“The Story Seems of an Almost Unbelievable Romanticism”:
Agatha Christie’s Parodic Emptying of Wilkie Collins’s Foreign Conspiracies
University of Virginia
[Hercule Poirot] had finished his magnum opus, an analysis of great writers of detective fiction. He had dared to speak scathingly of Edgar Allan Poe, he had complained of the lack of method or order in the romantic outpourings of Wilkie Collins…and had in various other ways given honour where honour was due and sternly withheld it where he considered it was not. He had seen the volume through the press, had looked upon the result, and, apart from a really incredible number of printer’s errors, pronounced that it was good. (Christie, Third Girl 1)
In this metafictional and parodic opening scene from Third Girl (1966), Agatha Christie’s famous sleuth, Hercule Poirot, publishes the literary analysis of detective fiction that he had started writing during his previous case, The Clocks (1963). Poirot critiques two pioneers of detective fiction: Edgar Allan Poe, the creator of the first imaginary detective, C. Auguste Dupin, and Wilkie Collins, the author of acclaimed sensation and mystery novels. Since Poirot emphasises using the “little grey cells,” human psychology, order and method to solve his cases, Christie’s detective attacks Collins for unleashing his fancy in “romantic outpourings” that hurt the logical consistency of his mysteries (Third Girl 1). While Christie omits Poirot’s specific criticisms, he could be referring to Collins’s portrayal of Count Fosco and the three Brahmins as the “villains” of The Woman in White (1859) and The Moonstone (1867), respectively. Collins’s representation of the Brahmins and Fosco as morally ambiguous unintentionally constructed racially stereotypical villains that became common in later Golden Age detective fiction. While they were released over forty years before Third Girl, Christie’s adaptions of Collins’s two most popular novels focus on reworking his “romantic” foreign conspiracies into empty threats. This article will address Christie’s adaptations of The Moonstone (“The Adventure of ‘The Western Star’”) and The Woman in White (“The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman”), which were published in the short story collection Poirot Investigates (1924).
Critics recognise that Christie critically and self-consciously engages with Victorian male predecessors, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. However, they have not acknowledged that she contributed to neo-Victorianism early in her career. As I will argue, Christie’s “Western Star” and “Italian Nobleman” are neo-Victorian works that qualify as historiographic metafictions. While Christie writes about Collins in a parodic way, she eschews the anti-Victorian mindset of many Modernists, who produced condescending satires of nineteenth-century writing (Sweet xv-xx). Even Matthew Beaumont, one of the only scholars to label Christie’s work “neo-Victorian,” unfavorably compares her Murder on the Orient Express (1934) to Max Ernest’s Une Semaine de Bonté (1934). While Christie’s novel is neo-Victorian “in the sense that it rehabilitates the social values of the nineteenth century,” Ernest’s work “reappropriates Victorian aesthetics—albeit so as to devour them and surpass them” (24). Despite Beaumont’s concession that Christie’s writing is self-reflexive, he precludes her from responding to this era through parody in her neo-Victorian detective fiction.
In contrast, I believe that Christie does more than dismissively patronise or conservatively reinscribe Victorian ideals in her renditions of Collins’s novels; instead, her stories employ the double-edged parody found in Linda Hutcheon’s historiographic metafiction. While neo-Victorianism’s origins are typically, though not exclusively, located in the 1960s, Hutcheon claims that postmodernism is “less a period than a poetics or an ideology” (28). For marginalised writers, parodic intertextuality is a double-edged tool because it depends on reworking classics by white men while undermining them through humor. My argument builds on Hutcheon’s claim that
[i]ntertextual parody of canonical classics is one mode of reappropriating and reformulating—with significant changes—the dominant white, male, middle-class, European culture. It does not reject it, for it cannot. It signals its dependence by its use of the canon, but asserts its rebellion through ironic abuse of it. (12).
However, Christie’s historiographic metafictions proceed further than parodically imitating Collins’s foreign conspiracies, with the view of undercutting them, so that she can claim a place in the male canon of detective fiction. Instead, she parodies Collins in such a way that she evacuates his foreign conspiracies of all meaning by emptying them of reality for average readers of Golden Age fiction who fear the Other.
While Christie was self-assured enough to critique Collins openly in Third Girl, she initially took a subtler approach by parodying his depiction of foreign conspiracies through intertextuality in “Western Star” and “Italian Nobleman.” She condemns the xenophobia in his portrayal of both colonised subjects and Italians, given that he cast the Brahmins and Count Fosco as his novels’ “villains.” Christie’s stories rework Collins’s plots, crimes, and wrongdoers to update typical Victorian views of race, class, and gender in the context of Golden Age fiction. She modernises his antagonists so that they reflect the bigotry of the interwar era, turning the Brahmins into evil “Chinamen” and Count Fosco into an Italian blackmailer, Count Foscatini. Christie’s revisions allow her to manipulate the rules of fair play, which enable readers to solve the crimes along with Poirot, since she hints that racial Others may be the culprits. Her parodic appropriation of Collins’s antagonists draws on his portrayals of racial Others by making them red herrings, while subverting Collins by turning his villains into “romantic” narratives authored by the real culprits.
Christie’s double-edged parody allows her to challenge the respective generic conventions of The Moonstone (as a romance) and The Woman in White (as a sensation novel) for instituting racial stereotypes that would proliferate in later Golden Age fiction. To her, Collins’s fictional representations of foreign characters constitute a harmful part of both genres, rather than an effective critique of Victorian xenophobia and imperialism. The reveal in Christie’s works—that greedy Westerners commit the theft and murder in each story—shows how she deceives her readers by including racial stereotype that play on prejudices. The culprits perform ethnic stereotypes that Westerners commonly held about the Chinese and Italians and expose them as constructs sustained by the media, celebrity culture, and Golden Age works. The perpetrators’ creation of racially Other villains intended to fool the authorities and tap into bigotry shows how such attitudes are misguided. Christie emulates Collins by casting suspicion onto foreign conspirators only to later reveal that the culprits are really and/or include Western men, such as Godfrey Ablewhite and Percival Glyde. The major difference is that Collins confirms the reality of these foreign conspiracies and makes his racial Others morally ambiguous, whereas Christie uses objects, storytelling, and masquerade to demonstrate that the conspiracies are empty farces.
