The Censor Crack’d

When it comes to bowdlerizing Agatha Christie, it’s not hard to figure out whodunnit

Dame Agatha Christie, the most well-known and successful author of mystery novels in English, has fallen under the censor’s microscope.

HarperCollins, publisher of new editions of Christie’s work, has re-worked or removed passages from her novels and will continue to do so, editing language they deem objectionable to modern readers in subsequent future re-releases.

Dubbed the “Queen of Crime,” Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie was born in Torquay in 1890. She published her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1920. In the ensuing sixty years, she published 66 novels, 14 collections of short stories and wrote The Mousetrap, the world’s longest-running play, performed continuously (absent a brief break for Covid) in the West End since 1952. In 1971 she received the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to art and literature from Queen Elizabeth II. The Guinness Book of World Records credits her as the best-selling fiction author of all time, with over two billion books sold. She died in Oxfordshire in 1976.

Christie’s most successful creations are the eccentric Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and the resourceful Miss Marple. Her publisher has edited novels featuring both detectives to remove potentially offensive language, with a special focus on insults and references to ethnicity. The edits are already visible in digital editions of Christie’s works. They encompass the entire run of Poirot and Marple novels, and will carry forward into print editions.Agatha Christie

The edits remove references to ethnicity, with characters no longer described as Jewish, Black or Gypsy. They’ve excised the word ‘Oriental’, along with the N-word. Where applicable, they’ve replaced the word ‘natives’ with ‘locals.’ This is the first time anyone has substantially edited Christie’s work, although they did renamed her novel Ten Little Indians to And Then There Were None in 1977 for the obvious reasons. It was the second title change for the book. The first of the three was even worse.

Sensitivity readers, a relatively new job in publishing, made this edit. These professional censors on publisher payrolls vet both old and new works for potentially offensive language and descriptions. They are among the lowest-paid professionals in the publishing industry.

In addition to removing specific terms or language, the sensitivity readers have changed some descriptions in Christie’s novels. Mrs. Allerton’s descriptions of some children she encounters in Death on the Nile have been edited to remove references to distinguishing physical characteristics. Likewise, the description of a black hotel worker in the 1964 Miss Marple novel A Caribbean Mystery no longer mentions his ”lovely white teeth.”

As noted in an earlier article in these pages, editing works to keep them relevant to modern readers is neither new nor particularly “woke.” Indeed, some of the classics of early English literature would not have survived were it not for the untiring work of editors laboring to remove outdated or obscure language. But the edits to Christie are, like those to the works of Fleming and Roald Dahl, evidence of a new cultural activism in publishing that can, at times, border on the suspect.

I wonder, for example, how it serves readers’ sensitivities to remove the description “Nubian” (a historic nationality) in reference to some characters in Death on the Nile. Likewise, they’ve removed references to race and culture altogether at several points in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. How does creating a racially and nationally monochromatic world serve the cause of social justice?

 It is worth noting that they’ve made these edits spontaneously. No one has raised a great hue and cry about the novels of Agatha Christie. So why, given the questions in the paragraph above, make them at all? Caution is a fine reason and discretion definitely has a place in publishing. But maybe they’re taking this sensitivity exercise too far, whether out of moral enthusiasm or a desire to “make work” for the new kids in publishing. Time will tell. And the quality of the re-edited works will, upon publication, tell all.


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Jamie Mason

Jamie Mason is the author of The Book of Ashes, Certain Fury, and The North Atlantic Protocol. His most recent effort, THE BOOK OF JAMES, is a historical epic set in Viking-era Britain.

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