“The most unkindest cut of all”: On Re-editing Christie

Fasten your seat belts: let’s talk about censorship.

In March, the Guardian reported that Agatha Christie’s publisher, Harper Collins, would be scrubbing some of the more problematic language out of her books in future reissues:

The updates follow edits made to books by Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming to remove offensive references to gender and race in a bid to preserve their relevance to modern readers . . . the edits cut references to ethnicity, such as describing a character as black, Jewish or Gypsy, or a female character’s torso as ‘of black marble’ and a judge’s ‘Indian temper’, and removed terms such as ‘Oriental’ and the N-word. The word ‘natives’ has also been replaced with the word ‘local’.”

The response, as you might expect, has been vitriolic but also highly complex. We live in a free society. Most of us read Fahrenheit 451 in our 8th grade English class. Since 1949, millions have read 1984. You don’t burn books! You don’t censor thought! At the same time, though, as we continue battling our way towards a grudging respect for our global diversity, we have to recognize the stinging power words have to offend, to stir up old evils, to scratch behind the literary surface to reveal all sorts of uglies. Our life spans are long enough for us to evolve past the prejudices we learned at home. And books, even light-hearted mystery novels, survive for generations; some of them, like the works of Brian Flynn, rise from the dead!

In the tumultuous political landscape in which we find ourselves, coming to some sort of agreement on this topic is impossible. Having even a civil discourse about it seems beyond our ken. Here, I’m going to take the word “woke” and put it aside. It sprang from African-American Vernacular English and indicates an alertness to racial prejudice and discrimination. It was intended as a good thing, but like so many terms, it has become subverted to a political cause and overworked to the point of obnoxiousness. Censorship of one form or another is currently being advocated on both sides of the political spectrum. Perhaps each side believes they are acting for the common good, but . . . I don’t know, some of it seems so disingenuous to me. 

Our arguments reflect the passion people can feel about things. I like passion. But they also reveal how flawed we are in our logic and how blind an eye we have to the arguments on the other side. I listened the other day to a response on YouTube that centered on the Agatha Christie issue. I couldn’t tell you whether the two people arguing against censorship had ever read Christie, but I can safely say they don’t understand context at all. They began with a blanket condemnation of Harper Collins’ actions, then backtracked and said that maybe cutting the n-word was okay, but what’s the big deal about the word “native” or “gypsy” or “Jew?” 

As a Jewish man of Hungarian extraction, whose grandmother looked like she was brimming with Magyar blood, I can offer a few comments on a couple of those words. I’ve read Christie a lot more than this pair, and I know that, at least in the case of Mrs. Raikes and Dr. Bauerstein from The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the words “gypsy” and “Jew” amount to more than mere descriptors. 

I also know, from doing a bit of reading, that although many people engaged in argument over this topic may be experiencing this issue for the first time, publishers have been re-editing material for hundreds of years, sometimes at the instigation of the writers themselves. One of the most prestigious examples concerns a favorite author of mine, Charles Dickens.  Back when Dickens was considered a purveyor of popular fiction rather than “Great Literature,” it is an unfortunate fact that he harbored strong anti-Semitic beliefs which suffused his literature. The most famous example is the villainous Fagin in Oliver Twist, who in the original text was referred by name only a few times and as “the Jew” over 250 times in the first thirty-eight chapters alone. 

Kyd’s depiction of Fagin

But Dickens’ negative portrayal of Jews recurred over and over, in Sketches by BozThe Pickwick Papers, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, (where a pawnbroker hearkens back to Shakespeare’s Shylock by “weigh(ing) out his pound of flesh”), in Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Hard Times and Great Expectations. In this last title, a money-grubbing lawyer named Abraham Lazarus speaks with a lisp, a common stereotypical aspect of Jews in old dramas. Anti-Jewish sentiment features in many of Dickens’ short stories and travel essays as well. 