As the Other detective, Poirot is the only one with the insight to penetrate the racial conventions of the romantic and sensational narratives that the Western culprits construct. His disapproval of Collins’s romanticism explains why he disbelieves the antagonists of “Western Star” and “Italian Nobleman”: his lack of racial prejudices makes him a sophisticated reader of their false narratives. He sees through Rolf, Lady Yardly, and Graves’s adaption of Collins’s racialised plots by mistrusting their stories and proving them to be empty. Poirot’s antagonists use a variety of racial shorthand to convince other characters and the public that foreign conspiracies are responsible and to divert attention from themselves. As an outsider, Poirot looks beyond the shorthand meant to inspire fear of the Other. He also solves these mysteries as a better reader of these narratives due to his lack of preconceptions about other people, at least compared to the “average reader” exemplified by his sidekick, Captain Hastings. Poirot’s interest in human psychology attunes him to the mindsets and patterns of behavior that drive people, though his observations are often classed and gendered in regressive ways. While Christie portrays Poirot as racially unbiased in detecting crime, his psychological readings reflect problematic views on class and gender that were widespread during the early twentieth century.
The major issue with Poirot seeing through Christie’s parodic subversion of Collins’s racial narratives is that his crime solving remains predicated on reinscribing the oppressive gender and class roles of interwar England. Since Christie attributes these crimes to women and servants, her attack on her era’s values ends up being less overtly radical than Collins’s explicit condemnation of Victorian social inequalities. While the solutions to her mysteries implicate Westerners instead of racial Others, they still reinstate conservative gender and social roles for characters like Lady Yardly and Graves. Christie only implicitly objects to the social order that keeps both characters trapped in an unhappy marriage and working-class position, respectively. Her detective stories imply the unfairness of their situations: after all, they are smarter than the obtuse Englishmen they fool and can match wits with Poirot. Ultimately, however, Christie’s historiographic metafictions parody her English readers’ xenophobia at the same time that they reinforce the gender and class distinctions of her day.
In unfolding a reading of these two stories, my article will initially survey the changing scholarship on Christie’s use of stereotypical characterisations to subvert bigotry. Next, I will inspect her critique of the three Brahmins through her parodic rewriting of the plot of Collins’s The Moonstone into an Oriental romance that Rolf and Lady Yardly create to hide a diamond theft in “Western Star.” I will then explore Christie’s adaption of Count Fosco and the Italian conspiracy against him into a sensational narrative that Graves playacts to conceal his murder of his employer in “Italian Nobleman.” Finally, I will end with a brief discussion of Christie’s rejection of snobbery with violence in rewriting The Woman in White and its conspiracy plot without an Italian antagonist in Third Girl. I will particularly highlight moments in which the metafictional foreign conspiracies that the antagonists invent render these stereotypes void of meaning, such as Rolf’s yellowface performance and Graves’s mise-en-abyme of empty dishes.
In examining how Christie uses parody to critique the racial stereotypes that Collins popularised, I build on the scholarship of those who recognise her “flat” characterisation’s subversive nature, especially Colin Watson. During the early twentieth century, some critics viewed Christie’s stereotypical characters as a sign of low-quality writing, describing them as puppets, robots, and marionettes. For instance, hardboiled writer Raymond Chandler famously declares in “The Simple Art of Murder” (1944) that Golden Age authors are so concerned about “the artificial pattern required by the plot” that they present lifeless characters, contrived pacing, and unreal worlds (528). He finds that the characters “became puppets and cardboard lovers and papier-mâché villains and detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility” (Chandler 528). In his wake, many regarded Christie as a social conservative whose strength lay in devising puzzle plots. While later scholars concede that Chandler’s evaluation is correct, they read the artificiality, masquerading, and theatricality of her characters positively. In his classic study (1971), for instance, Colin Watson argues that Golden Age writers practice “snobbery with violence” in upholding the sexist, racist, and classist values of their day (1), positing Christie as an exception because she employs Golden Age conventions while developing a parodic narrative style that subtly mocks readers’ traditional beliefs.
I wish to expand on Watson’s thinking about the “average readers” of Christie’s early work who enjoyed “snobbery with violence” and apply it to Hastings because he is the audience surrogate serving to interpret the mystery from their perspective (1). Watson close reads Christie’s description of a foreigner and views it as exemplifying her “awareness of how widespread in the England of 1936 was xenophobia, her own disapproval of which she implied…But it would take someone with a little more subtlety than that of the average reader to notice that here was more than just another routine sneer at foreigners” (174-175). These average readers embraced stereotypes in Golden Age fiction that appealed to their snobbishness and missed Christie’s “self-parody” (Watson 174) of the absurd conventions that she used to attract them. Recently, critics like Susan Rowland, Merja Makinen, and J.C. Bernthal have elaborated on Watson’s stance and argued that Christie deploys artifice, masquerade, and theatricality to uncover the constructed nature of class, racial, and gender stereotypes. They also extend Christie’s range of parody to Victorian detective fiction by men such as Doyle and argue that she carved a place for herself in appropriating this tradition to make it more feminised. There is a need for humorous performativity in Christie’s stereotypical characterisation of foreigners, especially Poirot, since he looks foolish from Hastings’s perspective. The eccentric Belgian detective’s emphasis on cleanliness, gossip, and vanity render him a feminised Other who brings Hastings’s stupid English masculinity into question. My investigation of “Western Star” will further address why Hastings’s sidekick role is crucial for luring readers into the mystery and playing to their prejudices, since they relate to him as an Englishman.
