Can a Mystery Novel Tell Us What’s Gone Wrong with British Christianity?
David Suchet as Hercule Poirot in Curtain. He is in a wheelchair.
Most Americans identify themselves as Christians. Despite that, we have aborted tens of millions of babies, Evolution is taught in all our public schools, the Supreme Court has changed the definition of marriage, and Christian parades and town fairs are shut down if an atheist complains.
It’s even worse in Britain.
How can a nation full of Christians have anti-Christian public policies? Some of us are old enough to remember a time when “gender coaches” in a first-grade classroom would have been unthinkable.
We can learn much about ourselves by studying our popular culture—the content of movies and TV shows, popular music, and fiction. We consume vast quantities of this material, seldom pausing to wonder about what it is that we’re consuming. It’s a quiet, passive form of self-education, and it continues all throughout our lives.
Enter Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie wrote Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case while World War II was raging—then locked it away in a vault for thirty years, only releasing it for publication in 1975, just a year before she died. Curtain was published as the last of her dozens of novels, and was billed as “the last case” of her iconic super-sleuth, Hercule Poirot.
Christie, like most Londoners in 1944–1945, had a reasonable fear of not surviving the war. British flyers had beaten off the German bombers, but German rockets continued to rain down on the city, bringing death and destruction. It’s important to remember that this was happening every day while Curtain was being written.
This is not a book review of an engrossing mystery. It’s an analysis of certain details of Curtain that shed light on the state of British Christianity, not only at the time Christie wrote it, but up to the present day. There are clues embedded in the novel that may help us to understand what has happened to our Christian culture.
As Poirot investigates another murder, let us mount another investigation into another kind of crime—the murder, as it were, of our Christian worldview.
Setting the Stage
To set the stage of the novel, the narrator, Captain Hastings, joins his old friend Poirot at a down-at-the-heels guest house in the country—ironically, the scene of the first murder that they solved together, many years before (in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie’s first published book). Poirot is slowly dying; but he is there to unmask a serial murderer and prevent him from killing again.
We are interested in bits of dialogue, scattered throughout the story, that will reveal the cultural context and the mindset that make the murders possible. They don’t just happen. They are a small part of something much bigger.
There is also an ITV production of Curtain, starring David Suchet as Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Hastings, whose screenplay conforms closely to the novel. The screenwriters collected some of the dialogue that interests us and put it together into a dinner scene. That scene isn’t in the book, but the dialogue is. By this device the screenwriters make the cultural context more plainly visible.
Agatha Christie was a Christian. She made Poirot a practicing Catholic and her other famous creation, Miss Marple, a Church of England member whose first action, every day, was to read her devotionals. Like J.R.R. Tolkien, Christie chose to let Christian faith and morality quietly infuse her overall body of work, rather than venture into sermons to her readers. An article on the Catholic website First Things ably discusses this.
Meanwhile, let us do as the ITV screenwriters and assemble all the pertinent dialogue in one place. You will easily see its significance. I’ll identify the characters who are speaking.
Some Disquieting Remarks
Here’s a conversation in Chapter 11, which left Captain Hastings “vaguely disquieted.” It involves his daughter, Judith, Sir William Boyd Carrington, and a man named Norton. Their subject is euthanasia.
Norton and Hastings think the decision to terminate life should only be made by the patient who is suffering. The others disagree. None of the four mentions leaving that decision up to God.
Judith: “It shouldn’t have been left to him [the patient] to decide … It’s the duty of someone who loves them to take the decision … Someone whose mind is clear and who will take the responsibility … They’ll take responsibility where a dog is concerned—why not with a human being?”
Judith again: “I don’t hold life as sacred as all you people do. Unfit lives, useless lives—they should be got out of the way … Only people who can make a decent contribution to the community ought to be allowed to live. The others ought to be put painlessly away.”
Boyd Carrington: “Only the worthwhile should survive.”
The conversation leaves Hastings feeling “rather dismayed.” But notice he can’t bring himself to voice any strong objection to it.
Here are some more snippets. Again, we see nothing like a spirited argument.
Judith (p. 34): “Old people, sick people, they shouldn’t have the power to hold up the lives of the young and strong. To keep them tied down, fretting, wasting their power and energy that could be used—that’s needed. It’s just selfishness … But you do agree with me, don’t you, about useful lives being sacrificed for useless ones?”
