BREXIT AND AGATHA CHRISTIE

Dear ONION,

Since Brexit, the number of reported hate crimes in England has skyrocketed.

More worryingly, this uptick has been going strong for a month.[1] It has not yet abated.

There is that flood of personal anecdotes being shared online about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that experience. Some of the incidents were prolonged enough, and nasty enough, that bystanders could videotape them, and share the videos too.

There are always a slew of reasons for why you might vote for one thing or another: in this case, to stay in the EU, or leave. That’s not what I want to discuss at this moment.

I am thinking more about the swaths of British racists and xenophobes who are visibly celebrating the Brexit outcome. It is impossible to deny that racism and xenophobia helped drive the Brexit vote. Now the people who voted Brexit for those reasons see the tally results as an encouraging affirmation of their world view. They seem to feel so much more confident in doing and saying things which, until one month back, were considered distasteful and bigoted and “just not done”.

(Just like how, in our own country, we have a former KKK Grand Wizard running for senator, stating that he would never have felt like he could do this before; but now, encouraged by the tone and popularity of Trump’s candidacy, he feels his views might not be so fringe after all.)

Over dinner, Radish and I were discussing this specific part of Brexit.

Radish said, “Where is this even coming from? All this British xenophobia and racism… I mean, England is so cosmopolitan. This resurgence is some strange recent trend, right?”

And I could have said any number of reasonable things in response[2], but for whatever reason, what I actually said was, “You poor sweet thing, clearly you haven’t read any Agatha Christie.” And then I had to explain what I meant.

It’s not that Agatha Christie set out to capture “the common British man”.

(At least, certainly not the way some authors make it an intentional and stated mission to capture the essence of a people, or a period, or a place.)

It’s just, Agatha Christie always wrote the common British man as thinking and acting a certain way. And she built her plots and her characters (and her red herrings) along those sturdy, reliable lines.

The average British person, according to Agatha Christie, was a stolid and not-overly-bright xenophobic bigot.

Not that she necessarily realized this in quite that way when she was writing it, I mean.

There’s something so unselfconscious and fond about her portrait of “the Brit”: this amassed, combined portrait made from hundreds of characters, taken from over eighty books (most of which I read when I was a teenager, conveniently enough).

I always felt there was an inclusiveness in that portrait. There was always a sense she was writing this sketch (in retrospect, a not terribly flattering one) of “the common British man” as someone for the reader to identify with—and as someone Christie herself, to some degree, was comfortable with, and felt affection for, and yes, identified with.

There was never a hint of satire or criticism. Christie was too comfortable in her world, and in that type of world, to bother with the idea of changing it.

This leads right into the way she wrote foreigners of any sort, and Jews, and sometimes even the Irish and the Catholic and occasionally the lower classes. And before I get into all that, I need to talk about another thing which is pure Agatha Christie, and it is:

More than she delighted in creating plausible mysteries, she delighted in messing around with reader expectations. This usually translated into messing around with then-standard plots and premises. TVTropes credits her with inventing or codifying maybe dozens of now-standard detective mystery tropes, but that doesn’t quite capture the sheer joy you can tell she took in grabbing a stodgy formula of the genre and turning it on its head; inverting it; playing it backwards; playing it upside down… and then seeing if she could come up with a mystery plot, and a set of believable characters, which would make the resulting thing work.

(One of many examples of her doing this, but perhaps the most blatant, is Murder on the Orient Express. It is a crime with one victim and thirteen suspects, and Christie inverts the expectation of “twelve innocent / one guilty”—and gives us instead “twelve guilty / one innocent”. Typically for Christie, the rest of the book is her coming up with a plausible story that could lead to this premise.)

Christie loved taking assumptions she knew most of her audience took for granted, and using those assumptions against them. She loved to pull out the rug from her readers and make them rethink their defaults.

And now I can talk about how Christie wrote the “Other”.

The Other, for Christie, was anyone who wasn’t English by either one of two definitions. So, to be truly English: you had to both look English, and also you and your family had to be from England.

If you were a Jew who had lived in England for generations, you were Other, not English, because you didn’t look English. (Like how in Soviet Russia, your passport would list your nationality, not as Russian, but as Jew.)

And if you looked feasibly English until you opened your mouth and then suddenly you were Polish or German or Irish whatever: then you were also Other. You weren’t from England. Even if you’d been living in the country for decades on end.