Although these critics deftly investigate Christie’s double-edged usage of parodic stereotypes, I want to push the scholarly conversation further and purposefully label her reinventions of Collins historiographic metafictions. I respond specifically to the work of Alison Light, whose well-known chapter on Christie covers her early detective fiction from the 1920s and her intertextual adaption of Doyle. After introducing Poirot in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), Christie began to release short stories featuring his cases in The Sketch from 1923 onwards. As Light notes, Doyle is a clear influence on Poirot Investigates because Poirot works as a consulting detective in London and his stupid English sidekick, Hastings, like Sherlock Holmes’s Watson, narrates each story. She negatively characterises Christie’s reworking of Doyle in these stories and singles out “Western Star” (April 11, 1923) for criticism:
The Edwardian plots appear mechanical, like so many empty gestures—jewel thefts, inheritance dramas and country families jostling alongside film stars and flashy Americans drinking martinis in a kaleidoscopic collage. The short-story form itself has become ill-fitting, no longer at one with the positivistic faith in solutions which gave Holmes a moral as well as narratival force; it seems instead hackneyed and truncated. Many of the twists of the plots serve deliberately to expose the expectations of Edwardian readers and to reverse them: the wily Chinaman, who might so easily have been villainous, turns out to be an American actor; even the toffs are simply playing parts. The keynote in all these stories is that of the fake: not the fake as morally reprehensible but as a source of enjoyment in modern life. This is the world of farce, not melodrama. (Light 68)
While Light’s writing has informed my reading of the story, she sees these works as meaningless “farces” lacking social criticism, since she only notices Christie’s parody of Doyle. I add to Light’s analysis by interpreting the story’s parodic features as Christie’s subversive emulation of Collins, especially his depiction of foreign antagonists. The “farce” Light disapproves of enables the performativity that the villains use to act out these stereotypes and reveal their artificiality to credulous readers. Moreover, the mechanical, stagy, and “fake” characteristics of “Western Star” allow for Christie’s serious commentary on race, bigotry, and the media. Her focus on the upper classes and Hollywood actors also brings attention to the media’s key role in disseminating these romantic racial narratives.
Another aspect of “Western Star” and “Italian Nobleman” Light raises is how the compressed length of the short story lends itself to Christie’s parody of the stereotypes established through literary shorthands. I seek to reframe Light’s claim that the short story form is “ill-fitting,” “hackneyed,” and “truncated” for Christie’s purposes, which overlooks its appropriateness as a medium in a society that worships the “fake.” (68) Christie’s imitation of narrative conventions that average readers found entertaining indicates her critique of the superficial views common in her society, especially bigotry. She concentrates on rewriting Collins’s Othered antagonists using objects, storytelling, and masquerade to reveal that these narratives are “empty gestures” with no basis in reality. The short story form effectively highlights Christie’s objection to Collins’s racial stereotyping of his antagonists through the presence of shorthands. According to Watson, words like “foreign” provide a shorthand that quickly incites readers’ “nationalist snobbery” (52) and provokes their hostility against such antagonists. Within a brief story, these shorthands carry so much weight that they rapidly appeal to readers’ prejudices and make them suspect certain characters. In Christie’s stories, the objects, stories, and masquerades related to foreign antagonists serve as shorthands that often frighten readers and Hastings until both realise they are wrong. These shorthands include objects (diamonds, food, silk), storytelling (anonymous letters, magazine articles, eyewitness testimony), and masquerade (roleplaying, yellowface, and impersonation). Christie weaponises readers’ prejudices against them when she employs racial shorthands and later reveals they are hollow so that readers will unpack their implications. Instead of asking readers to enjoy the “fake,” the short story form makes them question if they should find prejudiced visions of foreigners in the media so alarming.
Christie’s choice to provoke readers’ suspicions through the addition of racial shorthands from Oriental romance hearkens back to Collins’s morally ambiguous representation of the three Brahmins and the way it makes them potential figures of fear. Her opposition to Collins’s portrayal of the Brahmins for being a racially insensitive convention of romance is ironic, given that scholars typically view their recovery of the Moonstone as a critique of British imperialism. In this reading, John Herncastle’s murder of the Diamond’s Hindu guardians and appropriation of it constitute acts of imperial exploitation. After Herncastle wills it to his niece, Rachel Verinder, the Brahmins attempt to restore this sacred gem to the Hindu moon god’s statue. The Verinders’ lawyer, Mr. Bruff, notes that a Brahmin who consults him “was the perfect model of a client. He might not have respected my life. But he did what none of my own countrymen had ever done, in all my experience of them—he respected my time” (Collins, Moonstone, 284).
Bruff’s observations suggest a morally ambiguous characterisation that can position the Brahmins as intelligent and devoted heroes or ruthless and cunning fanatics seeking to retrieve the Moonstone. In subtitling The Moonstone “A Romance,” Collins indicates its genre and associates it with the Diamond and other Orientalist trappings, which reduces his possible critique of imperialism to racial shorthands that later authors would use. The word “romance” and its variants are often applied to the novel’s exotic elements; for instance, Bruff justifies meeting the Brahmin on account of his “intimate connexion with the romance of the Indian Diamond” (Collins 281). Ian Duncan and Krishna Manivalli complicate postcolonial readings of The Moonstone by characterising imperial India and the Brahmins as sources of romance in a novel that imagines the East is a site of colonial horror (305; 77-78). In Collins’s novel, the generic conventions of Oriental romance arguably create an insidious and stereotypical portrait of India that caters to Victorian readers’ anxieties about the natives after the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
The opening of “Western Star” sets the stage for interpreting these Oriental shorthands in different ways: Hastings is the “average reader” who views the mystery like a typical consumer of Golden Age fiction, while Poirot is the sophisticated reader who looks beyond xenophobia to see reality. Early on, Christie reveals that the underlying basis for this thinking is objects, storytelling, and masquerade manipulated by celebrities like Rolf and Lady Yardly through comparing the perceptions of Englishman and Other. When Hastings notices a well-dressed woman nearby, he asks, “What drama is this being played? Is the girl a crook, and are the shadowers detectives preparing to arrest her? Or are they the scoundrels, and are they plotting to attack an innocent victim?” (Christie, “Western Star”, 1). Despite only glimpsing the actress Mary Marvell once before, Poirot identifies her correctly; in contrast, Hastings remains bewildered, even though he has watched many of her films. Hastings’s questions indicate his absurd deductions about Mary as the average reader who approaches the case in terms of the Golden Age roles of “crook,” “detectives,” and “innocent victim.” However, he also inadvertently underlines the double-edged nature of the theatrical means the culprits use to generate confusion about the identity of the “crook” in this story. While Poirot often rebukes Hastings’s fancifulness, his remark that “[a]s usual, your facts are tinged with your incurable romanticism” (Christie, “Western Star”, 1) holds special resonance here, given his critique of Collins’s “romantic outpourings” for distracting from rational investigation. Hastings embraces the racial shorthands that the criminals produce, since he believes them as a dense Englishman, whereas Poirot remains skeptical due to his foreignness.