And then, late in his life, Dickens showed a capacity for change after he sold his London home to a Jewish banker. The man’s wife, Eliza Davis, wrote a letter to the author asking for a donation to a convalescent home for the Jewish poor. She had some chutzpah, as we Jews would say, for the way she hit him up for money: 

It has been said that Charles Dickens, the large hearted, whose work pleads so eloquently and so nobly for the oppressed of his country, and who may justly claim credit (for), as the fruits of his labor, the many changes for the amelioration of the condition (of the) poor now at work, has encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew . . . 

In his response to Mrs. Davis (in which he enclosed a small donation), Dickens explained that his portrayal of Fagin did not denigrate the Jewish religion but the Jewish race! He said: “It unfortunately was true of the time to which that story refers, that that class a criminal invariably was a Jew.” In other words, as Dickens went on to explain, if he created a villainous Frenchman or Spaniard, he would never use the term “the Roman Catholic” as a descriptor because that would be a “very indecent and unjustifiable thing” to denigrate even an evil character’s faith. 

This differentiation was lost on Mrs. Davis, who wrote back to explain that the Jewish race and religion were inseparable and that there had been just as many people of the time who had proclaimed themselves “good Christians” who had victimized the weak for profit. She pointed out that Dickens himself had included such characters in his work, and yet there were plenty of decent Christian characters to balance out the picture. Poor Fagin had no such counterpoint. Dickens must have had a sort of epiphany because he included in his last full-length novel, Our Mutual Friend, a saintly Jewish character named Riah, who is forced to be the public face of the moneylending business owned by a “good Christian.” Riah’s story became an object lesson for Dickens’ readers on how to resist prejudice against a people based on race or religion. In addition, the author stopped the re-publication of Oliver Twist and insisted that future editions replace references to Fagin as “The Jew” with his actual name. 

As some people will be quick to point out to you, these edits were made with the insistence and approval of the author himself. But none other than Agatha Christie herself had a similar epiphany in confronting her own prejudices. One of her biographers, Gillian Gill devotes some time to this issue in Agatha Christie, The Woman and Her Mysteries:

Just like everyone else, Christie was the product of a specific time and place, and she was certainly no revolutionary thinker. Nonetheless, Christie was significantly less enslaved by the ideology and structural prejudices of her culture, time, and class than (many of her) contemporaries. The racism, the classism, the sexism that make the huge majority of popular novels written in the thirties and forties unreadable today are relatively unimportant in Christie.” 

That’s nice, but . . . 

“There is, however, one kind of popular prejudice to which Christie did, unfortunately subscribe. A kind of jingoistic, knee-jerk, antisemitism colors the presentation of Jewish characters in many of her early novels, and Christie reveals herself to be as unreflective and conventional as the majority of her compatriots.

Let’s be aware of the facts: anti-Semitism has existed for as long as the Jews themselves, and it was prevalent in Great Britain for centuries. Jews were expelled from England in 1260 and not allowed to return until 1656. When Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, he probably hadn’t met any Jews and had to rely on the many apocryphal stories about what they were like in order to fashion his portrayal of the moneylender Shylock. Gill describes Christie’s anti-Semitism as “stupidly unthinking rather than the deliberately vicious kind.” I suppose Jewish fans should be grateful for this, as we read about folks like Dr. Bauerstein in The Mysterious Affair at Styles . . . 

John Cavendish: I’ve had enough of the fellow hanging about. He’s a Polish Jew, anyway.       Mary Cavendish: A tinge of Jewish blood is not a bad thing. It leavens the stolid stupidity of the ordinary Englishman.

. . . or Oliver Manders in Three-Act Tragedy . . . 

Egg Lytton-Gore’s voice rang out, ‘Oliver, you slippery Shylock – ‘                                                 “’Of course,’ thought Mr. Satterthwaite, ‘not foreign – Jew.’”

. . . or poor Herman Isaacstein in The Secret of Chimneys, as Gillian Gill describes: 
What is more damaging, Lord Caterham – who, as we have seen, speaks very much for the author in matters political in this novel – is exaggeratedly, unable to recall the financier’s name, refers to him unpleasantly as ‘Mr. Ikey Hermanstein’ and ‘Noseystein,’ and makes an offhand crack to the effect that no one with a name like Isaacstein can be British.

