The later Agatha Christie books do, at times, reflect the changing UK of the 1960s – in particular those set in London (The Pale Horse and Third Girl). There are her first blatant uses of words such as ‘rape’ and ‘queer’, rather than euphemisms, but in general the attitudes and prejudices displayed by most of her characters tend to be but mild forms of those already seen in previous years: don’t trust foreigners, know your place, and ‘girls no better than they ought to be’.
Curtain was, of course, written during the Second World War and the ideas about ridding the world of cretins and undesirables were quite prevalent at that time. The fact that they were put into the mouths of Hastings’ daughter and her lover make them shocking, and makes me wonder what was in the author’s mind at the time she wrote it (during the Blitz).
A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY 1964
Raymond West reassures ‘dear Aunt Jane’ about her tenant while she is away:
‘He’ll look after the house all right. He’s very house proud. He’s a queer. I mean – ‘
He had paused, slightly embarrassed – but surely even dear old Aunt Jane had heard of queers.
Here’s an interesting take on the snobbery of England’s ‘lower-middle class’ (a term you never hear today):
‘For one thing, there’s class distinction. She’s just a cut above him. Not very much. If she was really a cut above him it wouldn’t matter, but the lower middle-class – they’re very particular. Her mother was a school-teacher and her father a bank-clerk. No, she won’t make a fool of herself over Jackson.’
And here’s a somewhat unthinkingly repulsive comment from Jason Rafiel about the locals:
‘They’ve both worked like blacks, though that’s an odd term to use out here, for blacks don’t work themselves to death at all, as far as I can see. Was looking at a fellow shinning up a coconut tree to get his breakfast, then he goes to sleep for the rest of the day. Nice life.’
The original expression ‘working like blacks’ derived from the times of slavery, when there was little option for them. A huge number of slaves were shipped from Africa to the Caribbean to work on the plantations there.
THIRD GIRL 1966
The insularity of Miss Lemon in her reaction to the East European Sonia is somewhat surprising, considering that her livelihood is dependent on people hiring a Belgian:
‘By the way, what did you think of that young woman who came yesterday?’
Miss Lemon, arrested as she was about to plunge her fingers on the typewriter, said briefly, ‘Foreign.’
‘You do not think anything more about her than that?’
‘Well, I always say that it’s better to know where you are when you are employing someone, and buy British.’
ENDLESS NIGHT 1967
There are a lot of mentions of the word ‘Gipsy’ in this book, another one you rarely hear nowadays. Here, the gipsy-esque narrator Mike uncovers the level of resentment towards ‘gipsies’ by the locals living around Gipsy’s Acre (the estate he is planning to buy):
‘Why doesn’t anyone like gipsies?’
‘They’re a thieving lot,’ he said, disapprovingly. Then he peered more closely at me. ‘Happen you’ve got gipsy blood yourself?’ he suggested, looking hard at me.
I said not that I knew of. It’s true, I do look a bit like a gipsy.
There are many comments about gipsies in the book, but this is the key one, connecting them to Mike. Here is another:
‘The gipsies used to camp here a lot when I was a boy,’ he said. ‘I suppose I got fond of them, though they’re a thieving lot, of course. But I’ve always been attracted to them. As long as you don’t expect them to be law-abiding, they’re all right’.
As usual, these suspicions and prejudices are utilised very cleverly as an integral part of the plot.
This is an interesting, and honest, thought from Miss Marple; her character was based on that of Agatha Christie’s grandma rather than the author herself, but one does wonder …
Miss Marple had never quite succeeded in abandoning her Victorian view of foreigners. One never knew with foreigners. Quite absurd of course, to feel like that – she had many foreign friends from various countries. All the same …
In her later books, time and time again there are incidents of child murders and child murderers, and in this book there is a graveyard apparently full of young girls that their mothers didn’t take proper care of. Here is Home Office pathologist Professor Wanstead’s somewhat dismissive take on what was then known as ‘the permissive society’:
‘Girls, you must remember, are far more ready to be raped nowadays than they used to be.’
This is a truly shocking statement, even for 1971.
CURTAIN 1975 / 1940-41
I have mentioned many times that almost all of what we would today call ‘politically incorrect’ observations in Agatha Christie’s works are put into the mouths of either unattractive characters or those she is seeking to mock. Not in Curtain. The attitude of Dr Franklin in this book is positively genocidal, and it is clear that he has influenced Judith, Captain Hastings’ daughter.
Here, Dr Franklin shares one of his ideas:
‘It’s an idea of mine, you know, that about eighty percent of the human race ought to be eliminated. We’d get on much better without them.’
This is an interesting comment to make at a time in Europe when the ‘master race’ was seeking to do something very similar. Judith agrees with him:
‘Unfit, useless lives – they should be got out of the way. There’s so much mess about. Only people who can make a decent contribution to the community ought to be allowed to live. The others ought to be painlessly put away.’
Franklin ensures that everyone gets the point:
‘If an imbecile – a cretin – dies, it’s a good thing.’
What shocks this reader is the realisation that whereas Captain Hastings is prepared to murder a womaniser whom he mistakenly thinks is going to seduce his daughter, he is quite happy to endorse her going off to marry a genocidal lunatic.
SLEEPING MURDER 1976
‘Robert is in the Army.’ Mrs Fane sniffed. ‘Married a Roman Catholic,’ she said with significance. ‘You know what that means!’
I have to say that I have no idea ‘what that means’ … we are back on familiar ground as the maid Lily Kimble comments about her fellow-servant, the Swiss nursemaid Léonie:
‘That Layonee, she was a bit stupid like all foreigners, couldn’t understand proper what you said to her – and her English was something awful.’
There are many Lily Kimbles still around the UK today, wondering why silly foreigners can’t speak English ‘proper’. Léonie’s English may not have been perfect, but Lily’s French would have been non-existent; Agatha Christie’s French was pretty good, and this is another example of her gentle ribbing of Anglo-Saxon attitudes. Another one is Mr Kimble’s reply:
‘”Don’t you pay no attention to foreigners, my girl,” I said. “One and all they’re liars. Not like us.”‘
Re-reading all these books, and the attitudes displayed within them, the one that comes across consistently and strongly is the insularity of the English. Around the time that this book was published, the UK had just joined the European Community. Re-reading these pages, the most unlikely referendum result of recent times was not so much Br-Exit as Br-Init.