Christie not only reworks the greedy character who steals the Moonstone to finance his secret lifestyle, Rachel’s cousin, Godfrey Ablewhite, into the American actor Gregory Rolf, but she also makes him the author of this Oriental narrative so she can critique the link between romance and celebrity culture. The Verinders’ steward, Gabriel Betteredge, calls Godfrey “the most accomplished philanthropist (on a small independence) that England ever produced. As a speaker at charitable meetings the like of him for drawing your tears and your money was not easy to find. He was quite a public character” (Collins, Moonstone, 67). In Collins’s novel, Godfrey preaches evangelical self-denial so that female fans such as Miss Clack will finance their “Christian Hero,” who conceals his religious hypocrisy behind a false public image. Christie develops the acting talents, eloquence, and good looks that Godfrey employs to build his celebrity status and changes him into the modern equivalent: a famous performer. Similar to Miss Clack, Hastings calls Rolf a “hero fit for romance” (Christie, “Western Star”, 7) who devises the Chinese conspiracy that everyone except Poirot takes seriously, including Mary. As the author of this plot, Rolf spins his narrative about purchasing the Western Star from a shifty “Chink” in San Francisco’s Chinatown and also literally writes this romance in penning Mary cryptic letters in which the writer promises to take it by the next full moon. Poirot’s humorous comment that “[t]he story seems of an almost unbelievable romanticism” expresses his suspicion of the Oriental fantasy Rolf has invented (Christie, “Western Star”, 4). His earlier reproach of Hastings’s romanticism is one of the earliest hints at the constructed nature of the racial stereotypes that Rolf embeds in the media stories he spreads.
Despite the similarities between Collins and Christie’s antagonists, there is a stark contrast between Godfrey’s lack of control over the newspaper coverage of the Moonstone’s theft and Rolf’s usage of the media to circulate his moonstone plot. In The Moonstone, Rachel’s love interest, Franklin Blake, insists “[n]othing in this world […] is probable unless it appeals to our own trumpery experience; and we only believe in a romance when we see it in a newspaper” (Collins, Moonstone, 49). Rachel and her mother become upset once the Diamond’s theft goes public and tarnishes the family’s reputation. After the Brahmins kidnap Godfrey to search him, he tells Rachel, “‘I have become the property of the newspapers, until the gentle reader gets sick of the subject. I am very sick indeed of it myself. May the gentle reader soon be like me!’” (Collins, Moonstone, 212). Just as Blake expects, the newspapers validate the romantic plot in publicising the Hindu conspiracy to reclaim the Moonstone and Godfrey’s suspected part in its theft. Godfrey’s anxiety that the newspapers treat him like their ‘property’ because they have correctly guessed that he took the Moonstone signals Collins’s greater faith in the accuracy of newspapers, compared to Christie. Although he basks in public attention, Godfrey is distressed that he cannot control his public image anymore now that the newspapers report on him as a celebrity.
Unlike Godfrey, Rolf’s celebrity status makes him savvy enough to manipulate publicity and use racial stereotypes that commonly appear in the media to confirm his version of Collins’s moonstone plot. In her early short stories, Christie expands on Collins’s depiction of media culture to demonstrate how both the detective and the perpetrator use their celebrity to their advantage in solving or committing a crime. Poirot deduces that Mary wants to seek “a fashionable detective. Oui, my friend, it is true–I am become the mode, the dernier cri!” (Christie, “Western Star”, 2). Mary and Lady Yardly seek Poirot on the advice of Lord Cronshaw from “The Affair at the Victory Ball” (March 7, 1923) and Mary Cavendish from The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), respectively. The short stories featuring Poirot’s initial cases are ideal for advancing his career as a consulting detective working with upper-class clients because they establish his reputation in a shorter timespan compared to the slower release schedule of Christie’s detective novels. The publishing context may also explain Poirot’s mingling with high society, since Christie wrote these stories for a magazine aimed at aristocrats, The Sketch. In a metafictional moment, Rolf uses a similar publication–Society Gossip–to distribute an article about the Chinese conspiracy and Poirot and Hastings read its “romantic story.” The article claims that Mary’s Western Star and Lady Yardly’s Eastern Star were pilfered from a Chinese god’s eyes, and, when these two diamonds reunite, they will be restored to the deity.
Christie parodies this “romantic story” when Poirot ridicules Mary for believing these racial shorthands out of fear, which, in turn, signals to readers that they should re-examine their assumptions about the Other. In contrast to Hastings, Poirot’s Othered position allows him to see through the stereotypes of Chinese people and taunt the Western characters for believing Rolf’s dubious story. Mary rejects his offer to keep the Western Star and decides to bring it on an upcoming visit to the Yardlys out of jealousy of the Eastern Star. After they read the excerpt from Society Gossip, Poirot mocks the implausibility of Rolf’s updated moonstone plot and its stereotypical portrayal of the Chinese: “Without doubt a romance of the first water…And you are not afraid, madame! You have no superstitious terrors? You do not fear to introduce these two Siamese twins to each other lest a Chinaman should appear and, hey presto! whisk them both back to China!” (Christie, “Western Star”, 6-7). Poirot calling the story “a romance of the first water” puns on the single diamond and its fine quality, since he suspects that the Western Star is authentic, while the Eastern Star is paste. Hence, his comparison of the two diamonds to “Siamese twins” that will be retrieved by a “Chinaman” constitutes a list of Oriental trappings in Rolf’s story. While Poirot doubts this tale, his comments are double-edged because he must still take Mary’s “fear” seriously and consider how it will affect her. He suspects that Rolf is using racial shorthands to provoke his wife’s “superstitious terror” and thus tries to warn her (and readers) about a clever swindler’s manipulation tactics (Christie, “Western Star”, 6).
