While Agatha Christie wrote her first Hercule Poirot book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916, it was published in 1920 (NY) and 1921 (UK). I imagine the gap was because the war years interfered with an earlier date. During the war, she worked as a nurse and in a hospital pharmacy, which features in the mystery.
She was 26 when she wrote it, 30 when the book was published. It’s a short novel but one that re-set the detective story. The Times Literary Supplement said “The only fault this story has is that it is almost too ingenious.” The NYT Book Review said “you will be kept guessing at its solution and will most certainly never lay down this most entertaining book.”
Quite true, and I was reading along, thoroughly enjoying myself until Chapter 8. That was where the N-word appeared, in passing, while describing the young adults’ habit of amusing themselves by wearing costumes assembled from a dressing box, sometimes using cork on their skin (to darken it).
I tensed, I felt uncomfortable at this easy insertion of such a loaded word. Yes in Mark Twain’s work, I expect it, because of its time, mid 19th c, and its setting, the American south, and the characters who speak as they would have spoken then, and with the author’s awareness of the word and what it meant, of slavery and racism. (Though even expected, there isn’t any one good way to deal with it.)
Agatha Christie is the most successful author ever. Only sales of the bible surpass the 4 billion copies of her books sold. And all unawares, the n-word is tossed off, never expunged, never mentioned in anything I have ever read about her or this book.
So I was tense, too, when I came across her description of a “Polish Jew” who is somehow, at the same time German. I feared as evidence piled up, that he would turn out to be the villain (because he was Jewish). Just as much, I was afraid that I might find a casual antisemitic remark and then I would have to pause in my enjoyment of the book, just as I’d paused at the N-word to think about its presence, to feel a pang and a pain.
The last Hercule Poirot book was published in 1976, the manuscript having been written decades before. The most recently written one came out in 1972 when she was in her 80’s. By then the civil rights movement was afoot. Martin Luther King Jr. had been dead for 4 years.
So I wonder why Dame Agatha Christie never thought to revise that first book just a bit, or why her publishers never approached her about it while she was still alive, asking her to edit the book so that it wouldn’t have to cause any reader a personal jab of pain and unexpected consternation, or any reader’s parent.
I think that Hercule Poirot, with his understanding of human beings and his sympathy for human feeling, would have favoured that edit.