obviously had a healthy respect for that country.
Apart from one mention of “Ikey Andrew” at the hairdressers where Jane Gray worked, there is this:
They liked dogs and disliked cats. They both hated oysters and loved smoked salmon. They liked Greta Garbo and disliked Katherine 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.
Now, one of these proved to be the murderer, but even so …
CARDS ON THE TABLE 1936
Agatha Christie delights in her ridicule of the Anglo-Saxon attitude toward the Dali-esque Mr Shaitana:
Every Englishman who saw him longed earnestly and fervently to kick him! They said, with a singular lack of originality, ‘There’s that damned Dago, Shaitana!’
Whether Mr Shaitana was an Argentine, or a Portuguese, or a Greek, or some other nationality rightly despised by the insular Briton, nobody knew.
‘There’s no doubt,’ said Poirot slowly, ‘that what you call a Dago often has a very clever understanding of women.’
(Note the ‘you’!)
DUMB WITNESS 1937
It was an Anglo-Saxon doctor who inserted the stiletto into Shaitana’s chest, but mistrust of Argentinians, Portuguese and Greeks spilled over into the next story. It is clear that it is the Anglo-Saxon attitude that is being mocked; here are a few comments about the blameless Greek Dr Tanios, as seen by the other characters:
For Bella had married a foreigner – and not only a foreigner – but a Greek. In Miss Arundell’s prejudiced mind a Greek was almost as bad as an Argentine or a Turk.
“And anyway, it isn’t Bella – it’s Tanios. I bet he’s got a nose for money all right! Trust a Greek for that!”
“Made a fool of herself though. Married some Dago who was over at the University. A Greek doctor“.
“What can he have been doing to her? I believe Turks are frightfully cruel sometimes”.
“Dr Tanios is a Greek.”
“Yes, of course, that’s the other way about – they’re usually the ones who get massacred by the Turks – or am I thinking of Armenians?”
(Miss Lawson, to Poirot)
“And yet you liked Tanios, did you not? You found him an agreeable man, open-hearted, good-natured, genial. Attractive in spite of your insular prejudice against the Argentines, the Portuguese and the Greeks – a thorougHly congenial personality?”
“Yes”, I admitted. “I did”.
Hastings ‘admits’ to liking the Dago when prompted by Poirot. As an aside, it is remarkable that his ‘insular prejudice against the Argentines’ had survived 14 years of living amongst them.
HERCULE POIROT’S CHRISTMAS 1938
She wondered if he was an Englishman and decided he was not. “He is too alive, too real to be English”, Pilar decided.
Another example of Swigatha disparaging her own race, which she frequently does, possibly more often than any other. She had seen the world and maybe found the atmosphere and attitudes when she came home quite pitiful.
MURDER IS EASY 1939
England! England on a June day, with a grey sky and a sharp biting wind. Nothing welcoming about her on a day like this! And the people! Heavens, the people! Crowds of them, all with grey faces like the sky – anxious worried faces. The houses, too, springing up everywhere like mushrooms. Nasty little houses! Revolting little houses!
Luke Fitzwilliam’s first thoughts on returning to his native country. One cannot but think that this is a reflection of the author’s feelings when returning from the many trips abroad that she took with her husband in the 1930s.
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE 1939
I guess you just need to look at the original title, and Tom Adam’s cover, to see how things were in the 1930s and remained in the 1960s.