As the best-selling fiction writer of all time, American readers often think of Agatha Christie’s novels as endorsing what appear to be more conservative values — but that’s an unfair reading of her work. Rather, her novels criticize those values, laying bare their flaws.
Dr. Jamie Bernthal is a young queer theorist specializing in the work of Christie. He’s also gainfully employed as a private researcher for Sophie Hannah, the author officially entrusted by the Christie estate with the character of Hercule Poirot.
We spoke with Dr. Bernthal on the topic of gay representation in Christie’s work and what it is Christie has to offer gay readers today. (And we couldn’t resist asking which character in Christie’s oeuvre is the most thirst-inducing for queer readers!)
You recently returned from the fourth annual Agatha Christie conference at Cambridge, where an unpublished, explicitly gay reference in one of Christie’s works was revealed.
Yes! We had a great keynote paper from a theatrical producer who revealed that nearly all Christie’s plays were censored by the Lord Chamberlain. She wrote a ton of plays between the 1940s and the 1960s, most famously The Mousetrap, and quite a few include gay youths. I think her writing with plays was more disciplined than her novel-writing, because she knew the director and the censor would tidy it up.
So she had fun, putting in characters that interested her. References to “pansies” were always cut out, and in fact Agatha Christie Limited is still censoring the word in one script. My favorite character is in The Mousetrap — a “wild looking and neurotic young man” who is “childish” and “artistic.” He reminds me of myself.
In your own academic work you tend to read between the lines to find a less explicit, queer subtext within Christie’s work.
I think that’s true, but I’m not sure Christie was hugely influenced in subtext (and that’s not a bad thing at all). On one level, her work is all about artifice — she shuffles up stock characters and tropes in new or puzzling ways, which puts queerness right there on the surface. Once we realize her conservatism is tongue-in-cheek, we see that she’s presenting respectability itself as ridiculous and unsustainable. I think that’s queer.
So how did you first become interested in Christie’s writing? Was it through filmed adaptations or did you come to the books first?
Absolutely through the books. I started reading them at 8 because I was jealous of my sister being able to discuss them with our mum. If I’d started with the 1990s TV adaptations, which are very conservative, I doubt I’d have bothered with the books until much later. When I started dating my husband, I gave him a Christie reading list and he tried watching the films instead, which led to our first row.
You were interviewed by (British right-wing tabloid newspaper) The Daily Mail last year on the topic of Sarah Phelps’ Christmas 2016 adaptation of Christie’s short story and play The Witness for the Prosecution, in which you argued — much to the disgruntlement of many below the comment line — that Phelps’ addition of profanity and scenes of drug-taking and explicit violence to the script were not out-of-keeping with the original work.
My favorite accolade from the Daily Mail community is, “Obviously a loon with too much time on his hands, out to ruin Agatha for the rest of us!” I want it on business cards.
Do you feel Christie has been over-sanitized by previous television and film adaptations? When I watched René Clair’s 1945 film version of And Then There Were None a couple of years ago, I was struck by how light and cheerily humanistic it felt, which is not the impression I got when I then turned to the novel.
Both approaches are valid, I think. Christie is definitely fun and escapist, and I can see how she feeds nostalgia. The puzzle is important, and projects that stress that make sense. But the other side to Christie, which hasn’t been given its due, is the deep engagement with national issues and dark psychology. People die in her books, and people kill.
Also, sex: Nearly all her murders come down to sex, like in real life. When Sarah Phelps’s brilliant version of And Then There Were None came out in 2015, with lots of war and lots of sex, a few friends who had not been convinced to read Christie suddenly understood what I saw in her. I’m looking forward to more from Phelps.
In a similar vein, do you think part of the appeal of Christie’s work comes from the joy of transgression? When talking about the pleasures of Christie, I’ve noticed people often talk as though their enjoyment derives merely from the puzzle-solving, but clearly if that were the case there would be little reason not to just read a book of lateral thinking puzzles.