(This, by the way, is almost word-for-word the Brexit-tinged rationale for who merits a hate crime and should be driven out of the noble country of England, versus who is “English enough” to stay.)

And when Christie wrote the Other, oh boy, did she ever Other them. I wish I could quote directly (the only reason I can’t is because my teenage-era collection of Christie fiction is all the way on the other side of the country, in my sister’s house, where she rereads Poirot mysteries in the bath) but I do reread handfuls of Christie novels when I visit my sister, because there they sit, ripe for revisiting, and such quick and easy reads… So it is just so weird to me, these days, to come across a Spanish person being described as if they are of an entirely different species than everybody else around them—or, for example, watching a large Irish woman being given the ominous Orientalist treatment, for the purpose of unnerving the protagonist (and thus the reader).

Most of Christie’s characters, being what they were (typically English—aka, stolid and not-overly-bright xenophobic bigots), inevitably saw anyone who was Other as somehow “off”, and sometimes worthy of suspicion entirely on that basis.

Because they looked different.

In fact: her beloved detective Poirot played on this when he needed the typical English character to lower their guard, so that he could get a morsel of truth out of them and possibly a clue…

He would exaggerate his Otherness, and the stolid English character on the receiving end would stop thinking of him as properly human.

And they would promptly lower their guard.

And thus the trap would be set, and the information would slip out, and Poirot would spring.

Hercule Poirot was written as technically Belgian. He is no more specifically Belgian than he could be, say, specifically French.

In practice, he was a mishmash of “cosmopolitan European” traits, combined into a hyperbole of how the English viewed foreign eccentricities. He was short and comically obsessed with his over-sized mustache; he dressed in delicate and beautiful patent leather shoes; drank strange sirops instead of normal English liquors; was fond of loud foreign exclamations; occasionally misused idioms for comedic effect; and was, for the most part, a non-threatening sexless being who sometimes proclaimed his admiration for feminine beauty in a way that seemed a little too knowledgeable of the details that went into maintaining that type of beauty.

(Frankly, if not for a handful of stories where Poirot swoons over the charms of a large and loud Russian lady whose name is, I swear I am not making this up, Countess Russakoff… if not for that, it would be incredibly easy, in our age, to read Poirot as coded gay. And if you need a quick primer on what that means, this video is as good as any).

At the same time Poirot is super-smart, incredibly funny, and pleasurably self-aware. In at least one story, he drops his “funny foreigner” act completely and perfectly mimics a British accent, in what leads into a hair-raising climax. And in his best stories, he is a sheer joy to encounter, and read, and spend time with.

One reason for that, I think, is the frequent pleasure, with Poirot, of watching the underdog completely bowl over the judges.

Like watching Susan Boyle standing there, sassing Simon Cowell, with the audience rolling their eyes at her—and then blasting everyone away with the glory of her pipes.

With Poirot, it’s watching Christie’s entire cast of English folk first treat Poirot with cautious disdain, then gradually growing respect, then full-on fear and/or admiration by the end.

(One of the best examples of this in action, which immediately leaped to my mind when I was writing this, is Christie’s novella The Incredible Theft. One of her better Poirot stories, and not too long.)

Therefore there is this very deliberate “triumph of the underdog” pleasure that is seeded into the success of Poirot as a character. No matter how many times it happens, this experience for the reader never seems to grow old.

And in parallel: no matter how many times it happens, it seems as if we’re expected to never tire of the Tiptree version of that story too, of a woman saying “Ha! Bet you didn’t expect to have your ass handed to you by a woman!

Except, when you phrase it that way, I think it’s impossible to not acknowledge we do tire of it, eventually. We get so very tired.

Here is a question for the ghost of Agatha Christie.

Did you ever wonder what it was like for Poirot?

Did you ever wonder what it was like to live his life as the most celebrated detective in his fictional world—single-handedly responsible for saving England at least several times—and, as his constant reward, to never be taken seriously by his adopted countrymen?

Do you think it ever began to exhaust him? Do you think it ever grated, to have to prove his baseline competency over and over, despite being unequivocally the most celebrated detective of all time?

Do you think that, as he got older and your typical English characters found new ways to dismiss his earlier undeniable successes, and resorted to flimsier and flimsier excuses for not taking him seriously: do you think that he ever felt bitter? Even a little bitter?

Do you think Sherlock Holmes ever had this problem?

