An Unusual Assignment for Me–and Maybe You Can Help

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Some of you know me as the contributing editor for The Chalcedon Foundation’s print magazine, Faith for All of Life. For a coming issue of the magazine, I have taken on the task of reviewing, of all things, an Agatha Christie mystery novel–Curtain, Hercule Poirot’s last case.

Christie wrote the novel during World War II and then locked it away in a bank vault, waiting until 1975 to have it published–an unusual procedure which, to my mind, has not been fully explained. Why wait 30 years to publish it?

My review will focus on a single scene in the novel: a dinner. All the characters are seated around the table, and the conversation turns to the topic of what ought to be done with–or to–people who are no longer “valuable to society”–the old, the sick, the retarded, etc. Remember that this was being written during World War II, with Britain fighting for its very life against the Third Reich.

At the table, the more forceful characters declare that people who “don’t matter anymore” ought to be disposed of, somehow. And everyone else just sort of meekly nods and mumbles “of course you’re right,” etc.

When I read that, my hair stood on end. “Whoa! Uh, folks, you’re, like, fighting for survival against the Nazis, and the Nazis, well–they stand for the very ideas that you’re bandying about and tepidly agreeing with! Why are you fighting Hitler and Himmler, and at the same time talking like them?” I was astonished.

Although the novel was written during the war–and we are told that Christie feared she might be killed in a German bombing raid or V-2 strike, which is why she stowed the book in a bank vault, just in case–its setting in time is left quite vague. There’s nothing in it to show in what year, or era, the fictional events occurred.

Why this conversation at the dinner table? Christie often drew her fictional characters from life. It seems more than likely that she had heard such conversations among people she knew, either during the war or just before it. She was writing about certain ideas that certain people, who were not Nazis, actually had. One is left wondering: can it be said that Britain really won the war, if key elements of Nazi ideology were left festering in British culture? What was happening to Britain’s Christianity?

I also wonder what other Curtain readers think of this. Tell me if you like. I’d love to know.


9 comments on “An Unusual Assignment for Me–and Maybe You Can Help

  1. I’ve not read the book, but Christie’s inclusion of the scene strikes me as quite telling. It’s a key issue, because we have people that are unable to fend for themselves and it’s something we all deal with in one way or another.

    It comes down to one question; do we consider life to be sacred? Sadly, many in our day do not. In Nazi Germany, the devotion of far too many people was successfully diverted to the state and any Higher Power was out of the picture.

    I don’t think that the situation is much better in the US, right now. The taking of fetal lives is framed as a civil rights issue, not an issue of the moral aspects of the matter. The elderly are treated poorly in many cases and not welcomed by their own families. This is ugly stuff.

  2. Maybe Agatha was influenced by people like Winston Churchill who were big in the Eugenics movement of their day (even though Churchill was mostly concerned about stopping the births of feeble-minded people). It was Francis Crick who advocated that people be arbitrarily euthanized when they turned 80. (P.S. Crick lived to be 88).

    1. We could go back a step further to the Enlightenment era and guys like Rousseau and Voltaire who preached atheism and relativism that paved the way for guys like Darwin and Nietzsche that paved that way for evolution, Marxism, eugenics, etc. Ideas do have consequences.

  3. I haven’t read the novel, but it should be remembered that the Eugenics Movement began in the UK and spread to other Western countries in the early 20th century. It was quite popular at the time and they all had their own eugenic policies, including here in America. It’s said the Nazis even took some cues from California’s Eugenics programs. Go figure. It’s really a dark chapter of history that you really don’t really hear much about, except for the Nazis part in it. It would make sense then that this was probably the talk of the town at the time, and eugenics didn’t have the stigmatism that it has today, well for most people at least.

  4. To me, the basis of the book, and the reason, in my opinion, that Christie included the dinner party scene, is shown by the book that Poirot carries with him- Othello. Iago is a master manipulator, as is Poirot’s Nemesis Norton, who spends then entire visit of Poirot to Styles manipulating people to commit suicide. Poirot, old, weak, possibly feeling the passing of time and his eminent death, is pushed to his limits to save his friend Hastings from Norton. He has to resort to drugging Hastings to do it. The eugenics discussion is meant to psychologically terrorize Poirot, who then, actually does commit suicide. But not before he stops this mentally ill serial killer. Not murder, but a battle of wills. And in the end, in my opinion, Poirot, ancient, ill, but still mentally strong, defeats Norton. What it costs him, however, is what he truly believes in most: that only God may take a life, and he has failed, by being unable to catch Norton before he, Poirot, will die of old age. He takes a short cut. And for me, that is the true question. Even in that situation, of saving those he loves and cares for, does he have a right to play God? PS Just like Sherlock Holmes in the Reichenbach Falls, Christie, as she has said in interviews, was simply fed up with Poirot, and wished to kill him off. Her publisher, hoping she would at some point be more able to face new cases, asked her to allow him to lock it in a safe for a while. She then decided it would be published only after her death, then changed her mind and allowed the publication a few months before her demise. Thank you for this interesting discussion.

  5. I didn’t want to be a spoiler, but since has given away the ending (sort of), I may as well go ahead. The reason Christie had the novel locked away was that (a) it was the end of Poirot, and in those days people didn’t do prequels, so there could be no more Poirot novels after it; and (b) in the manner of “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” the murderer turns out to be Poirot himself. Obviously, there can’t even be any prequels here, without changing the whole nature of the series. However, I have to disagree with’s defense of Poirot (and, by implication, Christie). Christie does seem to accept Poirot’s action much in the manner of those people at the dinner, i.e., murder as an acceptable means of weeding out those seen (by the murderer, at least) as dangers to society.

    Christie was a strange sort of person. She was much taken with the occult, especially spiritualism, and her temporary disappearance at one point is still controversial: publicity stunt? experimentation with a cult? therapy that she didn’t want to acknowledge? or what? Her interviews were not to be trusted, because they were so full of contradictions. She was also quite anti-Semitic.

    Anyway, I read “Curtain” many years ago — I was repelled by it even then, by the way — and I gave most of my Christies away when I moved and downsized, so I can’t comment much more about the dinner scene at this point. I’d have to go back and read the book again in order to fit the dinner scene into the context of everything else. And frankly, I’d rather not read it again.

    1. As for Christie’s anti-Semitism: well, that was very fashionable, back then. You’ll find it in many works by many popular authors of the era. And dabbling in the occult, that was a big fad, too, especially in the years between the world wars. Think Conan Doyle and Houdini. It would naturally figure in some of Christie’s stories.

      Meanwhile, I’ve traced back that dinner party conversation to Scrooge, who voices a similar opinion in “A Christmas Carol.” But of course Scrooge soon learns just how wrong he is, and we don’t see that kind of change of heart in “Curtain.”

      In the 19th century something nasty seeped into British culture and tainted British Christianity. That’s what I’m trying to pin down.

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