Let’s pass by how reading passages like this make me feel and move to the fact that Christie evolved on this issue. As an inveterate world traveler and lover of the Middle East, she got to know more Jews personally. She also met Nazi sympathizers, like the German antiques director Dr. Jordan, “a charming, cultured, considerate, gentle man” whose manner changed completely at the mention of the Jewish people. His eyes shining with fanaticism, he declared to Agatha and Max that the Jews must be exterminated. 

Such experiences helped transform Christie’s own attitudes, as did her awareness of just how evil the Final Solution of the Nazis turned out to be. In 1947, she responded to complaints by the Anti-Defamation League by giving permission to her U.S. publishers to remove anti-Semitic language from her books, much like she had responded positively in 1939 to requests to change the original name of what would come to be called And Then There Were None. Thus, in my 1965 copy of Ten Little Indians, the character of Isaac Morris is no longer referred to as “Jewboy” or having “thick Semitic lips.” 

To be honest, Jewish characters are few and far between in Christie’s fiction. Oliver Manders is probably the most prominent, and to be fair, Christie uses his “otherness” as a red herring and gives him the girl at the end. People of color occur even more rarely in her work, yet they receive similarly poor treatment. One of the last Christie titles I read was Death in the Clouds (1935), which I found in the British Fontana edition (the one with the wasp on the cover) at a downtown San Francisco bookstore sometime around 1970. Halfway through this Poirot novel about a mysterious murder on board a plane, fellow passengers Jane Grey and Norman Gale act upon their attraction to each other and go on a date:

It was one of those enchanting evenings, when every word and confidence exchanged seems to reveal a bond of sympathy and shared tastes. They liked dogs and disliked cats. They both hated oysters and loved smoked salmon. They liked Greta Garbo and disliked Katharine Hepburn. They didn’t like fat women and admired really jet-black hair. They disliked very red nails. They disliked loud noises, noisy restaurants, and Negroes –  

This passage is rendered all the uglier by being couched in the “cute” aura of a romantic comedy. I read it in my twenties and was a sophisticated enough reader to reappraise it in light of the times in which it was written. True, Christie here is listing the beliefs of two of her characters, and yet these were two young people that the author intended us to like and root for; there had to be some expectation that contemporary readers would peruse this list, nod and smile.

Unfortunately, the Christie canon is littered with brief references like this one that indicate a negative viewpoint about people of color, rendering them as “exotic,” “other,” and not to be trusted. The question we must ask ourselves is: does the excising of passages and words like these amount to a good thing or a bad thing? The Christie estate and, through them, Harper Collins has the legal right to make these changes, but are they exercising sound moral judgment? Are they missing an opportunity to instruct present generations about the past? Or is this a responsibility they see no reason to assume?

One wonders if popular fiction like Christie’s, which often captures the day-to-day minutiae, both good and bad, of contemporary life more completely than what we might deem “classic literature,” was meant to have a shelf life past a certain number of generations. I mean, we no longer read Nigel Morland, who between 1935 and 1961 produced more mystery novels than Christie, and the one novel I reviewed by that guy included a “miraculous murder” on a nighttime street by an invisible killer who simply couldn’t be seen because he was Black. Ellery Queen began his career with a murderer who killed to hide the “taint” of Black blood running through him, and John Dickson Carr . . . well, not too long ago I wrote a review about a problematic novel of his and managed to start one of those conversation wars on Facebook that I had been trying to avoid.

On the surface, one has to imagine some greater good being attempted here by Harper Collins to acknowledge the feelings of modern readers. It sure feels different in purpose to the fervent censorship movement by American conservatives to rewrite history by wiping all evidence of racism from texts and libraries across the Southern American states and render invisible any positive depictions of people who differentiate from a conservative vision of the cultural “norm”. They couch this movement in terms of “moving forward” from the feelings of guilt and animosity they believe arise when white children learn of the stark difference between their histories of those of their Black classmates. 

