Wednesday 25 June 2014

Was Agatha Christie Anti-Semitic? Part 2

A commenter on my previous post on this subject challenged me to look at page one of The Mystery of the Blue Train, so I ordered a 1930 copy. (Look out for spoilers.)

"It was close on midnight when a man crossed the Place de la Concorde. In spite of the handsome fur coat which garbed his meagre form, there was something essentially weak and paltry about him.

A little man with a face like a rat. A man, one would say, who could never play a conspicuous part, or rise to prominence in any sphere. And yet, in leaping to such a conclusion, an onlooker would have been wrong. For this man, negligible and inconspicuous as he seemed, played a prominent part in the destiny of the world. In an Empire where rats ruled, he was the king of the rats.

Even now, an Embassy awaited his return. But he had business to do first - business of which the Embassy was not officially cognizant. His face gleamed white and sharp in the moonlight. There was the least hint of a curve in the thin nose. His father had been a Polish Jew, a journeyman tailor..."

He arrives at his rendezvous, a "tawdrily furnished sitting-room. The electric light was shaded with dirty pink festoons, and it softened, but could not disguise, the girl's face with its mask of crude paint. Could not disguise, either, the broad Mongolian cast of her countenance. There was no doubt of Olga Demiroff's profession nor of her nationality."

Later in the book, however, Poirot goes for help to his theatrical friend Joseph Aarons, who is shown as a cheery fellow, full of industry gossip, and fond of stodgy English cooking.

The elderly Mr Papopolous is referred to both as a "wily Greek" and a "patriarch". Poirot calls in a favour:

"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 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."

On reflection, later editors' quiet removal of racism – either expressed by Christie or more often by her characters – has partly deprived at least two of her creations of their identity and their role in a complex plot.

They are Oliver Manders (Three-Act Tragedy) and Jim Lazarus (Peril at End House). Manders is a young man who deliberately alienates the other characters, some of whom treat him as an outsider. We're told he is illegitimate, but without the references to his origins, he has less of a reason for his inferiority complex. Jim Lazarus is a London picture dealer, the lover of a drug addict separated from her husband. In the original text he is referred to as "a Jew – but a fearfully decent one".

Both Manders and Lazarus are murder suspects, and the regular 1930s reader of detective stories might expect a Jewish character to be revealed as the villain, but Christie pulls the rug from under our feet, and they both turn out to be "fearfully decent" after all.

More here.


  1. Her remarks are inexcusable to modern ears but very much of her time. As I continue to read through endless bestsellers of the first half of the 20th century, it's clear that she was no different from most others. I am reading Margaret Kennedy's Constant Nymph, at the mo - lovely book, dire on the Jewish characters...

  2. Just because her characters are anti-semites doesn't mean the author is. Especially not if the characters turn out to be wrong. A realistic story set in this period would have lots of racism, even if written by a modern author. The question is whether the racism is presented as correct.

  3. Christie on the whole tended to criticize British provincial despise of foreigners, mostly she's on the side of the foreigners.
    By the way, there's another figure who like Mr.Aarons supports the detective , but with his knowledge in financial affairs: Mr. Robinson in "Bertram's Hotel" and "Postern of Fate" is rather certainly a Jew, but Agatha or her publishers thought it more prudent to be silent about it.
    That said, I don't see the problem with Brirish critical remarks about Jews: they indeed helped to educate the Jewish immigrants about what was acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

    1. What a ghastly, and antisemitic, comment. Many Jews were from Berlin, Vienna, and other major cities -- they were urbane, cultured professionals who didn't need to be "educate[d] ... about what was acceptable and unacceptable behaviour."

      As a Jewish woman who grew up in a large Jewish suburb in the US, I have always been surrounded by the descendants of both the shtetl (village) Jews and the urbane Jews. And FYI, shtetl Jews were neither more nor less clueless about "acceptable behaviour" than any pre-TV, pre-radio English person who grew up in the equivalent small hamlet.

  4. Josephine Tey gives a Jewish character a rather bitter speech about being "accepted" by the British in A Shilling for Candles.

  5. Update: It's worth reading the original American version of Three-Act Tragedy. The text and plot differ materially, and Oliver's origins are discussed.

  6. What characters other than the detective say is not that important. They are prejudiced, of course. But that is part of their characterization. Also they belong to the cohort of those who are deceived by appearances, and have to be disabused by the detective. They go by their prejudices and they are wrong. A humbling lesson.

    And Miss Marple's strength is that she believes that all people are basically the same, and so what she observes in her village can be transposed to otehr setting. In "THE MIRROR CRACKED" she goes to see the Development - where a bunch of new people come in - and after looking them over is comforted to see that human nature does not change.

  7. Update: I've just re-listened to Margery Allingham's The Crime at Black Dudley. A Goodreads reviewer commented that one character is referred to throughout as "the Jew", and we only discover that he has a name (Jesse Gideon) late in the story. In the version I heard, he's referred to as "Gideon", though at one point he is "his little sheeny friend". Perhaps the reader, or the producers, didn't realise that this was a contemporary slur for Jew. The text of the Gutenberg version seems to be the same as the one I heard – perhaps the book has been edited. Allingham herself cut and edited her own books for reissues in the 50s, though sadly she didn't remove all the racism.