Did you ever wonder why you never managed to write Poirot as having any real, nuanced friends? Anyone he could talk to as just himself? Or as an intellectual equal? Or as someone who was also a countryman, also an immigrant, someone around whom he could drop the act and feel comfortable in his skin and not have to think about being judged constantly for how he behaved or spoke or ate?

Dear ghost of Agatha Christie: do you think that the other characters who you wrote as Other—the ones who weren’t world-class detectives, but merely shop-owners, or vacationing at a spa, or working at an antique store—don’t you think that they understood why, when a murder suddenly happened, they were the ones most immediately eyed with illogical suspicion?

Don’t you think they were used to it—living in the England you so lovingly described?

(The England, actually, that so many Brexiters want to return to?)

Dear ghost of Agatha Christie, I know that sometimes you tried to be better about this than you had been in other novels. I know that sometimes you tried to write a handful of characters as Other, and with no intended sinister undertones too. Though, you still kept thinking of them as Other, didn’t you, no matter what you did.

And you never managed to get inside their heads in the same way you did for so many of your other characters. You never managed to pull off the effect that you did with Amy Carnaby in The Nemean Lion—what I think of as the Shakespeare effect, honestly—where you got inside the head of a type of person that most people saw every day, but never thought about; and you got inside their head, and you gave them dignity, and pathos; and Amy Carnaby is the sole reason I like The Nemean Lion so very, very much.

Perhaps to do this with one of your “Others” would have been too painful a realization. A little to uncomfortable.

Dear Agatha Christie: I would love to see a beautifully written fanfiction that does this with Poirot. One that gets inside his head, that imagines Poirot’s interiority and lived reality, in the same way you managed to do so well with Amy Carnaby and a host of others, but never managed to do for your greatest detective.

He was too Other to merit it, I guess.

And yet I will say this about Agatha Christie as a mystery author: sometimes she was as terrible and bigoted and racist in her portrayals as anyone could ever be[3], but hear this, all ye critics: to the best of my memory, the black-hearted murderer never does turn out to be the Other.

They can end up the love interest, in some books (like the Orientalized exotic Jew in Three-Act Tragedy). They can end up the detective, like with Poirot; or comic relief—like with Poirot.

They can end up as equal participants in an ensemble cast for a “locked room mystery”, like the Spanish character of Pilar in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.

Occasionally they are stereotype-by-numbers background noise, like in one of your earlier, charming novels, The Man in the Brown Suit.

And yet, most often, the role of the Other is simply to be the red herring. Most often they are there, and they are Other, in order to be the scapegoat.

When Agatha Christie wrote her foreigners and Jews and so on as “Other”, and as vaguely unnerving or threatening for that reason, she assumed it would be relatable. It was assumed on her part that the reader would identify at least somewhat with the proud stolidness of her characters’ Englishness, being stolid and English themselves, of course. And what more, when her characters began to get suspicious or paranoid over the strange and exotic foreigners in their midst, and when Christie would play up that atmospheric paranoia to the best of her writerly ability, she fully assumed the average reader was being led along just as eagerly, because that was how they were expected to think. By Christie’s understanding, at least.

By her decades-long observations of the people of her class, and of her country, at least.

And that’s why, in book after book, her red herrings could be foreigners and Jews, and at the same time, practically never the actual black-hearted villains. Because that would simply be the obvious and boring way to go, right?

And Christie would rather dye her face green, I think, than use such an obvious trope straight. If she put in an obvious trope of this sort, then naturally topsy-turvy it would go.

Like I said: more than she delighted in creating plausible mysteries, she delighted in messing around with reader expectations.

And especially when it came to what she knew were her readers’ expectations of foreigners and Jews.

The result is this ironic mishmash of novels and stories, which on the surface trade in the most tired of stereotypes at best, and some seriously poisonous and naive ideas at the worst. And yet, on the actual narrative level—the level of “what does her fictive world tell us about these ideas’ legitimacy within her novels?”—she contradicted those notions constantly, whether she meant to or not. She didn’t reject them outright, goodness no. But time after time, the scary foreigner is scary not because she’s a black-hearted villainess, but because she looks different, and doesn’t speak your language, and she was just saying hello to you in Polish and trying to be kind. (A literal plot point from one of her stories, I swear I’m not making this up.)

The villainess, in this story, turns out to be the most English character of them all.