Although Poirot subtly warns readers to distrust romantic narratives, they overlook his hints and side with Hastings; after all, the latter is English, and they are testing their intelligence against a foreigner. The detective story’s form inherently places readers in competition with the sleuth to solve the mystery, which is why they gravitate toward the sidekick who regards himself as Poirot’s rival. Makinen observes that Hastings’s first-person narration renders Poirot more comedic and emotional in Christie’s early novels, owing to his foreign status (39). After Lady Yardly arrives to consult Poirot, for instance, a jealous Hastings tries to compete with the absent detective by assuming that she has also been threatened with her diamond’s loss: “In Poirot’s presence I have frequently felt a difficulty–I do not appear at my best. And yet there is no doubt that I, too, possess the deductive sense in a marked degree” (Christie, “Western Star”, 8). Hastings could be voicing average readers’ frustration that Poirot continually outshines them as well as their desire to keep contending with him and show they have “deductive sense” too. However, Hastings’s acceptance of the moonstone plot causes him to bungle this encounter, since he gives Lady Yardly the material she needs to later play off racial stereotypes. He is so influenced by the glamour surrounding these celebrities that he views them in terms of newspapers, magazines, and gossip; thus, he mishandles the case (Evans, n. p). When Hastings gets the solution wrong, he complains to Poirot, “you’ve made a perfect fool of me! From beginning to end! No, it’s all very well to try to explain it all away afterwards” (Christie, “Western Star”, 22). His disappointment echoes readers’ own for failing to best the detective, and yet they keep trying to compete with him because they find the surrogate so relatable that they root for Hastings (and themselves) to be right next time.
Lady Yardly’s meeting with Hastings leads her to adopt parodic intertextuality in staging the drama in which she feigns being a victim of the moonstone plot, which is effective due to widespread bigotry among the English and her manipulation of objects with Oriental associations. Besides adapting Godfrey, Christie rewrites Rachel as Lady Yardly and develops a red herring from Collins’s novel to make her Rolf’s accomplice in the Eastern Star’s disappearance. The detective Sergeant Cuff suspects Rachel of staging the Diamond’s robbery so that she can use it to pay off debts, in partnership with her servant, a former thief, Rosanna Spearman, and explains, “‘It is well within my experience, that young ladies of rank and position do occasionally have private debts which they dare not acknowledge to their nearest relatives and friends’” (Christie, “Western Star”, 172). In “Western Star,” Christie integrates this theory into her narrative: Lady Yardly arranges for the Eastern Star’s robbery in order to conceal her transgression of flirting with Rolf three years ago. Rolf blackmailed her into relinquishing the diamond that he presents to Mary, and Lady Yardly now fears her husband will discover she replaced it with a fake jewel if he sells it. Thus, she acts like Rachel–the innocent victim of diamond theft–when Poirot and Hastings visit and she wears the fake on the neckline of her white dress during an evening party. Poirot assumes a directing role in hiring a phony America buyer pretending interest in the Eastern Star, while Lady Yardly takes her cue and stages the robbery. Again, she invokes readers’ fears by performing the role of the helpless victim and using empty signifiers such as “a piece of silk…torn from a Chinaman’s robe” (Christie, “Western Star”, 15) to indicate a Chinese thief.
During Christie’s era, Rolf and Lady Yardly’s so-called yellow peril plots were effective because average readers relied on the media for their knowledge about foreigners, which is why she aims her critique at the news and entertainment industries, including Golden Age fiction. In parodying the racial shorthands that Collins established with the moonstone narrative, Christie changes the robbers’ ethnicity from Indian to Chinese to reflect the bigotry of her time while still addressing Orientalism. Even T. S. Eliot, an admirer of The Moonstone who claims that the three Brahmins are “perfectly within the bounds of reason”, admits “the Indian business…has led to a great deal of bogus Indianism, fakirs and swamis, in crime fiction” (16, 15). The moonstone narrative was common in early twentieth-century fiction, with an Indian or Chinese character striving to retrieve an object holding religious, political, or financial significance stolen by the English (a symbol of colonial guilt) (Diamond 47). As previously discussed, Collins made his antagonists Brahmins to meet Victorian interest in them after the 1857 Rebellion and to provide commentary on imperialism in British India. During the early twentieth century, the growing Western fear of ‘yellow peril’ contributed to the rise in fictional cunning and vicious Chinese criminals, most notably Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu (1912). In his extensive survey of Golden Age authors’ portrayal of the Chinese, Colin Watson insists that Oriental stereotypes lacked application to the lives of real immigrants: “Before the second world war, the average middle-class man and woman in England had never seen a Chinaman” (117). He further explains that one reason these authors perpetuated stereotypes was ignorance, given that only a few hundred Chinese people inhabited England at the time Christie was writing. In 1928, by the time Ronald Knox codified the “Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction,” Oriental villains had become so pervasive that one rule insists “No Chinaman must figure in the story.” This rule has been read as an indirect jab at Rohmer by other Golden Age authors, who would often use evil Chinese people as red herrings, rather than actual villains (Frayling 277).