The danger here is in peddling the belief that the feelings that impelled these horrific events no longer exist. Recent history has sadly proven these assumptions false. And the concept of hiding these facts flies in the face of Jewish intellectual thought, which insists that we must never forget the past in order to avoid repeating it. According to Aish.com, the largest Jewish learning site on the Internet, the recent decided-upon changes by Harper Collins may be fine:

If Agatha Christie were alive today, perhaps she would welcome the changes her publishers are making in her work. Since she had listened to criticism and decided to temper her offensive wording, it’s likely she would embrace the help her publishers are giving to her books today. These changes honor the decisions she made in her lifetime.”

At the same time, the site acknowledges,

. . . when it comes to some of the other authors whose work is being altered, perhaps we’d be better served by leaving their offensive remarks alone. These works help us understand the anti-Semitism of the past and give us a better sense of where anti-Jewish feelings that flourish today have come from. 

Take Roald Dahl. Whereas Agatha Christie seemed to move away from antisemitism throughout her life, Dahl increasingly embraced it. By 1990, just months before he died, he bashed Jews in an interview and told a journalist, “I’ve become anti-Semitic.” Dahl expressed no remorse. Let readers see for themselves his odious anti-Jewish statements as he wrote them, and how he helped promote animosity to Jews that we are battling today.”

Even though we all probably want to protect children from the uglier aspects of life – although progressives and conservatives disagree about what constitutes this “ugliness,” and both sides can be accused of playing politics here – I agree with Aish that we would better protect children from the uglier aspects of life by training them to read critically, especially as popular literature from the past seeks to reinvent itself in order to survive. An excellent illustration can be made here with The Hardy Boys, a series I read before I discovered Agatha Christie. 

I own eighteen Hardy Boys titles, fourteen of which were written between 1927 and 1959. Only two of these books are first editions or original texts; in fact, they differ from the others in pretty remarkable ways. You see, in 1959, the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the organization which created the Hardy Boys mysteries, decided, under the direction of Harriet Adams, Edward Stratemeyer’s daughter, to revise the first 38 books in the series.  (Adams did the same thing with the Nancy Drew books, which they also created.) The project, which took fourteen years to complete, was undertaken in order to make the books both more relevant and more “acceptable” to modern audiences. This included excising material that demeaned other races and cultures. 

The original villains in The Hidden Harbor Mystery were a Black gang

For the most part, this was accomplished – although, instead of transforming non-white characters from gross stereotypes into more realistic people, these characters – the black cook, the evil criminal in The Hidden Harbor Mystery, the shambling servant who saves Nancy Drew in The Secret of the Old Clock, the savage Indians who terrorized Frank and Joe in many an adventure – were eliminated, to be replaced by white counterparts. As Brandon Tensley said in his article, “The Knotty Problem of The Hardy Boy Series, “I remember thinking, when I first learned about these changes as a young adult, that it would have been better to simply give the black characters more dimension than attempt to blot them out.” 

Series like these had always fought for respect in libraries, who dismissed the books as hastily manufactured trash. Comparing the original with the revised text, I can see how the modernization might be more appealing to mid-20thcentury readers (although the plotlines probably would not); after their revisions, the books became much shorter and arguably less objectionable, but they had also been stripped of their “humor, charm, and believability” as well as any value they had once had as historical representations of a time gone by.  Was the trade-off worth it? Tensley makes a point about the original editions that must be considered: 

The Hardy Boys . . . offer a critical lesson on the importance of reappraisal—on how, with hindsight, it’s possible to see the cultural blind spots in art. In time, as I read more broadly and deeply, I learned to hold the books up to the light and separate out their derisions and elisions, their racist caricatures and sexist tropes (female characters, such as Laura Hardy, the boys’ mother, are often reduced to overly doting, self-effacing bit players). I still sometimes read the stories today, . . . but now I approach the books a little bit more as historical documents, at once valuing and rolling my eyes at the parts that haven’t aged quite like I have.”

I think young people should be taught to read like this. Nobody should take anything they read as gospel; everything we read is a historical document worthy of perusal with a critical eye. Then we can gain perception about where we come from and how we have – and haven’t – evolved. But such skills are impossible if we simply remove the text from consideration and give young people no chance to develop this ability to reappraise historical documents. 