As usual.

She turns out to be someone who was super-English, and who was deliberately using the protagonist’s xenophobia against him. Someone who was using the “scary foreigners” as a scapegoat for the purpose of scamming the protagonist, to get what she wanted out of his hapless, trusting hands… before disappearing into the night and leaving him alone to deal with a true shit-pile of a mess…

And thus, a conversation about Brexit turned into a conversation about Agatha Christie, and turned back into a conversation about Brexit at the end.

Signing off!

.

Sincerely,

ARTICHOKE

Artichoke_signature

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[1] Here are two articles tracking this trend; and here is an article noting the trend shortly after the Brexit vote, followed by an article one month later noting how the reporting of hate crimes has not abated (as initially expected) but continues strong.

[2] More reasonable things I could have said in response: “Let me get you some detailed histories on England in the past century.” Or: “Let me get you some texts about the lived experience of surviving inside England’s still-lingering class system, especially as a foreigner.” There was no specific reason that Radish would know these things already; his main exposure to England (and America, until recently) was snarky game shows and whimsical TV shows.

[3] Personally the most egregious example comes from her 1946 novel, The Hollow. Note the publication date, which is one year after WWII, and one year after the global discovery and wide knowledge of the German concentration camps. In this particular novel, published at that particular time, one of the English characters, Midge, has the terrible fate of (ugh!) having to work for a living. (Like, ugh!) You know, instead of living off of an aristocratic inheritance, like the rest of the very English characters in this novel. Anyway, Midge’s terrible and degrading fate is summarized by the novel through the persona of her boss: a”vitriolic little Jewess” with an “awful corn shrike voice”. If I recall correctly, the vitriolic little Jewess had some sort of speech impediment too, and she is just sooooo greedy for money that she comes close to literally salivating when one of the other (more affluent and aristocratic) characters walks in through the door, and she spends the rest of that scene licking his boots in hope he’ll spend big and give her some of that MoOooNenEeyeyy. (The aristocratic character is flatly disgusted by her, and is horrified to learn that Midge has been so degraded that she has to live in wage-servitude to… that.) Anyway, this whole subplot plays out as if we’re being told the story of a fallen princess who has to scrub pots and dress in rags like (ugh!!!) the common folk… only to be swept away, back to her rightful aristocratic lifestyle, by some prince on a white horse. Which is essentially what happens in the novel, and this, even without the “vitriolic little Jewess”, is what makes this weird subplot so weirdly pointless and dissatisfying (especially today, when we all fucking work for a living, and deal with our various bosses, it’s not that unusual, oh my god I swear, is Christie going to send us all an aristocrat on a white horse to save us from our lives as wage slaves, what was she thinking here exactly, someone fetch me a stiff drink et cetera). So look, I can think of several other examples that are just about as nasty and “haha what the fuck Agatha??” but something about this one… something about its timing, and something about its blatancy, and something about all the horrible other undertones that make up this entire noxious subplot… Look. This is something that you write without realizing how bad it looks to anyone else. This is something where you’re just casually transcribing a story through the filter of your own worldview, without quite realizing how much you’re incriminating yourself. The absolutely worst aspects of Agatha Christie’s worldview end up really, really informing this particular subplot, and if anyone were to ask me, “how can you be sure that Agatha Christie fondly included herself in her tongue-in-cheek gestalt portraiture of her English countrymen?” I will point to many, various things, but also directly at this entire subplot, which goes on for chapters and chapters, and I will also be screaming the entire time I am pointing because it is really that fucking WHAT THE FUCK and she has No Excuses, and just again. This was written in 1946.

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About onionandartichoke

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a pair of vegetables in possession of a good quantity of opinions must be in want of a blog. Onion and Artichoke: Purveyors of Fine Literary Reviews, Discussions of Modern Life, and Only Infrequent Eviscerations. (With occasional contributions from Messrs. Aubergine, Leek, and Zucchini.) ------------- We are two college friends in our twenties, who live in the same city and (as of April 2014) have the good luck of working in the same office too. Onion runs the Tumblr, and Artichoke runs the WordPress. Onion is media-savvy; Artichoke mispronounces words on the regular. Onion is full of grace; Artichoke listens to Ace of Base. Onion is a bulb; Artichoke is a thistle. We hope this has been a very informative reading experience. Sincerely, ONION and ARTICHOKE
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