Dr. Franklin, physician and researcher (p. 55): “After all, what is guilt or innocence?... What is evil? What is good? Ideas on them vary from century to century.” And (p. 56), “It’s an idea of mine, you know, that about 80 percent of the human race ought to be eliminated. We’d get on much better without them.”
Mrs. Franklin (p. 104): “I sometimes think ill health is really a crime. If one isn’t healthy and insensitive one isn’t fit for this world and one should be put quietly away.”
Nurse Craven, on Mrs. Franklin’s apparent suicide (pp. 151–152): “[S]he wanted to end it all … [She felt] that her life was useless and that she was a millstone around her husband’s neck.”
Dr. Franklin (p. 165) remarks that his wife’s death has “turned out amazingly lucky for me.”
Talking Like Nazis
While these lines were being written, Britain was engaged in a life-and-death struggle with a Nazi regime that vigorously and ruthlessly promoted these same sentiments—and put them into practice, via forced sterilization programs and death camps for “unfit” and “inferior races.”
Why are Christie’s characters saying things that are making them sound like Nazis? A novelist, of course, can make her characters say anything she pleases; but if she wants the reader to believe in her fictional people, if only for the moment, then what the characters say and do must ring true. They can’t just spout a lot of off-the-wall remarks whose like the reader never heard before.
So we can be certain that the characters in Curtain say those things because both the author and her audience have heard real people say them, and probably more than once. Otherwise the novel just can’t be convincing.
Compare this to another novel written a hundred years earlier, by another extremely popular writer: A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, published in 1843.
In Stave One, two men visit Ebenezer Scrooge to ask for a donation to provide food for the poor. Scrooge counters by asking “Are there no prisons? … And the Union Workhouses? Are they still in operation?” Upon being assured that these institutions are intact, Scrooge declares, “[T]hose who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there,” the volunteer replies, “and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” says Scrooge, “they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.” One envisions Judith Hastings and Dr. Franklin nodding their heads in agreement. The men seeking alms depart, seeing it would be futile to argue with such a hard-hearted man as Scrooge.
But later on Scrooge gets his answer, from the Spirit of Christmas Present. By now Scrooge has been reminded of some important things in life which he’s forgotten. He is moved to pity for Bob Cratchit’s sickly little boy, Tiny Tim, and entreats the Spirit for him: “Say he will be spared.”
“If these shadows remain unaltered,” the Spirit answers, Tiny Tim will die. But, “If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the population”—Scrooge’s own words thrown back at him: so hard, they hurt.
And Dickens tells us, “Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.” Above all things, A Christmas Carol is about repentance and spiritual regeneration.
In Curtain there is no Spirit to rebuke those who make heartless comments, and but little hope that they would listen, if there was one. We see no change of heart. Those who are not in sympathy with such remarks don’t stand up for decency in any effective way.
What a difference a hundred years makes.
What happened during the interval between A Christmas Carol and Curtain?
In the words of Marley’s ghost, “Much!”
Marley, Scrooge’s old business partner, forged in life the ponderous chain he was doomed to wear forever in the afterlife—forged it link by link with acts of meanness and corruption. Western culture followed his example, not Scrooge’s.
Whole books could and have been written on this topic. Here we have space only for some of the low-lights.
Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species came out in 1859. It was an instant best seller and followed by a host of imitators.
Karl Marx, living in England at the time, invented communism, which to this day has driven tens of millions of people to untimely deaths.
On the continent, Hegel wrote of the Prussian state as God walking upon the earth. Nietzche proclaimed that God was dead, and sought to replace Him with the “super-man,” who would be above petty considerations of morality.
Under all that nineteenth century ferment was the dark humanist legacy of the eighteenth—the French Revolution, the Marquis de Sade, and Rousseau, who, for all practical purposes, deified the state.
Overshadowed by these cultural calamities, but nevertheless key to our understanding of how sentiments once voiced by Scrooge wound up in the mainstream of British thought, is a phenomenon called Social Darwinism. That label was hardly ever used by its proponents, but it is convenient for us.
As Darwin’s work was swiftly popularized, “the survival of the fittest” became the catch phrase used to sum it up. Darwin’s followers began to apply it more and more to human life and society.
Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, founded a school of thought which came to be known as “eugenics.” Writing in 1865 through 1869, Galton argued that human beings’ mental qualities—intellect, talent, psychology—could be inherited just like physical qualities. Therefore, he taught, society and morals ought to be changed so that the “unfit” would not reproduce excessively and that “superior people” would reproduce more.
Thus humans might be bred like domestic animals, to bring out qualities useful and desirable to society: while the poor, the sickly, the insane, the feeble-minded, with their undesirable qualities, should be restricted from having many children.
In England and America, eugenics, hailed as “scientific” and enlightened, quickly became popular, especially among the well-educated who saw themselves as constituting the superior people who would build a better world. And be in charge of it. This was Science. Who but a fool would refuse to embrace it? Even today, The Humanist Manifesto II asserts that by “using technology wisely… we can direct our evolution”
The word “eugenics” fell into disrepute when the Third Reich put the theory into practice. It wasn’t just death camps and forced sterilization. Heinrich Himmler’s SS went so far as to set up breeding programs to produce more blond, Aryan supermen. No one, after that, wanted to be seen continuing programs enacted by the Nazis.
Between the world wars, Margaret Sanger founded the organization we now know as Planned Parenthood, with the goal of legalizing abortion and using it to restrict the multiplication of “the unfit.” In so doing, she and her successors expanded “the unfit” to include babies who were unwanted, inconvenient, or likely to be a drain on public or private resources. Since then, some 60 million babies have been aborted in America alone; and Congress, despite broad public disapproval, continues every year to endow Planned Parenthood with public money.
The characters in Curtain didn’t see that coming, but surely they would have approved.
The Churches’ Response
While all this change was being made in popular morality and opinion, how did the churches of the West respond to it?
R.J. Rushdoony, in The Mythology of Science, answers succinctly:
When the first edition of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published on November 24, 1859, all 1,250 copies sold out on the day of publication. The world was waiting for a theory with scientific prestige to render the Bible and God obsolete, and men immediately jumped on the bandwagon of Darwinism …
A great many churchmen climbed on that bandwagon then, and many more have done it since. The appeal is very great. Why not compromise? Why not be ‘scientific,’ or scientifically respectable? Since the Genesis account of creation is such a liability, why not concentrate on other matters of faith and accommodate the Bible to evolution? Why risk being considered ignorant and backward?”
We need not go farther than that, although Rushdoony himself and several other writers have. The mere fact that these changes in public morality occurred, and are still with us today, testifies that whatever opposition the churches mounted to them was ineffective. Heedless of St. Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12:2—“And be not conformed to this world”—all too many churches did just that, and continue doing so to this day. Hence in our own time we have seen, in more than a few churches, performances of homosexual parodies of marriage, ordination of homosexual clergy and elders, “clergy for choice” defending abortion “rights,” feminist theology, and even goddess worship—just to name a few of many aberrations.
It all started with churchmen choosing to be conformed to “science.”
Poirot’s Parting Words
Agatha Christie, a child of the Victorian Era, homeschooled by loving parents, and still the most popular novelist the world has ever known, did not like the changes imposed on her world during her lifetime. She believed in the value and dignity of persons who might well have been classified as “unfit.”
Poirot made his first appearance as an aging Belgian refugee no longer eligible for active duty with the police. (She had no idea she was going to have to keep writing about him for another fifty years!) Miss Jane Marple was already elderly and not always in the best of health: which makes younger, fitter, more “modern” characters condescend to her and refuse to take her seriously. (Christie wrote about her for nearly forty years.) Both of them, by the standards held by most of the guests in Curtain, might have been leading candidates for euthanasia. Instead, they went on solving murders—most of them committed by persons convinced they had a greater right to live than their victims.
In Curtain, Poirot himself is the only character who expresses an awareness that he has a relationship with God and is accountable to Him. I must not give away the plot: but among Hercule Poirot’s last words are these.
“Goodbye, cher ami … I prefer to have myself in the hands of the bon Dieu. May his punishment, or his mercy, be swift!”
(Note: The edition of Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case I have used is the Harper Collins paperback of 2011.)
 Nick Baldock, “The Christian World of Agatha Christie,” FirstThings.com. August 4, 2009.
 R. J. Rushdoony, The Mythology of Science (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books,  2001), p. 61.
Topics: Culture , Media / Arts, Science