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BBC’s ABC of murdering Agatha Christie


THE BBC’s new adaptation of the Agatha Christie classic The ABC Murders starring American actor John Malkovich, to be shown in three parts over the Christmas break, has been described as ‘drawing parallels between the rise of fascism in Thirties Britain and the state of the nation today’.

According to the Telegraph, dramatist Sarah Phelps ‘has added historical context’ to the original story with the opening scene signalling the rise of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. A poster on a wall warns ‘We must stem this alien tide’. Hercule Poirot is a target for xenophobia, ‘a theme touched upon in the book which Phelps has amplified’.

Phelps denies inventing these themes. She insists: ‘In the Thirties, things were much as they are now. The fascists started to gain real traction in a really shocking way that people perhaps don’t know about.’ She adds: ‘The language of it is exactly the language of Brexit and Trump. It’s all the same. Having been this celebrated Belgian detective, suddenly, being from another country is not a good thing to be. It taps into now. It’s genuinely chilling how similar it is.’

The fictional Poirot came to England during the Great War – long before the EU project was conceived – and most of the ‘xenophobia’ he experienced was being mistaken for a Frenchman. Neither is there now any mass unemployment for fascists to exploit. As well as their ridiculous habit of dressing in black and ‘heiling’ people, it was the brawling and violence with which they were associated that put most people off fascism.

In the wake of the Wall Street Crash, the Gold Standard disaster and the slump, the fascists may have articulated the economic concerns of the masses about unethical capitalism – much as the Labour Party does today – but only in order to win power. Oswald Mosley, who began his political life as a Labour MP, seems not to have been especially anti-Semitic but decided to embrace the rhetoric as a vote-winner; neither he nor Hitler were Zionists, as former London mayor Ken Livingstone has insisted.

Clearly there were not enough real anti-Semites to propel Mosley to power, and after the Battle of Cable Street, which my parents remembered as largely fought between Communists and Fascists, the Public Order Act was passed in 1936 as a response to the violence they provoked.

In the wake of the Russian Revolution, the rise of Communism and assorted conspiracy theories, the ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction of the 1920s and 1930s was thronged with Jews and foreigners of all descriptions, some of the themes persisting until the 1950s and 1960s. Like other detective writers, Christie exploited anti-Semitic attitudes to trail red herrings and construct conspiracy-type plots which she then demolished.  None of her Jewish characters turns out to be guilty, and she recalled meeting her ‘first Nazi’ in Iraq in the early 30s – the first ‘hint of what was to come later from Germany’. In those days, ‘for ordinary people . . . there was a complete lack of foreknowledge’. Significantly, the encounter prompted her to tone down her already moderate fiction.

The problem was that although Jews were seen as foreign, so was anti-Semitism. George Orwell thought the latter was ‘pretty widespread’ before the War, although he believed there was ‘no real Jewish “problem” in England’ because ‘the Jews are not numerous or powerful enough’. He noted that casual ‘social’ anti-Semitism declined with the war, but of course the most active fascists were interned for the duration, although there was a resurgence afterwards when they were released.

Agatha Christie was not Left-wing, but she felt sympathy for genuine refugees, which is why she made Hercule Poirot a Belgian: during the Great War, many felt sympathy for ‘poor little Belgium’ under the heel of the ‘Hun’. Whether she would have sympathised with the present-day trend of lumping in illegal immigrants with genuine asylum seekers and migrants who go through the right channels – rather than across the English Channel – is less clear. Needless to say, the ‘open borders’ favoured by the Left were also favoured by Hitler, and as to Brexit, she was a normal patriot at a time when patriotism was normal. Although she was sympathetic to Belgian refugees she may not have been sympathetic to being ruled by Brussels.

Conveniently for the Left, they can dump the issue of anti-Semitism on ‘the Right’ even though the most powerful and dangerous tide of anti-Semitism today comes from the anti-Israel Left, who dominate the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn and whose arguments provide their ‘friends’ the Islamists with political respectability.

Sarah Phelps has a track record of tampering with Agatha Christie; her version of And Then There Were None, featuring drug-taking, graphic violence and swearing – including the f-word – was shown at Christmas in 2015. Fortunately we had seen a touring company’s excellent stage version a couple of weeks before that, otherwise I would have been put off Agatha Christie for life, having not read the book.

Phelps maintains that the image of Christie as a writer of ‘cosy’ crime novels is false, adding: ‘She might not have written loads of sex and swearing and drug-taking, but I’m sure she would have if she could’, pointing out that she was a dispensing chemist, ‘who knew the difference to life and death that a grain of morphine can make’.

Murder is never ‘cosy’, but one thing that marks Agatha Christie out from present-day wannabees is that she always treated it seriously – not as a joke, nor a boring detail in a drama, nor as a tedious obstacle to getting over the ‘real’ message, which seems to be a political one. It says much about Ms Phelps and other dramatists favoured by the BBC that they see murder as something that needs ‘spicing up’. They seem oblivious to the fact that murder is much more common today than in the 1930s, and that most people watch detective dramas not to be titillated by sex, bad language and the personal angst of detectives, but for the satisfaction of watching a criminal tracked down and brought to justice. It is that sequel to murder, rather than murder itself, that is so rare today, and even though Poirot is a fantasy, nonetheless it is pleasant to dream that good can still conquer evil.

It was tediously predictable that the BBC should corral drama – even drama set in the 1930s – into their campaign to bash Brexit by smearing its supporters as racists and anti-Semites, but the real fascists are those who would stir up anxiety among ethnic minorities and immigrant communities, and animosity against those who are simply calling for the democratic verdict of the 2016 Referendum to be respected.

It is perhaps no coincidence that ever since the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s the Left, while paying lip-service to democracy, has seen it as deeply dangerous for its potential to bring about a different kind of outcome to the one they themselves desire – a communist revolution. The fact that they would rather see us all ‘safe’ from the imagined threat of fascism by placing us under the all-too-real heel of communism is ironic, but irony is no consolation in the face of such an enduring and dangerous delusion.

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Ann Farmer
Ann Farmer
Ann Farmer is the author of By Their Fruits: Eugenics, Population Control, and the Abortion Movement (Catholic University of America, 2008).

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