Monday, April 21, 2014
Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie (And How This Book Forced Me To Rethink Homophobia And Racism In Older Fiction)
Normally, I would start off the review by providing the synopsis from either the dust jacket or the back cover, but that's not going to happen this time around. For those of you who still want to see it, I'll put it at the end of this post. The reason for change is pretty simple, I could not start off as if this was going to be a normal review. It's actually going to be a rather rambling, hopefully coherent, thought process put down on paper, albeit it's a computer screen this time around.
It's never easy making a moral judgement about a book, or even part of a book, let alone one first published in 1939. Making those judgement based on the way a reader thinks in 2014, is especially difficult. I try to not do it, and for the most part I've succeeded, but the older I'm getting, the harder that is becoming. Blatant homophobia, racism, and sexism, blanket earlier works of fiction, even by those authors you try to ignore it from. For me, one of those authors has always been Agatha Christie.
I was able to ignore the racist language in And Then There Were None, despite the tinge of remorse I felt at ignoring it. It's the same sense of remorse I feel when I choose to ignore the lawn jockey furniture that peppers some of my favorite movies, The Thin Man and The Women, being two examples. The mere idea that I'm able to brush early examples of racism aside in early works, annoys the hell out of me. I feel as if it should be a bigger deal to me, and that I should feel some sort of outrage and shock by such ignorance. Be that as it may, as uncomfortable as it makes me, I can brush it aside, and explain it away.
You see, it doesn't affect me personally. As an Italian American, who looks German, I've never been personally affronted by such behavior. I've been called a wop and a dago before, but it was by someone who didn't understand what the hell they were saying, and despite their word choice, there was no hostility behind it. I've seen it directed at my friends, and I'm offended for them, but it still doesn't wound me personally. The few times I have had comments directed towards me, it's because I mainly date men who are not white. I've been called a traitor to my race, and as uncomfortable as that makes me, I've chalked it up to ignorance and have been able to ignore it. I don't have to live with racism every day of my life. I'm offended by it, it angers me, it makes me uncomfortable when I see it from others, but it doesn't wound me the way it would someone whose skin pigment, makes them a target. And because of that, I'm able to brush aside examples of racism in early fiction and movies, I blame it on the times, and allow myself the knowledge that such examples would never happen today, at least I hope they wouldn't. I would like to think that if And Then There Were None was written today, Dame Agatha would not have used the N word, nor used some of the imagery she did.
What I can't brush off so easily, what does wound me to the bone, is the homophobic way gay men, and lesbians, were portrayed by most authors or directors. I still try to blame the era the book was written in or the film was produced in, but the older I'm getting, the harder that's getting. I find myself taking those portrayals personally, as if they are directed towards me. I know it doesn't make sense, especially since Murder is Easy was written in 1939, I wasn't born until 1976. But when the only gay character in the book, despite that word never being used, is an effeminate and creepy Satanist, it's hard to to not be bugged by that. It's even harder to forgive it when there are no positive portrayals in the book, or in any other book by her. When you add in the fact that every gay character I've run into, from any author writing a book in the same era, runs to type, it is offensive.
Sometimes, despite the hostility that is still directed at gays and lesbians in this country, and lets not even talk about other countries like Russia and Uganda, it's hard to remember that it wasn't that long ago that almost every doctor in the country considered homosexuals to be insane, or mentally depraved at best. That you could be locked up in an asylum, against your will, and left to die because you were gay. And that was if you were lucky in the asylum, if not, it was much worse. You would have been subjected to horrific medical castrations, and even the occasional lobotomy, making you less than yourself. But that was the point, much like racism, homophobia is meant to reduce someone to less than human, the other. And it's with that context in the back of my mind, that I do find myself judging some of my favorite authors for the way they chose to depict gay men and women.
As I age, I'm finding it harder to forgive these portrayals. I'm tired of making the excuse that it was the sign of the times, that we wouldn't be portrayed in such fashion anymore. I want to pretend that Doris Miles Disney could not portray Wally Howard, the murderer in That Which is Crooked, as an effeminate serial killing mama's boy, and lay the blame on his murderous instincts on that fact that he was gay. But then I'm confronted by the way Rhys Bowen portrays gay men in her current Royal Spyness series, as either jokes or buffoons. And as much as I love Georgie and the world she inhabits, I'm finding it harder and harder to continue with the series. While the gay men in her books aren't the villains, they are still portrayed as less than men, as a stereotypical joke to be laughed at. When I'm forced to think about it, I don't think Christie or Disney are any worse than Bowen in this regard. And in a way, Bowen is worse, because she should know better. We no longer live in an age where homosexuality is treated as a disease, at least not in the Western world. I can't blow it off the way I do the earlier works, and then I find myself wondering why I'm drawing that line. Why am I willing to forgive ignorance at all? Regardless of when it was written, hate is still hate. That's sentiment behind it isn't any different.
Then comes the hard part for me though, and I'm still not sure what I'm going to do about it. I've already judged Doris Miles Disney for her ignorance, and I will never read another of her books. When it comes to Dame Agatha though, that is a harder judgement call. I still love her and her books. I get lost in her ability to weave a mystery out of thin air, and turn it into the most complex labyrinth in existence. Other than one or two instances, racism and homophobia really aren't written into her stories, though even those few times are still unforgivable. Even now, as I'm writing this, I'm trying to justify my decision to keep reading her books, and that bugs me. I should be able to walk away and never look back, but I can't. For what ever reason, I'm going to judge authors differently, through whatever lens I conjure out of my ass. It won't be fair, it won't make sense, but I'm going to have to start drawing lines somewhere. I just need to figure out what those lines are.
And here is the synopsis I promised you, afterwards I'll even say a few things about the story itself.
Luke Fitzwilliam does not believe Miss Pinkerton's wild allegation that a multiple murderer is at work in the quiet English village of Wychwood and that her local doctor is next in line.
But within hours, Miss Pinkerton has been killed in a hit-and-run car accident. Mere coincidence? Luke is inclined to think so - until he reads int he Times of the unexpected demise of Wychwood's Dr. Humbleby...
I'm hoping that after you have read the previous eight paragraphs, you aren't left with the idea that I hated the book, because I didn't. Some of my favorite Agatha Christie books have been her standalone novels, even if PBS put Jane Marple into the TV version of this one. She seems to be at her most creative when she is trying to write a story around the personalities of her reoccurring detectives. It's not often that she delved into the area of magic and Satanism, even if it mainly served as the backdrop for a rash of murders. It's even rarer that the main character in her standalone was a man, and Luke was fun to read. He delves into solving the mystery, the way I delve into a plate of potato dumplings, with relish and determination.
The secondary characters, except for the creepy gay Satanist, are well rounded and quirky enough to live in a village called Wychwood. I'm not sure she assembled a more eccentric group of people into such a small piece of land. The interactions between them are poisonous and hilarious, and sets up the perfect psychopath to go to work.