You Can’t Say That!

Agatha Christie began writing her detective fiction in 1916 and finished writing it in 1973. During that period, what was and wasn’t considered suitable for an English-speaking readership underwent many changes, with racier language becoming more acceptable and racist attitudes becoming far less so. Today, 100 years after ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’, it is now considered a ‘hate crime’ to use derogatory language in response to another person’s religion, race or sexual or gender orientation.

Readers in the present day who are new to Agatha Christie’s books, attracted in the main by film and TV adaptations of her stories, are often shocked by the language and attitudes displayed within them; much of it would have been edited out of the modern screen versions.

Social media forums dedicated to Christie are often very cosmopolitan in make-up, and there are always comments querying the racist attitudes on display. The usual response from moderators is that attitudes were very different in those days, and one should not judge people in the past by the morals of today.

I am not convinced that Agatha Christie needs to be defended in this way.

The books of the early 1920s, in particular her ‘light-hearted thrillers’, are awash with casual references which would no doubt outrage the virtue-signalling public of today, but in many cases I find that the language has been used to illustrate the nature of the character who says it rather than that of the author. But it is a sensitive subject.

I have re-read all of her detective fiction and picked out examples of ‘politically incorrect’ attitudes from many of her books. These also include examples of the class consciousness of the time that pertained in England especially. The sections are assembled by decade, starting with the 1920s.

Some of the crasser comments from the 1920s are toned down as time progresses, especially after the Second World War, but one attitude comes through as loud and clear in 1970 as in 1920: the British insularity and mistrust of foreigners, particularly her fellow Europeans.

Based on her characters attitudes from 1920-1973, however, the surprise referendum result in the UK was not so much Br-Exit as Br-Init.1


1Agatha Christie’s final book, Postern of Fate, was published in 1973, the year that the UK was led into the European Community by Edward Heath’s Government. The following year, he was dislodged by two General Elections, and the incoming Labour Government held a referendum about whether the country should stay in ‘Europe’. The UK said a resounding Yes, with a majority of 9 million.