Jeremy Black: The politics of Agatha Christie

5 Feb

Jeremy Black is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University.

‘Jesus Christ, will you look at this? Next thing Poirot himself will appear on the scene.’ Set in 1957, John Banville’s Snow (2020) readily deploys the fictional Harry Hall, the chain-smoking head of an Irish forensics team, in order to use Poirot to locate Ballyglass House. Later in the book, Christie recurs: ‘Maybe they all did it. Like in the book by what’s her-name,’ says Sergeant Jenkins.

Thanks largely to ‘recovered memory’ through the distorting mirror of visual accounts, Christie has become the classic Golden Age detective novelist, one of poison not politics, a plotsmith within the paradigm of a world of order and stability, in which the murderer disrupts an order that the detective restores.

Well no. That was not Christie’s world, nor that of her readers, and her corpus offered politics aplenty. Much was anti-Communist, but Christie ranged widely to include the familiar leitmotif of the unscrupulous secret gang trying to conquer the world; to incorporate Nazi threats and, with Passenger to Frankfurt (1970), to suggest a reborn Nazi movement behind international terrorism.

How far this was a matter of personal knowledge in part through her first husband, and how far familiar themes of the period is unclear. One former spy with whom I discussed the matter offered ‘Agatha Christie was a great novelist and a sincere Christian with the sense of evolving (or involving?) times and moods. But she was a woman who know plenty of dirty little secrets too.’

Christie was to voice the fears seen with other writers, notably John Buchan in The Three Hostages (1924), in which he discerned ‘wreckers on the grand scale.’ In The Secret Adversary (1922), Christie’s second novel, ‘Bolshevist gold is pouring into this country for the specific purpose of procuring a Revolution,’ ‘the Bolshevists are behind the labour unrest,’ and a Labour government would be dangerous.

Although set in South Africa, the theme of deadly revolutionary organisation behind strikers is prominent in The Man in the Brown Suit (1924). Anxieties continued. The paranoia of the period focused on Socialism as well as Communism. In 1929, Partners in Crime, a collection of very different short stories, finds Tommy Beresford and Tuppence up against Moscow’s agents, reference to Bulldog Drummond, and Colonel Kingston-Bruce complaining about ‘A most pestilential fellow – an arrant socialist … A dangerous sort of fellow.’

The Big Four (1927) captured the widespread atmosphere of disquiet and, in the case of this novel, international conspiracy. Poirot presents the conspiracy as his great case. The commercially very successful novel in fact was based on short stories published in The Sketch from January to March 1924, but, for the readers, the background was the General Strike.

Poirot refers to ‘The world-wide unrest, the labour troubles that beset every nation, and the revolutions that break out in some … there is a force behind the scenes which aims at nothing less than the disintegration of civilization… Lenin and Trotsky were mere puppets.’

This theme, which suggested that the centre of conspiracy and action was closer than the Soviet Union, as indeed is revealed to be the case, is not a tangential one to the plot or the tone, but is developed throughout the book, and helps give it a character toward the end that is similar to that of the Ian Fleming novels. The theme of Li Chang Yen, the malevolent Chinese master-criminal in The Big Four, echoes Dr Fu Manchu and prefigured Fleming’s Dr No.

That is not, however, the approach that is taken today toward Christie novels. Indeed, this is one of the many respects in which subsequent presentation, while often successful in its own terms, artistically and/or commercially, does not necessarily take you far toward an appreciation of the original work, or, indeed, offer anything for that. The Big Four is the classic instance of this process.

It was presented in 2013, in the BBC David Suchet Poirot series, which has acquired a form of definitive, or at least iconic, status for the visual Poirot, not least as providing the largest number of Poirot performances. In that series, the story, set on the eve of World War Two, and with the Peace Party playing a major role, was presented in part as a delusion. This made the text pointless

In The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), the standard theme of Bolsheviks and Jews is thrown forward in the first scene.

In The Coming of Mr Quin (1924), reprinted as part of The Mysterious Mr Quin (1930), Lady Laura Evesham is worried about the ‘grave uncertainty’ of the political situation.

Meanwhile, in a valuable corrective to the implications of some of the post-war thriller writing, the Labour government of 1924 had demonstrated that Labour could rule without bringing in socialism. There were no serious upsets and financial policy was particularly prudent, with the orthodoxy of Philip Snowden making him an ideal Treasury-minded Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Far from introducing a capital levy or wealth tax, Snowden was a supporter of tax cuts. The Labour government kept the TUC at a distance and used emergency powers to defeat a strike by London tramwaymen. In 1924, John Hoode, the Minister of Imperial Finance, was murdered in the library of his country house in Philip MacDonald’s detective novel The Rasp, only for the killer to be unmasked by Colonel Anthony Gethryn, formally of the Secret Service.

In The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), the impressive Superintendent Battle appears for the second time. One of her talented policemen, he is present in five novels from 1925 to 1944. Battle has a list of secret societies in London. They include:

‘The Blood Brothers of St Sebastian. The Wolf Hounds. The Comrades of Peace. The Comrades Club. The Friends of Oppression. The Children of Moscow. The Red Standard Bearers. The Herrings. The Comrades of the Fallen – and half a dozen more.’

‘The sinister Mr Mosgorovsky’ is proprietor of the Seven Dials Club, and one of the members is an American with ‘an inflection of Irish,’ another a German, and one ‘the lady who may be any nationality – for choice Russian or Polish.’ The dangerous international gang, is, Bundle Brent, the young heroine, notes, ‘the sort of crowd I always imagined until tonight only existed in books,’ which is a type of reference that Christie frequently makes as a locator of action and attitudes. Secret papers are part of the plot.

And then Christie subverts it, Superintendent Battle revealing that secret criminal organisations headed by a ‘mysterious super-criminal,’ while ‘common enough in books’, are less so in real life. Moreover, Mosgorovsky in fact is Britain’s secret ‘anti-Bolshevist agent’, while the American is pro-British, rather than the IRA sympathiser he appeared.

In One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940) politics is to the fore. Reginald Barnes, the former Home Office intelligence link, the sort of individual Christie frequently deploys because they are narrative facilitators, refers to:

‘a book with a lurid jacket that lay on a table close at hand: ‘I read a lot of these spy yarns. Fantastic, some of them. But curiously enough they’re not any more fantastic than the real thing. There are beautiful adventuresses, and dark sinister men with foreign accents, and gangs and international associations and super crooks’ I’d blush to see some of the things I know set down in print – nobody would believe them for a minute!’

Politics remains a theme throughout the novels, with the anti-Communist themes repurposed and transposed, although, as in Passenger to Frankfurt, not always successfully. To leave the politics out is to misunderstand and misrepresent Christie and her milieu.