I was 11 years old when I first broke the spine of And Then There Were None. That was my introduction to Agatha Christie, and what an introduction it was. Arguably the Queen of Crime’s most famous work — although there is some stiff competition — it hooked me. I devoured it in hours.
I was delighted to discover that Christie was such a prolific writer. Over the course of her career, she penned 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, along with the play, The Mousetrap.
And over the course of sixth grade, I consumed the near entirety of Christie’s works. I got to know the renowned Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, along with the less famous Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. I read both the most famous works — including Murder on the Orient Express and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd — along with the less well-known ones, such as At Bertram’s Hotel, Crooked House, The Murder on Links, and The Secret Adversary. I even read her romances in early high school, which were originally released under the name Mary Westmacott.
In the early pandemic, I borrowed Sophie Hannah’s The Mystery of Three Quarters from the Brooklyn Public Library. It was the third novel Hannah, a popular mystery author in her own right, had written featuring Christie’s Poirot, and I came across some themes that troubled me, including an instance of abortion shaming.
I understood that these were the views of the characters, to be sure, and not necessarily the author herself. I also recognized that Christie had written her original works at a very different time in history, of course, and while hindsight is 20/20, I did wonder if similar themes were present in the novels authored by Christie herself
I’ll admit I was partly looking for something to entertain me while I was cooped up and lonely. But I was also curious about how the experience of reading Christie would be as an adult. And when I reread some of my favorite novels from the collection, I found even more concerning content.
I had read biographies of Christie and knew of the not-so-subtle racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism in her novels. I knew that And Then There Were None was initially published under a racist title containing the N-word in Britain and had a separate, also racist title in the American Pocket Books edition for more than 20 years. But seeing this content firsthand as a more mature reader was a different experience — a jarring one.
How could it be, I wondered, that one of my favorite authors of all time was a bigot?
Recently, I learned that other readers have had the same reaction. In 2023, HarperCollins, which holds the rights to Christie’s works, decided to give the books an overhaul, removing instances of antisemitism, racism, and xenophobia from the novels. Sensitivity readers flagged discriminatory terminology, language, and descriptions of characters, which the publisher is removing from new editions.
In Death on the Nile, for example, the character of Mrs. Allerton says of a group of children, “They come back and stare, and stare, and their eyes are simply disgusting, and so are their noses, and I don’t believe I really like children.” The Guardian reported that this passage has been changed to, “They come back and stare, and stare. And I don’t believe I really like children.”
The concept of removing offensive and discriminatory content was not entirely new. Shortly after World War II, Christie’s U.S. publisher, with the permission of the author, removed antisemitic terms and references from her previous novels.
In recent adaptations of Christie’s works, such as the latest film based on Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, there are major characters of color — ones who are not depicted as so in Christie’s original novels. The films even attempt to address racism in some respects, as evidenced by Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.) experiencing prejudice in Murder on the Orient Express. Meanwhile, Death on the Nile hints at a budding romance between Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) and Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo). The latter character is depicted as a Black blues musician in the film, despite being white in the book, and there is no hint of romance between the two in the novel.
Is this, like HarperCollins’ removal of Christie’s original language, an instance of failing to confront racism and simply dismissing it? Or is it helpful to make the work more palatable for audiences who could very well appreciate the work in its “scrubbed” form?
Christie is not the only author publishers are revisiting to remove offensive language and content these days. In early 2023, TIME reported that Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, was collaborating with the Roald Dahl Story Company (RDSC) and Inclusive Minds to assess Roald Dahl’s bestselling children’s books.
Inclusive Minds, an organization that supports children’s literature by helping them with DEI initiatives, said that their processes are meant to “provide book creators with valuable insight from people with the relevant lived experience that they can take into consideration in the wider process of writing and editing,” rather than attempt to rewrite or edit texts. Dahl, who died in 1990, reportedly had a long history of anti-Semitic comments. Additionally, his children’s novels contain racist and xenophobic language and content, as well as misogyny, some argue.
In particular, many point to the original casting of the Oompa Loompas as an African Pygmy tribe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as well as additional instances of racism, sexism, and xenophobia in James and the Giant Peach and The Witches, along with numerous other works written by Dahl.
Among the alterations to Dahl’s works, the terminology “old hags” has been replaced with “old crows” in The Witches, while a mention of Rudyard Kipling was replaced with Jane Austen in Matilda.
The move has come under criticism from many in the literary community. Salman Rushdie, for example, Tweeted, “Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.’’
Following the backlash, Puffin announced that it would re-release the texts with their original, unaltered language, along with the updated versions.
Similarly, ahead of the 70th anniversary of the publication of Casino Royale, the first of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, in April 2023, Ian Fleming Publications Ltd had sensitivity readers revisit the spy novel author’s texts.
As with Christie and Dahl’s books, the publisher shared that it would remove instances of the N-word, as well as additional offensive language. The books would also include a “disclaimer,” reading, “This book was written at a time when terms and attitudes which might be considered offensive by modern readers were commonplace. A number of updates have been made in this edition, while keeping as close as possible to the original text and the period in which it is set.”
In Live and Let Die, for example, Fleming describes James Bond’s visit to a Harlem nightclub. He refers to the audience as “panting and grunting like pigs at the trough.” This has been changed to, “Bond could sense the electric tension in the room.”
According to Ian Fleming Publications, these and other changes were authorized by the author himself. “Following Ian’s approach, we looked at the instances of several racial terms across the books and removed a number of individual words or else swapped them for terms that are more accepted today but in keeping with the period in which the books were written,” their statement reads.
These are hardly the only classic works to be reassessed through a modern lens. In 2011, Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn University, published an updated edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, supposedly to encourage instructors who would not include the book on their syllabi due to racist language to reconsider. Gribben replaced 219 instances of the N-word in his new edition.
All these authors leave a complicated legacy, to be sure. Returning to the subject of Christie, this is especially true when we consider that the so-called Queen of Crime herself was a pioneer of and synonymous with the term “cozy mystery,” a staple of British mystery novels in particular. And yet, when we consider the true messaging and impact these works leave, it is clear that they are anything but cozy. Are we really sitting around a fireplace, sipping hot tea, while cuddling up with a racist mystery?
“Judge the art, not the artist.” “She was a product of her times.” But dismissing her as simply unaware of what she was doing underestimates Christie’s own intelligence and skill.
I, for one, am reluctant to dismiss a considerable portion of my childhood reading and entertainment as a lie. But I am encouraged to take a more critical lens to the works of artists I admire, even if they have long been my icons. That is perhaps one lesson I can learn from reading and rereading Christie — that even the greats are flawed and human, and that’s not something we should simply deem irrelevant.•