Oh, that’s interesting. Personally, I don’t read crime fiction for the puzzles. Equally, I don’t read it to revel in gore, and don’t think many people do. For me, and I hope this doesn’t sound weak, the pleasure with Christie is in the sheer humanity of the text. She nails characters, situations and dialogue in very few words and presents a world where everyone’s getting on but nobody likes or trusts anyone else. And there is always some broader threat there. I hope that makes sense.
One thing I’ve noticed reading Christie is that there is a certain — sympathy is not quite the right word — perhaps understanding for her fictional criminals, and I feel this goes a little further than the fact that to solve a crime one must know how the “criminal mind” works. Would you agree?
Well, sometimes the tidy endings are deliberately too tidy. Everyone discusses calmly how X will be hanged and then goes off for tea — I think we’re meant to notice that. Some of the endings are quite stark; the last scene of Five Little Pigs is one of the most haunting ever written. The murderer gets away with it, but we’re invited to consider them as the real victim.
Poirot, Christie’s detective, often says “Everyone is a potential murderer,” and he himself kills at least twice. Miss Marple is a nasty piece of work, too — she catches murderers by using innocent people as bait.
Then there are those stock characters — it’s like playing Clue, in that there is no “type” and therefore no person who is incapable of guilt. I don’t agree that everyone is capable of killing, but it sends a very powerful message about the world the books reflect, and whether the law is the best vehicle for justice.
“Homosexual acts” were only decriminalized here in England in 1967 with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, by which time Christie had already published the majority of her novels. Do you think Christie would have had an internal image or definition of homosexuals as “criminals” or “deviants”? If so, do you think this would have permitted or included understanding, sympathy or even affection?
Christie moved in artistic circles and was married to an intellectual. So she certainly had gay friends! There are obvious gay characters in her books. Generally the men are spiteful and the women are stentorian, but you have to remember that no one in Christie is nice. You really do get this impression that the author is a polite, friendly person who is disillusioned with everyone!
Because the average reader during her career would view an effeminate man with suspicion, she tended to make these characters the obvious suspects. That means two things: One, they’re never guilty; it’s always a more respectable figure, and two, they are shown narrative sympathy as scapegoats.
Are there any tells indicating a character in a Christie story might be gay? Costume cues or certain modes of speech, for instance?
The adjective “artistic,” the expression “my dear,” any reference to collecting antiques, “long, boney fingers,” a nasal, lisping or “womanish” voice — basically anything that sounds like Julian Clary with a degree.
Do you think there is anything in Christie that might specifically appeal to a gay readership? Obviously no two people are alike, and taste is never homogenous, but do you think Christie offers anything different to the gay reader that isn’t present in other genre authors of the period?
In all the old Christie films, the colorful costumes and waspish asides are camp as Christmas. Arguably, the presentation of queer characters as scapegoats is redemptive, but there’s also this sense that everything Christie writes about is a masquerade. Not just the ridiculously stage-managed crimes but also the social circles and relationships fleshed around them.
Poirot himself is a wonderfully camp figure, mincing his way around London and making Captain Hastings bristle with his perfumey hugs. As a bisexual teenager who was bullied, I would often return to Christie for a bit of sanity. She doesn’t offer us a hero to emulate, and she doesn’t judge any of her characters. The only judgment is on the myth of imperial English stability.
That’s a hard thing to achieve when you’re writing about guilt and innocence. P.D. James, for example, was never great on queer people, and her attempts to write about the “right kind” of gay couple are even worse. Even queer crime novels tend to be judgey, one way or the other.
Finally, and arguably most importantly, which man in Christie’s oeuvre is the most thirst-inducing?
If I knew about thirst-inducing men, I wouldn’t be an academic! Beware of beautiful men in Christie — they are always murderers or Nazis (in one case, Adolf Hitler’s son). She did invent a kind of mysterious, sexy ghost — seriously — who helps a little gay man solve mysteries, called Harley Quin. I like to imagine he later changed gender and became the Batman villain. But a quick surf of fan fiction reveals a lot of thirst for Poirot and Hastings… Pastings?
Dr. Bernthal’s Queering Agatha Christie: Revisiting the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (2016) is currently available from Palgrave Macmillan in both hardcover and Kindle versions.
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