Besides criticising the Chinese stereotypes in Golden Age fiction, Christie makes an American actor the creator of the moonstone plot in order to criticise Hollywood for selling Orientalist stereotypes to Western audiences through yellowface performances. She takes the reality out of Collins’s romance in assigning the moonstone plot’s origins to an actor motivated by greed and steeped in Oriental cinema plots; as Poirot reveals to Hastings: “The warning letters, the Chinaman, the article in Society Gossip, all sprang from the ingenious brain of Mr Rolf!” (Christie, “Western Star”, 20). As a celebrated Hollywood actor, Rolf draws inspiration from stereotypical media images of the Chinese that were popular during the 1920s. After the newspapers announce the Eastern Star’s theft, Rolf completes the Chinese conspiracy by stealing the Western Star from his hotel safe. He plays a Chinese antagonist in yellowface wearing greasepaint on his eyes and calls attention to the theatricality of his disguise to flaunt and hide his identity as the thief:
“Well, don’t run me in as a crook this time, anyway. I’ve been getting threatening letters from a Chinaman, and the worst of it is I look rather like a Chink myself–it’s something about the eyes.” “I looked at him,” said the clerk who was telling us this, “and I saw at once what he meant. The eyes slanted up at the corners like an Oriental’s. I’d never noticed it before.” “Darn it all, man,” roared Gregory Rolf, leaning forward. “Do you notice it now?” The man looked up at him and started. “No, sir,” he said. “I can’t say that I do.” And indeed there was nothing even remotely Oriental about the frank brown eyes that looked into ours. (Christie, “Western Star”, 18)
In the height of parodic emulation, the English characters accept Rolf’s flimsy disguise due to the power inherent in cinematic shorthands of foreigners. Christie’s depiction of Rolf acting in yellowface is illustrative of the way it was practiced in Hollywood at the time to produce Westernised stereotypes of Chinese people. It is ironic that Rolf blames the plot on a Chinese gang because yellowface deprived Asian actors of roles; similarly, he acts as a Chinese person, instead of hiring one to steal the Eastern Star. Kent A. Ono and Vincent N. Pham explain that actors followed “yellowface logic,” which held that Westerners perform these roles better than Asians, given that they can project established stereotypes for popular audiences (59). Rolf uses the racial shorthand of slanted eyes to frighten the clerk so much that he suspects the actor might be Chinese, and everyone besides Poirot assumes this too based on movie shorthands. In inhabiting yellowface, Rolf points out the constructed nature of race, since he fulfills the Oriental “crook’s” role and calls attention to the artifice he produces using greasepaint. Bjorn Schmidt notes that “makeup publications [for actors] concentrated heavily on the ‘Oriental eye.’ In order to achieve the supposedly slanted appearance of the eyes, actors and makeup artist undertook great efforts” (Christie, “Western Star”, 69). The repetition of verbs focused on vision—“looked,” “saw,” and “noticed” —and the comparison of Chinese eyes with “frank brown ones” is the ultimate metafictional commentary on seeing past shorthands to the truth (Christie “Western Star”, 18). In this scene, the intense emphasis on who is looking at who forces readers to confront Rolf’s “frank brown eyes” and trust him, since these Western features are comfortingly familiar. In fact, Rolf’s transparent disguise reflects the fact that yellowface was often integral to actors’ star personas and audiences would be aware of their real identities under the makeup. The revelation that Rolf enacted this drama forces readers to look inwards and question the appearances of the racial shorthands that the antagonist utilises to manipulate them into seeing wrongly.
While both antagonists invent Oriental narratives to hide the Eastern Star’s theft, Poirot punishes only Rolf out of sympathy for Lady Yardly’s vulnerable position, a subtle critique of upper-class marriages that heavily disadvantage women. Christie’s ending is less radical than the premise of The Woman in White revolving around liberating Laura Fairlie from her mercenary husband, Sir Percival Glyde. Collins explicitly critiques women’s inferior position in Victorian marriages when Laura’s half-sister Marian protests, “Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace—they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship—they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel” (Collins, Woman, 183). Christie places more emphasis on the American actor posing a menace to the English family, which Poirot must save from going into debt and being divided through divorce by restoring the Eastern Star to Lord Yardly. As he explains, “Terrified by the threat of a divorce, and the prospect of being separated from her children, [Lady Yardly] agreed to all [Rolf] wished. She had no money of her own, and she was forced to permit him to substitute a paste replica for the real stone” (Christie, “Western Star”, 20). Poirot’s leniency toward Lady Yardly traps her in an unhappy marriage with a philandering husband, in which she lacks the resources or standing to keep custody of her children. He emphasises her maternal aspects in claiming that he spares her for being “Bonne mère, très femme!” (Christie, “Western Star”, 21); hence, his rescue of the English family reinforces women’s traditional position as wives and mothers. Hastings’s disagreement with Poirot’s version of femininity importantly suggests that he can be wrong and that readers should oppose women’s restricted gender roles.
The absence of Chinese villains in “Western Star” and Christie’s other early works also illustrates that yellow peril plots are empty because these antagonists turn out to be non-existent even when ostensibly present in novels like The Big Four (1927). In her day, there was a common misconception that London’s mundane Limehouse district concealed a glamorous world of villain’s lairs, Oriental commodities, and illicit sex. Soon after writing “Western Star,” Christie began serialising the short stories that she would turn into the thriller The Big Four, in which Poirot matches wits with a Fu Manchu-style Chinese mastermind named Li Chang Yen and his titular group of international supervillains. She adopts racial stereotypes in portraying Yen as an intelligent, ruthless, and power-hungry mandarin bent on world domination, but this description turns out to be parodic:
“I know personally every man who counts for anything in China to-day, and this I can tell you: the men who loom most largely in the public eye are men of little or no personality. They are marionettes who dance to the wires pulled by a master hand, and that hand is Li Chang Yen’s…Not that he comes out into the limelight—oh, not at all; he never moves from his palace in Peking” (Christie, The Big Four, 21).
As part of this passage’s larger metafictional commentary on empty Orientalist narratives, Yen employs racially stereotypical characters of “no personality,” controlled by someone who does not exist, given that he never appears in person. Christie notably uses a metaphor that echoes later complaints such as Chandler’s about her being a puppeteer who manipulates her characters like “marionettes” to describe her Oriental villain. Yen authors various plots that only Poirot can read in a world that remains unaware of this foreign conspiracy’s existence, which might initially seem to confirm average readers’ fears of yellow peril. As Hastings realises during Poirot’s showdown with The Big Four, “Never before had I felt so fully the reality and the presence of Li Chang Yen as I did now when confronting his empty seat. Far away in China, he yet controlled and directed this malign organisation” (Christie, The Big Four, 190). In Christie’s imitation of yellow peril rhetoric, Hastings’s claim that an “empty seat” validates Li Chang Yen’s “reality” is the height of a parodic paradox. The imaginary Chinamen that Rolf and Lady Yardly fabricate prove to be just like the mastermind’s empty chair that Christie envisions when she discloses there is nothing behind these Oriental fantasies. The “empty seat” is the ultimate shorthand that forces readers to see Oriental romance is a genre with no foundation besides Western hysteria.
