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.


Heidenkind said...

I know exactly how you feel, Ryan. I run across casual bigotry in older books and it does make me uncomfortable, but I also feel like maybe I should overlook it because it's from X-years ago (unless it's, like, SUPER over the top). I think it is a matter of balancing personal morality with art. It's unreasonable to expect art from other time periods/cultures (and the past was a different culture) to adhere to your own, but at the same time everyone has their limits. I think each person has to judge for themselves, and not feel guilty for giving up on an older book because the stereotyping or bigotry pisses them off.

And I freaking hate that Rhys Bowen series, btw.

bermudaonion said...

I think you've made an excellent point - we forgive bigotry in older books because of the time period they were written in when we should be looking for new classics that better suit our values.

Melissa (Books and Things) said...

It depends on how the bigotry is portrayed even in older books as to how I will accept it or not. It was wrong even back then even if it was considered socially acceptable. They knew even then it wasn't right. Still, some words taken in the context of the era had no venom that it does now. If it was not meant as a slur then that is the only way I will accept it. Still I cringe.

I have to say this was a great post!

carol said...

You make a good point. I do tend to overlook or justify racism and homophobia in older books, they don't touch me. But the sexism in Fleming's Casino Royale almost ruined the story entirely for me.

Alexia561 said...

Interesting post! I think I may be guilty of the same thing. I'm able to overlook certain prejudices and stereotypes in older works that don't affect me, but my personal line in the sand is sexism. The old romance novels where the hero would rape the heroine, then they would fall in love and live HEA really got my back up! I stopped reading romances for a long time because it was so prevalent. And Carol is made of sterner stuff than me, as I can't enjoy any of the Bond books because Bond was such a sexist jerk.

Yvette said...

A very thought-provoking post, Ryan. Well done.

I understand your quandary. Do we stop reading some of our favorite vintage authors over their occasional use of ugly language or do we overlook it because after all that was then and this is now?

I recently re-read MURDER IS EASY (well, maybe last year) and I do remember the character you're talking about. It made me uneasy as well while I was reading. But then, you know, I chalked it up to social ignorance on the part of Dame Agatha. I don't think it was spite or something worse - do you?

Actually, if you think about it, there are really NO likable characters in this book except Luke and the young heroine who, really, if you think about it, is not even all that likable to begin with.

I am currently reading GREEN MANTLE by John Buchan and have to deal with a couple of uses of the N word which I'm having trouble with. In fact, I came to a halt at one point.

But I've come to the conclusion that the only way to deal with this is to either NOT read vintage books at all or else to just try to understand the times and the fact that even some of our favorite writers were not immune to ugly thoughts and words (as long as they were not deeds), and move on.

Kerrie said...

Ryan, I have added this to this month's Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Blog Carnival at
Very thought provoking

The Passing Tramp said...

"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."

Don't you imagine this character is partly based on Aleister Crowley? He was a bit creepy, I would say, actually!

I'm a gay man and, like a lot of gay men, I love classical Golden Age mystery fiction, If you think British GA mystery fiction is hostile to gays, you should try hard-boiled!

I think it's important to remember that mystery authors back then couldn't portray gays boldly and truly positively, even had they wanted to. The publishers wouldn't have stood for it. Christie does have a positively portrayed lesbian couple in a Murder Is Announced, though the word "lesbian" is never used. Things had to be covert back then, especially in a popular genre like mystery fiction.

Modern academics argue that Christie helped "feminize" detective fiction with Miss Marple and Poirot, a male detective whom some might see as "effeminate." Certainly his associate Hastings is conventionally masculine by comparison and very dim indeed.

The Passing Tramp said...

"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."

Part of the fascination I have with mysteries from an older era precisely is the different social attitudes, even though I often don't agree with them. Just speaking for myself, I would find it horrible to never be able to read anything before, when, the 1970s? Of course I am a historian by training.

Neha Shayari said...

First of all I can say that agatha christie is peerless mystery author who depicted each scene in a breathtaking manner.The plot is truly unanticipated and readers go astounded about the mystery.
The book is amalgamation of suspense,intrigue and conspiracy.The
book is so enthralling that readers feel like completing the book in one seating.At a few scenes I felt like spine chilling.We come to know the mystery at the culmination which if not divulged we may ponder over the mystery as how it occurred and whose the mastermind behind this.
Seriously I became ardent fan of agatha christie and developed penchant towards her novels.This is a must read novel for any fervid reader and I bet you get captivated.

J F Norris said...

As a open gay man who is extremely tolerant of stereotyped fictional portraits in all genres I like to think I can tell the difference between a villain who happens to be gay and a villain who was made to be gay as an object of hate. I'd like to point out that there is also a marked difference between the function of a character in a book and an author exploiting that character as some sort of published form of bigotry.

Agatha Christie was no bigot and she wasn't an ignorant writer. The character you describe in Murder Is Easy is just not nice. He's meant to be creepy! Curt is right - she modeled this character on Aleister Crowley who was hardly the paragon of your average good gay guy.

If you want an example of a writer who truly hated gay people then read any of Sax Rohmer's supernatural thrillers. He blatantly refers to four of his male sorcerers as "womanly" and points out their "feminine" features. The macho heroes go out of their way to openly express their disgust for these men and how they look. These "effeminate" villains always die in the most gruesome and grisly ways imaginable. Now that's hatred and bigotry on the printed page.

I think there is a time to have these personal reactions and have them legitimized and there is a time when the reader is being too sensitive, too contemporary and jumping out of the context of the story to have another go at being indignant for the treatment of gay people. Often that overreaction is completely unwarranted no matter how stereotypical the fictional portrait.