Agatha Christie, racism and elitism: Why is she the best-selling author of all time?

· Literature, Philosophy, Popular culture

Agatha Christie is the best-selling author in the world. There are many good things to say, obviously, about why she is so popular worldwide. She created characters that were memorable for the most part, even if sometimes they were stereotypical. She had a wonderful sense of humour, which was subtle. Her solutions to her murder mysteries were often absolutely brilliant. She wrote 7 masterpieces and 59 other detective novels, which range from still excellent to not as good (especially in her latest years writing).


However, there are a couple of interesting, if negative things, about her writing. One of her stereotypical characters was that of the servant, the one who was half witted, adenoidal, and took a low-class interest in the murders which happened in their vicinity. In real life, when Agatha Christie was a little girl, she had a cook whom she loved very much. Her family was upper middle class at that rich time in British history (in the 1890s) and had a number of servants. Christie, in her Autobiography (which I recommend at the end of this article as a must-read, along with nine other of her classic works), reports that she dearly loved her cook and had a very good relationship with her, along with her nurse, etc.


However, in her books, she did not write about servants in a positive way. They were always, pretty much without exception, depicted as halfwits who seemed as though they could barely walk upright without assistance. It’s interesting to me to think that she in general held a negative attitude toward servants, but made exceptions when she knew someone from that class personally. A lot of people are like that, after all. We put people in categories, and then meet someone in person from that category and all of our assumptions falter.


Was Agatha Christie racist? Again, we can look to her real life for an explanation. Christie, as I wrote, was upper middle-class and British. England in the late 19th century was the richest nation in the world, largely due to its first-mover status as an industrial nation, and of course because of its imperial colonies, in Asia, etc. The British often had prejudices toward people from certain other countries. Jews, for example, were often discriminated against in Europe.


Christie was married twice, and her second husband was an archaelogist who worked in the Middle East. His name was Max Mallowan. As she travelled with her husband, she overcame her lack of education (she was home schooled a bit, but received no formal education) through experiencing different cultures. She spent a lot of time in Iraq, and especially Syria. Come, Tell Me How You Live is a delightful account of her time with her husband in that region and it is another book I highly recommend to catch a sense of her wonderful sense of humour. The more she travelled, the more she met people in the categories in which she used to sketch mere stereotypes. Experience, then, can complement a lack of education.


The more we experience other cultures, the less racist we will be. Christie, through her writings, both fiction and non-fiction, demonstrated many times that at heart she was a kind, compassionate human being. When she took the time to think about her prejudices, she realized how silly and offensive some of them were.


The fact that she was occasionally racist and elitist, before she knew better, should not hide the fact that she was mind-bendingly clever. Who else has her sense of humour, her narrative voice, her world view, her brilliance with puzzles, her reporting of social history, her intertextuality, knowledge of human nature, psychology, etc? No one. And that is why she is the best-selling author of all time!




Here are her best works, in order of superiority (although this is just my opinion, I think most people would agree with the list overall, even if they rank specifically their favourites a little differently):


The ABC Murders

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

And Then There Were None

Murder on the Orient Express

Crooked House

A Murder is Announced

Death on the Nile

Absent in the Spring (under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott)

Endless Night

An Autobiography



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  1. Lauren

    No one who ISN’T Black would write a story called “Ten Little Niggers” stereotyping Blacks is a racially harmonious person. She was quite racist. She wasn’t even subtle about it. Just because she got along with her servants doesn’t mean a damn thing. I’ve heard White Supremacists express their love of Oprah Winfrey because she’s a billionaire then turn around and refer to other Blacks as “Dindus” so not buying the “she was offensive not racist B.S.” Call a horse a horse. Miss Christie was a privileged bigot.

  2. Lauren

    There’s not such thing as “before she knew better” when referring to a grown woman. I’ve never been racist by CHOICE because I CHOOSE not to be EVERYDAY. She had no excuse for that. I could never imagine treating another human being this way. Apathetic people are just as much to blame for today’s bigotry as bigots are!!! NO EXCUSES for ANY of you. Get over yourselves. We all bleed red.

  3. Angelo Morelli

    I completely agree with Lauren’s comments and will take this one additional step…memorable characters, indeed! These are simply outdated stereotypical caricatures exposing her ethnic prejudices against French, German, and Italian…apparently anyone not British.

  4. Polly S

    I enjoyed this blog entry. Thank you.

    I strongly disagree with both these knee jerk and self righteous responses above. Ten Little N*****s is now a horrendous title even despite some of the community reclaiming the word for themselves and the sometimes alternate title Ten Little Indians now equally pejorative. However at the time of her writing she merely used an old rhyme which she frequently did in her writing (Sing a Song of Sixpence etc.) on which to hang her tale. The modern outlook to castigate previous generations as backward and beyond the pale does not seem to conceive that much of our own outlook which we consider ‘progressive’ and morally pure will be equally condemned in future.

    Christie might have been racist only insofar as her surrounding society was. But I would argue not even so far as that. Her ‘prejudice’ against foreigners or minorities extended so far as to make her main characters a Belgian and an old maid and that choice was quite deliberate. What ethnic prejudice could that possibly show? She made them the clever ones in her books. And she showed Poirot’s response to some English characters’ racist comments in different books and showed how that racism filtered through to him. Racist? Really?

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