At this point, I now turn to examine how Christie parodically adapts Count Fosco and the Italian conspiracy surrounding him in The Woman in White into the butler Graves’s sensational narrative in “Italian Nobleman.” While there are similar aspects to her critique of Collins’s foreign conspiracies and morally ambiguous culprits in both stories, her parodic imitation of Fosco in “Italian Nobleman” also differs from her reworking of the three Brahmins. For one thing, the “empty seat” associated with the Oriental antagonists in “Western Star” and The Big Four becomes the more homely “empty dishes.” While they evoke Fosco’s voracious appetite and the historical association between Italians and food service, the empty dishes also function as a mise-en-abyme suggesting the class disparities that motivate the antagonist in “Italian Nobleman.”
In Collins’s novel The Woman in White, Fosco’s moral slipperiness and manipulation of racial stereotypes of Italians established a template for foreign antagonists that later Golden Age writers would exploit. In “Italian Nobleman” (October 24, 1923), Christie challenges the stereotypes of Italians produced in The Woman in White, specifically the characters of Pesca and Fosco. As one of the antagonists, Fosco works with Percival Glyde to defraud Laura of her wealth by placing her in a madhouse under her half-sister’s identity. Margaret Oliphant, in her well-known attack on sensation novels, opines that Fosco “is more real, more genuine, more Italian even, in his fatness and size, in his love of pets and pastry, than the whole array of conventional Italian villains, elegant and subtle, whom we are accustomed to meet in literature” (250). Although she highlights his originality compared to other Victorian Italian villains, Oliphant argues that the danger of Collins’s sensation novel lies in making criminals like Fosco the heroes. Modern scholars writing on Fosco’s Italian background generally overlook Oliphant’s warning and insist that his cosmopolitanism renders him an attractive figure. In laying out their arguments, they often refer to his speech on ethical relativism and the flaws in English society that allow for crimes like his victimisation of Laura:
I am a citizen of the world, and I have met, in my time, with so many different sorts of virtue, that I am puzzled, in my old age, to say which is the right sort and which is the wrong. Here, in England, there is one virtue. And there, in China, there is another virtue. And John Englishman says my virtue is the genuine virtue. And John Chinaman says my virtue is the genuine virtue. And I say Yes to one, or No to the other, and am just as much bewildered about it in the case of John with the top-boots as I am in the case of John with the pigtail. (Collins, Woman, 237)
In a passage that strikingly resembles Christie’s critique of Orientalism in “Western Star,” Fosco’s global travels broaden his outlook beyond the Western stereotypes of the Chinese as vicious murderers that Marian discusses. While English characters like Marian regard their “virtue” as superior due to their insularity, Fosco’s cosmopolitanism makes him value all ethical systems in different countries equally. Since he sympathises with Chinese and English views on morality, he views both as valid and suggests that one cannot easily choose between them; however, his stance risks suggesting there are no firm moral principles in a world of cultural relativism. This slippery attitude leaves Fosco open to other cultural belief systems, even as it enables him to prey on Laura’s wealth by manipulating English marriage laws.
The Woman in White lends itself even more to Christie’s critique, considering that Fosco authors the sensational criminal narrative that propels the novel’s plot. Like Rolf, Lady Yardly, and Yen, Fosco mines the dual stereotypes of Italians as carefree or dangerous in fashioning the scheme to con Laura. Fosco appears more “real” than other Victorian Italian antagonists by not only recognising that the English stereotype his people in negative ways, but also confronting these misconceptions and embracing them for his gain: “We Italians are all wily and suspicious by nature, in the estimation of the good John Bull. Set me down, if you please, as being no better than the rest of my race. I am a wily Italian and a suspicious Italian” (Collins, Woman, 245). Fosco handles racial stereotypes parodically by referencing their constructed nature and acting these parts; he also plays both sides of typical Victorian views of Italians as happy-go-lucky or calculating to his advantage (Hsu 119). Just like the Brahmins, Fosco possesses a moral ambiguity that undercuts Collins’s critique of English self-righteousness and their shorthands for Italians, such as “wily” and “suspicious.” If anything, he delights in his ploy for being original and worthy of imitation, writing, “What a situation! I suggest it to the rising romance writers of England. I offer it, as totally new, to the worn-out dramatists of France” (Collins, Woman, 626). Despite his pride in his scheme’s creativity, Fosco’s categorisation of it as a “romance” that can inspire English writers is troubling. His criminality perpetuated stereotypes of Italians still widespread in later Golden Age fiction, and Christie incorporates parodic intertextuality in “Italian Nobleman” when Graves rewrites Fosco’s part in Collins’s Italian conspiracy.
In particular, Christie invokes the notorious Fosco by naming the victim Count Foscatini and making his English valet-butler, Graves, not only aware of shorthands for Italians, but also able to perform them, using his alibi, racial stereotypes, and dining arrangements. The story opens with Poirot conversing with Dr. Hawker when the physician’s housekeeper announces the dying Foscatini’s phone message. From the start, Graves arranges the murder to suggest an Italian conspiracy, since he calls to ensure a physician will certify his master’s death and tells the housekeeper “[t]hey’ve killed me” (Christie, “Italian”, 142). Hastings reports that Foscatini’s house at “Regent’s Court was a new block of flats, situated just off St. John’s Wood Road. They had only recently been built, and contained the latest service devices” (Christie, “Italian”, 143). Graves’s Italian conspiracy misdirects readers from the way Christie manipulates the setting, architecture, and service devices of the latest flats to set up the crime. The crime scene consisting of empty dishes offers crucial metafictional commentary on modern class issues involving domestic servants and on Graves’s narrative of Italian assassins. Instead of joining the search for the plural murderers Graves indicated, Poirot relies on his culinary knowledge and attention to detail to analyse the crime scene that the butler has devised:
I found him studying the center table with close attention. I joined him. It was a well-polished round mahogany table. A bowl of roses decorated the center, and white lace mats reposed on the gleaming surface. There was a dish of fruit, but the three dessert plates were untouched. There were three coffee-cups with remains of coffee in them–two black, one with milk. All three men had taken port, and the decanter, half-full, stood before the center plate. One of the men had smoked a cigar, the other two cigarettes. A tortoise shell-and-silver box, holding cigars and cigarettes, stood open upon the table. (Christie, “Italian”, 144-145)
Christie carefully describes the table’s contents to create a sense of verisimilitude as well as to offer readers clues, such as the empty dessert plates signaling Graves’s inability to finish desert after consuming several meals to mimic three Italians. He benefits from using the service lift to receive dinner and deliver dirty dishes to the kitchen without being seen or needing to do it in his capacity as a butler. Besides this social criticism, the presence of cups and plates in varying states of emptiness reinforces Christie’s point that the Italian conspiracy is devoid of reality, since they function as the mise-en-abyme of “Italian Nobleman.” Along with this point, I will return to Poirot’s interview with the kitchen staff, who inform him that the dishes they washed were all “empty” after use except for the leftover rice soufflé because the dessert plates went “untouched.” (Christie, “Italian”, 146) Hastings, who takes stereotypes of Italians for granted, suspects the conspirators poisoned Foscatini or drugged him and misses the implications of these dining arrangements.
