You Can’t Say That! In the 1940s

The attitudes of the characters in these books changed from some default settings in the 1920s and 1930s as a result of WW2, its build-up (the treatment of the Jews in Central Europe) and its aftermath.

Instead, changing attitudes to the class system, the spread of education beyond the age of 12 and the potential of the Welfare State began to inform these stories, reaching a peak in the following decade.


Mary Gerrard’s parents were (apparently) estate workers for Elinor Carlisle’s aunt. Laura Welman had taken Mary in hand and made that sure she had an expensive education, much to her supposed father Old Gerrard’s disgust, and that of many in the village, none of whom are great believers in social mobility. Nor apparently is her boyfriend, Roderick Welman:

Roddy said irritably: “People never dream what harm they may do by ‘educating’ someone. Often it’s cruelty, not kindness!”

Here is a poignant exchange between Mary and her mechanic boyfriend Ted Bigland:

“You’re almost a lady, Mary”.
Mary said, with sudden bitterness: “Almost isn’t good enough, is it?”
“No, I reckon it isn’t”.

The irony is that, unbeknownst to everyone, Mary is actually Lady Welman’s next-of-kin.

This little exchange from the cross-examination that had touched on Roddy’s honest and chivalrous nature is not quite what it seems:

“Where did you go to school, Mr Welman?”
Sir Samuel said with a quiet smile:
“That is all”.

… the implication being that an Old Etonian always plays with a straight bat. In fact, Agatha Christie had made it very clear that Roderick Welman is a shiftless character, and a liar, overwhelmed by Mary while she was alive but crawling back to Elinor afterwards.


Some of the descriptions of foreigners, and especially Jews, in early Agatha Christie are shocking to readers today, but they are often deliberately given to particular characters to mislead the reader. Ditto mentions of Dagoes, Greeks, Portuguese and Argentinians (a strange collection). BUT, and this is an important but, she saves her most withering comments for the English, often as seen through Poirot’s eyes. Here he is observing the patients sitting in a dentist’s waiting-room:

In one of them sat a military-looking gentleman with a fierce moustache and a yellow complexion. He looked at Poirot with an air of one considering some noxious insect. It was not so much his gun he looked as though he wished he had with him, as his Flit spray.

Poirot, eyeing him with distaste, said to himself, “In verity there are some Englishmen who are altogether so unpleasing and ridiculous that they should have been put out of their misery at birth.”

N OR M? 1941

Major Bletchley (retired) takes a modern view of the refugee crisis of the time:

‘You take my word for it, this refugee business is dangerous. If I had my way I’d intern the lot of them. Safety first.’
‘A bit drastic, perhaps.’
‘Not at all. And I’ve got my suspicions of Master Carl. For one thing, he’s clearly not a Jew.’


Basil Blake mentions “that filthy brute, Rosenberg”. Anti-semitism alert?  Rosenberg here, however, is a “disgusting Central European”, rather than a fleshy-nosed person, as might have been the case in earlier stories.  


The narrator of this story, James Burton, gives his views on the possibilities of social mobility:

I have never been able to accept that education is the panacea for every ill.  

He might have been dismayed by the Education Act of the following year …


Lucy Angkatell is apparently so charming that she is quite able to ‘run riot with the colour question’ and not offend anyone. Here she sets out to charm one of her younger relatives:

“I must have a talk with you, David, and learn all the new ideas. As far as I can see, one must hate everybody, but at the same time give them free medical attention and a lot of extra education (poor things, all those helpless little children herded into schoolhouses every day) … “

Lucy is considering the ramifications of the Beveridge Report. The Hollow was published between the publication of the report in 1944 and the establishment of the NHS in 1948.

The raucous voice of the vitriolic little Jewess came angrily over the wires.

Midge rings her boss to explain that she won’t be in because there’s been a murder in the house. The word ‘Jewess’, in this context, is offensive, compounded by the word ‘little’.  


In the story The Girdle of Hippolyta, Poirot is hired to investigate the disappearance of a Rubens painting. These stories were mainly written in the 1930s, and this one is presumably set around 1936 (the time of the Jarrow March):

It was at the time when the unemployed were pursuing their tactics of lying down on street crossings and penetrating into the Ritz.

Not much sympathy there.


“You’re a foreigner.”
“Yes,” said Hercule Poirot.
“In my opinion,” said the old lady, “you should all Go Back.”
“Go back where?” inquired Poirot.
“To where you came from,” said the old lady firmly. She added as a kind of rider, sotto voce: “Foreigners!” and snorted.
“That,” said Poirot mildly, “would be difficult.”
“Nonsense,” said the old lady. “That’s what we fought the war for, isn’t it? So that people could go back to their proper places and stay there.”  

That’s more like it …


“Came here when my sister died. He asked me to. Seven children – and the youngest only a year old… Couldn’t leave ’em to be brought up by a dago, could I? An impossible marriage, of course. I always felt Marcia must have been – well – bewitched. Ugly common little foreigner!”  

Whatever her opinion, the speaker (Miss de Haviland) stayed with the common little foreigner Leonides for 40 years; this is not the author talking.