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Agatha Christie's Top 10 Racist Moments

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Like most other Anglo-Colonial Indian kids, I grew up on bread and butter English authors: Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter, P.G. Wodehouse, the Victorian stalwarts, and — of course — the grande dame of British mystery, Agatha Christie. When we immigrated to the States, some of my literary tastes changed, but I always preferred Christie to her transatlantic counterparts. Something about her quiet, wry setups, the Edwardian charm of country houses and dressing for dinner, secretive dramatis personae, well-plotted threads and twisty revelations — were very appealing, especially because the milieu was so different from my own. I devoured pretty much everything she wrote. My misspent youth.

Recently, I have worked my way back through my (embarrassingly complete) Christie collection, and Ohmygod guess what? Agatha Christie was a huge racist! I sort of knew this already. There are the obvious things (for example, her famous novel Ten Little Indians was originally published as Ten Little Niggers). But then there is the current of bigotry throughout almost all of her other work. How did I overlook this before? My childish eye managed to gloss over the many examples and shades of orientalism and racism that my adult postcolonial self simply cannot. Cristina Odone apparently had a similar revelation. Rereading Christie has been pleasurable — even though I’ve read them before, I can still never predict those twisty mysteries — but now I can’t help but notice her underlying prejudice, and fall out every time.

And so I give you, Agatha Christie’s Top Ten Orientalist Moments, selected by me:

10) “This girl was different. Black hair, rich creamy pallor — eyes with the depth and darkness of night in them. The sad proud eyes of the South… It was all wrong that this girl should be sitting in this train among these dull drab looking people — all wrong that she should be going into the dreary midlands of England. She should have been on a balcony, a rose between her lips, a piece of black lace draping her proud head, and there should have been dust and heat and the smell of blood — the smell of the bull-ring — in the air.”

A Holiday for Murder, 1939

9) “Until she spoke he had not realized that she was not English. Now, observing her more closely, he noticed the high cheekbones, the dense blue-black of the hair, and an occasional very slight movement of the hands that was distinctly foreign. A strange woman, very quiet. So quiet as to make one uneasy.”

The Witness for the Prosecution, 1925

8) “Zeropoulos spread out a pair of Oriental hands.”

Death in the Air, 1935

7) “‘African chiefs have the most polished manners,’ said her father, who had recently returned from a short business trip to Ghana.

‘So do Arab sheiks (sic)’ said Mrs. Sutcliffe. ‘Really courtly.’

‘D’you remember that sheik’s feast we went to?’ said Jennifer. ‘And how he picked out the sheep’s eye and gave it to you, and Uncle Bob nudged you not to make a fuss and to eat it?’”

Cat Among Pigeons, 1959

6) “‘Seventeen years is a long time,’ said Poirot thoughtfully, ‘but I believe that I am right in saying, Monsieur, that your race does not forget.’

‘A Greek?’ murmured Papopolous, with an ironical smile.

‘It was not as a Greek I meant,’ said Poirot.

There was a silence, and then the old man drew himself up proudly.

‘You are right, M. Poirot,’ he said quietly. ‘I am a Jew. And, as you say, our race does not forget.’”

The Mystery of the Blue Train, 1928

5) “Victoria Johnson rolled over and sat up in bed. The St. Honoré girl was a magnificent creature with a torso of black marble such as a sculptor would have enjoyed. She ran her fingers through her dark, tightly curling hair.”

A Caribbean Mystery, 1965

4) Prince Ali Yusuf of Rabat: “‘But we are not savages! We are civilized nowadays.’

‘There are different kinds of civilization…’ said Bob vaguely. ‘Besides — I rather think we’ve all got a bit of the savage in us — if we can think up a good excuse for letting it rip.’”

Cat Among Pigeons, 1959

3) “‘The hand of Fatma has been seen as you foretold. This type here, he will tell you about it.’

‘This type’ was a particularly wild-looking Berber…

‘It is a notable Arab superstition. It is painted often on carts and wagons. It would only be thought that some pious Moslem (sic) had painted it in luminous paint on his vehicle.’”