We also need to understand how others use and twist these texts for their own purposes. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was a favorite of the Nazis: between 1933 and 1939, more than fifty productions of the play were mounted, and audiences were trained, through the way the plays were staged and the performances of the actors, to grow incensed whenever Shylock appeared onstage. As I mentioned above, Jews were non-entities in Shakespeare’s time, and his creation of the villainous Shylock – in what was intended, you must remember, to be a comedy – was founded mostly on cultural myths. 

unknown artist; Shylock; University of Bristol Theatre Collection

And yet . . . it is Shylock who gets the most humanistic speech in the play: 

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

And while Merchant can be an extremely painful play for Jews to watch, Shakespeare has no special love for the way the other characters treat Shylock. Portia engages in legal trickery to defeat him, and his punishment in the end is not death but religious conversion, a particularly ugly fate for a devout Jew. 

Did the groundlings cheer when this occurred? Probably so. Even a suggestion of sympathy on Shakespeare’s part is possibly wishful thinking. As Professor Michele Osherow, resident Dramaturg of the Folger Theatre in Washington D.C., puts it, “Contemporary audiences only read Shylock sympathetically because reading him any other way, in light of the horrors of the Holocaust, would reflect poorly on the reader.” This may be true – but sympathetic interpretations of Shylock have arisen, and these make even clearer the more implied criticism Shakespeare has for his Christian characters. “Even if you hate Shylock, “ says Osherow, “when he asks these questions, there’s a shift: you have an allegiance with him, and I don’t think you ever really recover from it.” 

The issue is being decided; the editing is going forward. The alternative suggestion of including a warning of some sort at the beginning of the original text is moot. Meanwhile, I have all my original copies of Christie, which means that every time I re-read The Moving Finger, I have to bear the moment late in the novel when Jerry Barton takes Megan Hunter to London for a makeover and heads to a friend’s dress shop: “Mary was being firm with a stout Jewess who was enamored of a skin-tight powder-blue evening dress.” If someone younger than me happens to come upon this passage – or any other in the works of Christie and all too many of her brethren, I will be more than happy to have a conversation with them to fill them in on the history. 

My greater concern is that, without this recorded evidence of historical wrongs to examine and remember, we are setting the stage for those who embrace these evil sentiments today to continue their work. And make no mistake: some of them hold national office, and they have already begun. 

Partial Bibliography

Gill, Gillian, Agatha Christie, The Woman and Her Mysteries, The Free Press, 1990







24 thoughts on ““The most unkindest cut of all”: On Re-editing Christie

  1. Brad – You handled this sensitive topic in a balanced and articulate way. I don’t enjoy seeing racial, cultural, gender, etc. stereotypes in the books I read, but for me they are potent reminders of a difficult past and how people thought when the given text was written.

    I would prefer that the original narrative was unchanged but with a warning at the start that the book was written in a certain age and anyone proceeding takes the risk of being offended. That person of course can then choose not to read the text.

    It might be a flawed comparison, but I refuse to read most modern crime fiction that too often revels in sadistic, gruesome violence that I won’t tolerate. I don’t expect those books to be re-written, but equally I make the choice not to spend my money and time on those.

    As you say that is moot as the Christie edits are happening. The challenge of course is who decides what is offensive and what is not? We humans are notoriously flawed creatures and one person’s standard will not be enough or be too much for someone else.

    So I understand why the edits are happening, but is the alleged ‘cure’ better than the ‘illness’?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Scott. We humans have a sad tendency to warp and abuse our “remedies,” and so I value a cautious approach, especially in the topic of censoring art.


  2. I’ll be honest, I’m not too bothered about the edits, as I’d rather people enjoyed Dame Agatha’s wonderful work without being offended. I don’t see these books as historical artefacts – original copies will always be available – but entertainment, especially as she approved changes in the past.

    What does intrigue me is what, if anything, they are going to do with the ending of Taken At The Flood. Here is a case not of racism, but of a woman accepting that a man who beats her is only doing it because he loves her and therefore is the man for her. Surely this is just as objectionable but can’t be changed by removing a few choice words.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll be interested in that as well. Christie had an occasional tendency to pair admirable girls with unfortunate men; it happens in Towards Zero as well. And I see no reason for Lucy Eyelesbarrow to be paired off with any man at the end of 4:50 from Paddington.


