Agatha Christie, racism and elitism: Why is she the best-selling author of all time?

Agatha Christie is the best-selling author in the world. There are many good things to say, obviously, about why she is so popular worldwide. She created characters that were memorable for the most part, even if sometimes they were stereotypical. She had a wonderful sense of humour, which was subtle. Her solutions to her murder mysteries were often absolutely brilliant. She wrote 7 masterpieces and 59 other detective novels, which range from still excellent to not as good (especially in her latest years writing).

 

However, there are a couple of interesting, if negative things, about her writing. One of her stereotypical characters was that of the servant, the one who was half witted, adenoidal, and took a low-class interest in the murders which happened in their vicinity. In real life, when Agatha Christie was a little girl, she had a cook whom she loved very much. Her family was upper middle class at that rich time in British history (in the 1890s) and had a number of servants. Christie, in her Autobiography (which I recommend at the end of this article as a must-read, along with nine other of her classic works), reports that she dearly loved her cook and had a very good relationship with her, along with her nurse, etc.

 

However, in her books, she did not write about servants in a positive way. They were always, pretty much without exception, as halfwits who seemed as though they could barely walk upright without assistance. It’s interesting to me to think that she in general held a negative attitude toward servants, but made exceptions when she knew someone from that class personally. A lot of people are like that, after all. We put people in categories, and then meet someone in person from that category and all of our assumptions falter.

 

Was Agatha Christie racist? Again, we can look to her real life for an explanation. Christie, as I wrote, was upper middle-class and British. England in the late 19th century was the richest nation in the world, largely due to its first-mover status as an industrial nation, and of course because of its imperial colonies, in Asia, etc. The British often had prejudices toward people from certain other countries. Jews, for example, were often discriminated against in Europe.

 

Christie was married twice, and her second husband was an archaelogist who worked in the Middle East. His name was Max Mallowan. As she travelled with her husband, she overcame her lack of education (she was home schooled a bit, but received no formal education) through experiencing different cultures. She spent a lot of time in Iraq, and especially Syria. Come, Tell Me How You Live is a delightful account of her time with her husband in that region and it is another book I highly recommend to catch a sense of her wonderful sense of humour. The more she travelled, the more she met people in the categories in which she used to sketch mere stereotypes. Experience, then, can complement a lack of education.

 

The more we experience other cultures, the less racist we will be. Christie, through her writings, both fiction and non-fiction, demonstrated many times that at heart she was a kind, compassionate human being. When she took the time to think about her prejudices, she realized how silly and offensive some of them were.

 

The fact that she was occasionally racist and elitist, before she knew better, should not hide the fact that she was mind-bendingly clever. Who else has her sense of humour, her narrative voice, her world view, her brilliance with puzzles, her reporting of social history, her intertextuality, knowledge of human nature, psychology, etc? No one. And that is why she is the best-selling author of all time!

 

 

 

Here are her best works, in order of superiority (although this is just my opinion, I think most people would agree with the list overall, even if they rank specifically their favourites a little differently):

 

The ABC Murders

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

And Then There Were None

Murder on the Orient Express

Crooked House

A Murder is Announced

Death on the Nile

Absent in the Spring (under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott)

Endless Night

An Autobiography

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