Destination Unknown, 1954

2) “It was the workmen that made me laugh. You never saw such a lot of scarecrows — all in long petticoats and rags, and their heads tied up as though they had toothache. And every now and then, as they went to and fro carrying away baskets of earth, they began to sing — at least I suppose it was meant to be singing — a queer sort of monotonous chant that went on over and over again. I noticed that most of their eyes were terrible — all covered with discharge, and one or two looked half blind…

Murder in Mesopotamia, 1935

1) ‘By the way, when I said fair, I only meant fair for an Iraqi. I expect nurse would call that dark.’

‘Very dark,’ I said obstinately. ‘A dirty dark-yellow colour.’”

Murder in Mesopotamia, 1935

Murder in Mesopotamia, a not-very-good mystery set on an archaeological dig between the Tigris and Euphrates, featuring an international cast of Europeans and their ‘dirty dark-yellow’ Arab flunkies, carries away top honors for its unmitigated prejudice and particularly coarse language. Also, I just don’t like the story. Now, this is not to impose an anachronistic standard of political correctness on Agatha Christie. A look through much of the writing of her day would yield many similar examples of casual racism. And further back, well! If Christie is a purveyor of racist mystery, then Arthur Conan Doyle is the godfather of criminal prejudice. One of the most famous, and, I confess, one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes mysteries, The Sign of Four, practically drips with Anglo-Indian imperialism and clichés about the mystery, exoticism, and perfidy of the East.

We relegate Conan Doyle to his time, however, and there is an intrinsic understanding — as when one reads any piece of writing from another era — that these standards and values belong to it. Christie, however, is close enough to our own time to make her Orientalist undercurrent far more troubling — some of the worst examples on the countdown above were published in the ‘50s. More frightful, I was one of the colonial inheritors of such prejudice. I didn’t even flinch at its presence. I grew up on it. I loved those books. Does this mean I will no longer enjoy Christie? No — she’s still one of the best mystery writers around. But to adopt some subaltern rhetoric, it’s time for a re-self-definition. Will the awareness of her racism blunt my enjoyment? I sure hope so. TC mark

image – Shutterstock

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    • Jdparker

      Finally! Somebody said it!

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

        maybe so. i’m waiting for the anti-semitic version of this

    • Nishant

      As another Anglo-colonial Indian kid, I must say I don’t find most of this very racist. True, a couple here and there had racist undertones, but mostly it was quite harmless. And when you take into account how little people knew about other cultures, not only Agatha Christie as a person herself, but also the kind of characters she wrote about, I would have to say it’s really not very racist.

    • Marina

      I see what you mean for sure, but I’m not sure I entirely agree (with all of them). For instance number four, a writer can write a rascist character who spews rascist dialogue without being any sort of a rascist… Some of the others I find she is simply describing the character (5). By this notion anyone describing any person of any race is racist. Overall, however I agree that she let perhaps subconscious prejudices of her own into her writing number 1 and 2 are most bothersome. Thanks for writing the article!

    • Waicool

      my comment won’t count because my skin is the pale color of a saltine, the shade you glance at through the prison of a plastic wrapper, set amongst all of those other wheat and rye types.

    • http://www.facebook.com/grc15r Gregory Costa

      Number 7 got me thinking of The Temple of Doom…

      Ah, dessert!  Chilled monkey brains!

    • Reni

       Racism carries heavy connotations, even more so in the U.S., which is why I understand that many shirk when it’s openly used. However “harmless” this type of racism may be, I think Krishnan labeled it aptly. From the excerpts here, it doesn’t appear that Agatha Christie had any malice behind her descriptions. The lens through which she viewed the world was definitely sensitive to skin color, and in a couple of places (“a dirty dark yellow”) it is especially evident. Nonetheless, I am heartened that others also find it unacceptable. Prejudice shouldn’t be dismissed because it comes in small amounts. 

      • http://ladymercury-10.livejournal.com/ Maiasaura

        I know very little about these things, but it strikes me more as racialist than racist.  

    • ARDRA

      1 and 2 I would classify as racist. But the rest are mostly descriptions of people.

      What’s wrong with that? Or maybe I should ask, what’s wrong with…me?…you?…eh?

    • Nick

      Hmm I agree that no. 1 and a bit of no. 2 are racist but for someone not familiar with her work, I’d say surely this list proves she wasn’t particularly racist at all! 