  3. Thanks for such a balanced and intelligent discussion of this sensitive topic. I’ve been having mixed feelings. On the one hand I thought the change in title of And Then There Were None was appropriate, but at the same time I’m uneasy about changes to the texts of books. It feels like erasing history in some ways.

    These casual and sometimes not so casual antisemitic references are a recurring feature in many GAD works. Yet I still was shocked when I recently read my first book by Anthony Berkeley and it said of the detective, “It was not until the necessity for consuming a large plateful of prunes and tapioca pudding, the two things besides Jews that he detested most in the world,” etc. This is not a peripheral character, it’s a recurring sleuth of this author’s series.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I don’t think the people who say, “Grow a spine and get over it” understand how much it feels like a blow to read this stuff. But when I was doing my research into this, I read a lot about the changes made to The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and I realized that I basically NEVER read the HB books as they were originally written! As I mentioned, I do have two of the books that have the original text: the writing is terribly florid, and the boys behave a bit like Victorian maidens. In the first three pages of The Phantom Freighter, Chet Morton’s weight is insulted a half dozen times until the narrative just keeps calling him “the fat boy.” I can only imagine Stratemeyer’s daughter looking at this stuff and asking herself how to keep this money-maker making money in modern times. The answer they came up with is far from perfect, but I shudder to think of a 21st century kid coming across some of the worst excesses of the original books.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have a 1930 edition of Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase that contains some offensive caricatures. It was revised in 1959. I agree, it would have been extremely difficult to know what to do with that material as time marched on.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I just wonder how successful these reedits can be without damaging the original text. It’s one thing to change the original (despicable) title of And Then There Were None, but what do you do with the passages where Lombard justifies his crime of abandoning 21 of his men to starvation by saying that “Natives [meaning Africans] don’t mind dying. They don’t feel about it as Europeans do.” And later Vera, reflecting on the same incident, says to Emily, “they were only natives” as though that makes Philip’s behavior acceptable. Both conversations are INCREDIBLY offensive-but reveal a great deal, intentional or not on Christie’s part, of Lombard and Vera’s characters. How do you excise THAT without rendering the conversations meaningless?


      • I honestly couldn’t say if they were going too far. It’s one thing to excise offensive words, but I’m not sure that they’re eliminating offensive people or, at least, the evidence of their offensiveness. Both Lombard and Vera turn out to be despicable and – spoilers? really?? – they get their just desserts for their disdain for human lives that stand in the way of their safety and/or happiness. I can’t believe that Christie is having this pair espouse her own beliefs; she has put many an Englishman in an unfavorable light before for believing the worst of non-English people. (And she has tricked many of her readers, too.)


      • Quote by Rick: “I just wonder how successful these reedits can be without damaging the original text.”

        In the German version, some of this stuff has been cut or changed long ago. I assume it’s because of our history. Anyway, when I bought the books as a teenager in the 1990s, several of these remarks were already gone and I only learned about them much later. And in most cases, it works. I read them without knowledge of their original content, and most of the time I had no problems understanding the characters or situations.

        Oliver Manders’ character in Three Act Tragedy stayed exactly the same. Jim Lazarus tricked Nick Buckley in Peril at End House, because he is “a businessman”. The horrible sentence about the dislikes of Jane Grey and Norman Gale in Death in the Clouds is simply gone and everything else stays the same.

        Where I felt something was missing was in Lord Edgware Dies. Poirot seemed to guess out of nowhere that Carlotta Adams liked money, and I had no idea, how he came to this conclusion. Of course: “She was a Jew, so she liked money”, is aan awful explanation, so the question is what we might prefer: A bad explanation or none at all.

