Monday, July 4, 2011

Agatha Christie: endless transgressions

“Decent fellow, in his way. But not one of us” — Class Warfare in the Works of Agatha Christie

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By Mike Gray

I have just been reading Agatha Christie’s short stories. But to enjoy her fully today, I suspect, you need to be a social historian — or a novelist. In everything she wrote, she employed one deep secret of her craft. But she may not even have been conscious of it.

It took 70 years of cultural change to reveal it.

That secret is, simply, that she shocks the reader with endless social transgressions. Her every story is coded with social prejudice and her characters are class-labelled on arrival. Whenever her characters are in conflict, it’s not simply a case of whodunnit? A little class war is also being played out.

John Yeoman

Agatha Christie — Class warfare monger?

According to Yeoman, the secret of Agatha Christie’s success lay in who comprised the bulk of her readership:

Given that Christie’s readers were largely lower middle class, they must have gained great satisfaction in seeing their social betters unmasked as rogues.

Xenophobia and racial prejudice are everywhere in Christie, and provide rich opportunities for social conflict. Nobody born south of the English Channel can be entirely trusted. A rich American or ex-colonial might be admitted cautiously to one’s parlour but only once the ladies have been forewarned about his habits.

Any whiff of the Jew, Negro or Asiatic and that person will be thrust beyond the pale with one stiff lift of the eyebrow. ‘Decent fellow, in his way. But not one of us.’ (To be fair to Christie, these attitudes prevailed in the England of the 1920s and are even more pronounced in G K Chesterton.)

It remains to be determined just which was more important to Christie’s readers: class conflict or a rattling good mystery.

Read Yeoman’s article — “A Shocker from Agatha Christie” — here.

Short stories by Dame Agatha are on sale here, here, and here.


  1. Don't forget deep colonialist attitude in her work, e.g. the stories set in the British controlled middle-east. Mind you these attitudes were no different from those in the stories of James Buchan or Kipling. You can also observe them in Hitchcock's English films or those later that were set in Britain.

  2. Indeed, the 'colonialist sentiment' can be traced throughout Edwardian fiction. It is evidenced in a terrified disdain of the fearful Other, whether defined by race, gender or class. Much of Christie's success might rest upon her subtle evocation of the monsters that lurked beneath the comfortable bed of patronage :)