    • Grim and Dim

      I think you are unfair to Conan Doyle. Doubtless there are racist elements in his work.  But “The Yellow Face” is explicitly anti-racist and quite remarkable for its time.

    • Koba Chan

      So according to what I read… She wasn’t very racist at all? You’ve actually failed to make a good point, most of these are just descriptions… They aren’t derogatory or mean, or even really ignorant (for that time period, this is progressive). What the hell was your point anyway?

    • Janicedsouza

      I don’t think most were racist but ways to describe people. But dude, what got me excited was that you mentioned Enid Blyton! YES! 

    • Ashire14

      I appreciate the post-colonial lens through which Christie’s work can be veiwed, and no doubt there is a degree of Orientalism going on, but these passages seem to be casting the ‘other’ in a more postitive and interesting light than the ‘dull, drab-looking people’ (though I understand that orientalism takes this into account).  The notion of Christie’s “racist” prose is provocative, but only so much as an hour-long lecture in post-colonial theory could stretch it out.

    • Megan

      I’ve recently been rereading Christie for the first time since high school, and I have been very surprised at the racist and anti-Semitic undertones I’m seeing now. For instance, today I finished reading “Death in the Clouds,” a novel in which two of the young characters (whom the reader is supposed to like and sympathize with) are delighted to find how many traits they have in common, on the list of commonalities being that “they disliked loud voices, noisy restaurants and negroes.” If you ask me, that’s pretty flagrant racism.

      • Cardinal Moon Design

        Was (literally) just reading the same exact passage in “Death in the Clouds” and was astonished!

        • MrsRK

          So, poor Agatha Christie is now a racist. Yet, Hollywood and the printing house glorify her bacause they make so much $$$ with her novels. The Thought Police kept very quiet about her, er, racism. I am SO sick about all this bullshit. Get a grip!

    • MR Olesen

      Hmmm. Interesting. But you might be too easily conflating author with character. We don’t immediately conflate Dickens, Shakespeare, et al. with the opinions given by their characters. They may have held objectionable opinions, as Christie may have, but I think they are all three enduring artists because they don’t simply allow their art to serve monomaniacal didactic ends.  There may be morals to derive from their work (especially Dickens), or moral and political points they wished to convey, but good and enduring authors follow the dictates of their character and plot, not their political or moral message. 
      Leaving aside the fact that her most famous and most utilized character, M. Poirot, was himself a ‘foreigner’, Christie created hundreds of characters, many who are murderers, potential murderers, or otherwise unpleasant.  The vast majority of these characters were English. She wrote about the time she lived in. You correctly pointed to Conan Doyle as a precursor to Christie in more ways than the obvious. I am writing my master’s thesis on Conan Doyle and imperialism, and I agree that he held objectionable opinions, but he also held remarkably progressive ideas. These sit next to one another in his mind, as they do in Conrad and as they do in Christie. The time they lived in was an age of remarkable political change and Marxist theory of uneven development can be applied on a local level to the opinions of these authors. I agree that biographical readings of literature are valid, especially when used on subtext, but you have selected many instances of racist talk from dialogue. Just because a character speaks racist or racialist dialogue without censure from the narrator or author does not immediately say that the author wholeheartedly endorses the character’s views. 
      Your essay is interesting and it is good to think about these issues, but you have been a tad overwrought, you have too easily conflated character with author, and you seek to blur out historical context for the opinions stated. Historical context doesn’t excuse racism, sexism, or homophobia, but it can help explain and situate it. Also, if you think that there wasn’t awfully foul racism in North America or Europe in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s that is simply not true. Things have changed rapidly since the Second World War, but we can go back to the work of those decades to realize that those times are far different socially than “our time”.
      Also: I don’t see how #5 is racist. Descriptions of “black marble” torsos or curly hair, or being called “a magnificent creature” aren’t really offensive are they? Women of all races are called “creatures” in Christie’s books quite often. It seemed to have been a cliched phrase of her’s, not a comparison of a certain race to an animal. The other descriptions are just descriptions of an black person. Is it racist to simply describe a black person if you are a white author? I don’t think so, but having spent some time in academia I know people that would say “yes! absolutely!”

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