        Interestingly, the stuff in And then There Were None was not cut out, and neither were Lombard’s remarks about Isaac Morris. Maybe the editors thought, that since Lombard and Vera were bad people, they cut leave the statements in. And Vera gets contradicted by Emily Brent at once anyway. Not that Emily Brent was a good person, but still. But I think especially the Part with Vera could easily be left out without changing the character at all. With Lombard it’s more difficult, because it’s essential to his character. But then, it’s the reason why he is on the island in first place, so he gets punished for his racist behaviour.


  4. Argh, my posts seem to keep being eaten! But I keep saving them and pasting them in again:
    Brad, thank you for your intelligent and thoughtful take on this topic. I really appreciate the depth you went into here.
    For those who decry this as “woke”, they just have to look to your definition above to see that it’s quite the opposite, ignoring prejudice rather than facing up to it. Rather than some kind of moral panic, this appears to me to come purely from commercial motives. The publishers likely believe that the books will sell more without their troublesome aspects.
    And here’s the tough part for me… they’re probably right. I think of this whenever I try and recommend classic crime to someone to read, and I remember some painful point that came up to me when reading. It would be much easier to recommend a “sanitized” version. I can’t deny that these edited versions would be a more enjoyable reading experience for me. But this feels like my own intellectual laziness. When it comes down to it, were “editing history” to be literal – only the new versions would exist – I would have to pick the originals, even if I dislike reading those passages. But I can’t disagree strongly with anyone who’d rather avoid the painful read, because part of me feels that way too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am not conflicted, I am 100% against these changes but then, I am very unwoke. I oppose the changes both on principle and because the edits almost surely won’t make find adequate replacements when the problematic parts serves plot or characterization purposes.

    An amusing thing to think of is that future readers encountering authors like Ngaio Marsh, who was opposed to antisemitism and racism even while being sligthly stereotypical at times, will probably just assume the sympathetic parts have been edited in and that her original views were much worse than they were.


  6. Tough topic Brad and well done for working so hard on it and in such detail. And there is no question in my mind that we need to educate people about history, not rush to snap judgements in fear of a social media blip that might hurt the bottom line and try to erase the past. As Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Splendid essay and thoughtful comments. I spent about fifty years working to convince students in the US, UK, and Europe that being informed citizens who would go on to use critical thinking and historical knowledge to improve their societies required coming to terms with the good, the bad, and the ugly of USA history. Now, as a fledgling author of WWII historical novels I’m working hard to have my characters think, speak, and act the way that real persons did in 1942. I’m not surprised, therefore, that some reviewers have found the books “disturbing .” One reviewer even objected to a Jewish character who, in 1942, was (still) anti-Zionist. I fully expect that at some point a reader of my new book will object to the Jews who take up arms against their oppressors in my story because they find themselves “disturbed “ by being reminded of Jewish military action in today’s Israel. Deleting historical language now deemed offensive does not serve the cause of creating a better future humanity. It’s more likely to foster an ignorance about history that serve’s future tyrants.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s not often that I get to read a comment from someone I actually met, so this is a pleasure, Bill. I imagine that, as a historical novelist, you are going to catch flack whenever you wade into controversial waters, like the Middle East.

      The situation over books these days is even more alarming than the stuff I got into above: I heard former Star Trek star George Takei talking about how his graphic novel (about his real life WWII experience of being kicked out with his family of their own home and interred in a stable) has been banned from some red-state libraries on the grounds that it “promoted critical race theory.” Since when does actual history become “theory?” These attempts to rewrite/erase our past are dangerous.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Agreed. One of the more interesting pieces of flak that came my way came from a reader of the first book “Coit Tower.” My investigator, a former police commissioner who was a devout Catholic, and it showed, offended the reader on the grounds that, you guessed it, the character was too Catholic and they are child molesters. One of the future books in my series will take place in Budapest as well as San Francisco and Rome. I’ll no doubt be criticized for favoring Victor Orban and Illibralism because I set some of the scenes in his capitol city. A pleasure to meet you.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I don’t think it’s a big deal to remove sexist or racist language in books if it doesn’t really alter the plot or the characterization anyway. Of course, there are certain things that should probably be preserved…like there are books in the golden age that characterize women the old fashioned way, etc., and to take out huge chunks of paragraphs depicting sweet little housewife or stereotypically old fashioned norms probably won’t be a good idea- it’s basically butchering the book.

    What annoys me is when they butcher the plot or characters so much in FILM adaptations to the point you hardly recognize them.

    Take Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile:

    (WARNING: massive plot spoilers below!)

    I didn’t have a problem with his Murder in the Orient Express version (other than a boring second half) but Death on The Nile annoyed me from the very beginning with their explanation of why Poirot had his mustache. Anyone who has read Christie knows that he is immensely proud of it; it’s a quirk he has that is part of his identity… but no, in here they had to come up with this shameful edge-lord reason why he had to have it as some way to disguise this trauma from his past, sheesh.

    Second…why on earth did they decide to pair him up with Salome Otterbourne?!!

    I get that representation for interracial pairings are important…and this was perfectly fine and fulfilled when it came to Bouc and Rosalie ( since it actually has some basis* the books- only that Bouc’s character was actually a composite for two original characters…which technically has been done before in adaptations anyway) but since they decided to change the outcome for Rosalie/Bouc (why on earth did they do that? They ended up happily ever after in the books…why didn’t they just stick to that?)… they decided they still had to force* Poirot and Salome together even if there is no connection between these characters, sheesh.

    Poirot has never been into any woman except for some countess called Rosakoff – and this happens way back in his past. He lives at present mostly as an asexual character. But they had to force him with Salome…why?

    I don’t doubt that Branagh loves Christie…because of that, I can’t help but feel that some studio exec higher ups are involved in all these poor decisions…and that these people don’t really care about the characters or Christie or anything like that. They have a lot of money to waste and they continue to butcher as many adaptations as they can get their hands on, unfortunately.

    Let’s not even get started on that tv adaptation of Body in the Library that does even worse…they actually change who the killer is! They did that because they wanted to change the original killer and make her part of an LGBT couple. And yes, I do get that LGBT representation is important- but there were other ways to include it (ex: I think Miss Hinch and Murgatroyd from A Murder is Announced could easily be interpreted as LGBT without changing the plot for instance) but no… they have to change who Christie’s killer is…and by doing that also affected the killer’s motive (in other words they butchered her plot) etc.

    If Christie is so talented and sells so much- why do they have to change her characters and plots so much? If she was some crummy author, I wouldn’t mind it so much but surely her success as an author should have prevented all this meddling.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think much of the impetus for the changes in this particular adaptation has to do with the way the role of the detective has changed in crime fiction over the decades. We are once he was a complete outsider, an eccentric genius, whose sole purpose was to solve the mystery, modern, literary, and film. Detectives must have a rich dramatic life of their own. if the Christie estate allows it, a director like Kenneth Branagh, who is also an actor, would jump at the chance to transform Poirot into such a detective hero, even as he bows to the will of the fans, by keeping the story in the period in which it was written. And I’m not saying any of this to defend or excuse the choices made here, merely to attempt an explanation for them. Sarah Phelps did the same thing with John Malkovich, although she gave her version of Poirot a different troubled past. I enjoyed Branagh’s whimsy more than Phelps’. Obviously, director-Branagh could have created a different, darker adaptation of Death on the Nile than the ‘78 version without messing with Poirot, but actor-Branagh would have had less fun!


  9. Here’s an irrelevant Fun Fact, which I’m throwing in here just to be a smart-aleck:
    Back in 1960 of thereabouts, a USA tv studio called Revue made a pilot film for a Hercule Poirot series, for airing on the old General Electric Theater (hosted by Ronald Reagan).
    I can’t recall that it ever actually aired (I never saw it, anyway), but if anyone knows where it can be found …
    Anyway, in this half-hour telefilm, Poirot was played by Martin Gabel, who (unless I’m mistaken) was Jewish.
    Well, the Poirot pilot didn’t sell (classic detectives were out that year), but it remains a Holy Grail of mine …
    Just thought I’d mention it …

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know Martin Gabel well from numerous film appearances (Marnie, M) but mostly from his many appearances on What’s My Line with his wife Arlene Francis. I think it was on that show that I heard mention of his playing Poirot. I wish it was available!


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