Christie’s focus on Foscatini’s murder in her historiographic metafiction indicates that she considers the Italian conspiracy to be the sensational part of The Woman in White, which, in an instance of parody, the media again disseminates to the gullible public. Hastings explains that “the story [Graves] had to tell was a sensational one” in reference to the butler’s testimony about Foscatini’s death (Christie, “Italian”, 146). Graves claims that he overheard Foscatini asking two Italians for money before arranging to dine with them on the night of the murder and leaves it to be inferred that both killed his master. This scenario recalls the Italian conspiracy between Pesca, Fosco, and an unnamed assassin, who are all members of a secret society, the Brotherhood. Fosco grows terrified on glimpsing the hero Walter Hartright’s friend Pesca and recognising the latter as a Brotherhood operative. Walter uses Fosco’s fear of becoming a target of the Brotherhood’s revenge to blackmail him into admitting that he plotted to swindle Laura. After the assassin murders Fosco, the newspaper articles on mysterious homicides of foreigners prove to Walter “the deadly certainty with which the vengeance of foreign political societies can hunt down a traitor to the cause, hide himself where he may” (Collins, Woman, 595). In Collins’s day, readers would interpret the Brotherhood in light of real events, specifically the Risorgimento, and see them as supporting Italian unification, while Fosco spies for the French or Viennese government. Christie’s reversal of the premise of Collins’s Italian conspiracy in having an Englishman kill a foreigner suggests that England is unsafe for outsiders like Foscatini and Ascanio. After hearing the butler’s testimony, Inspector Japp concludes that his narrative is not only probable, but, also, “It’s a bad business, but straightforward enough. One of these Italian vendetta things, as likely as not” (Christie, “Italian”, 148). Graves’s playacting of racial shorthands is so effective the police accept his sensational fiction of an Italian conspiracy and overlook that the story rests on one person’s evidence. In a parodic move, the humorously named The Daily Newsmonger endorses the Italian conspiracy theory in reporting that Paulo Ascanio (the Pesca equivalent) has been charged with Foscatini’s murder. The sensational media reportage also falsely implicates Ascanio, and, even Poirot threatens him with “publicity” (Christie, “Italian”, 150) to obtain the truth behind this conspiracy. The mundane reality is that Foscatini was blackmailing a prominent Italian and Ascanio and an Italian consulate member came to purchase incriminating papers with blackmail money that Graves later steals.
While Rolf and Lady Yardly’s class status gives them access to fancy shorthands that verify their romantic narratives of Oriental gangs, Graves must use humbler culinary shorthands to support his sensational tale of an Italian conspiracy. Although Foscatini shares some aspects with Fosco, like being sham Counts, speaking perfect English, and committing crime for money, it turns out that he is not the brilliant schemer targeted by a conspiracy. His name hints at the mystery’s solution because Foscatini is Italian for “dark vat” and the meaning seems to evoke Fosco’s penchant for eating. In reality, however, Graves is the one who oversteps his social role in planning Foscatini’s murder and usurping his master’s place, since his ingestion of multiple dinners constitutes a major violation of class boundaries. In her study on the role of cuisine in Christie’s mystery novels, Silvia Bauceková argues that Poirot’s feminine methods of detection, such as examining domestic minutiae and using his food knowledge, enable him to adapt to different settings and interrogate insiders, unlike the police (119). Additionally, eating is a classed activity in Christie’s novels, with characters divided into food producers (servants) and consumers (employers). Graves’s consumption of his master’s food is fraught with class tensions, given that he transgresses social boundaries in partaking of dinner, rather than serving it. Though Hastings thinks that Ascanio or an impersonator killed Foscatini, Poirot insists that the only proof is Graves’s testimony and empty dinnerware that serve as a postmodern mise-en-abyme:
What evidence have we that Ascanio and his friend, or two men posing as them, ever came to the flat that night? Nobody saw them go in; nobody saw them go out. We have the evidence of one man and of a host of inanimate objects…I mean knives and forks and plates and empty dishes. Ah, but it was a clever idea! Graves is a thief and a scoundrel, but what a man of method! (Christie, “Italian”, 152)
Just as Rolf and Lady Yardly’s class positions give them access to the media, diamond, and greasepaint that support their plot, Graves’s lowly status forces him to rely on the “host of inanimate objects” he uses as a food producer. Besides Fosco’s epicurism, the “empty dishes” are a shorthand for Italian immigrants in England, since they often entered food service during Collins and Christie’s eras (Zancani 124; Girelli 40). Ironically, the empty dishes meant to substantiate Graves’s narrative of the Italian conspiracy only serve as thin “evidence” of this crime and average readers fill in the rest of the details due to fear. As Poirot notes, the empty dishes cannot add substance to an empty Italian conspiracy; in other words, they serve as a mise-en-abyme that reveals the hollowness behind Graves’s narrative. In Poirot’s correct reading, the dishes embody multiple aspects of Graves’s social position, including the classicism that limits him, his role in food consumption, and his empty narrative about the Italians.
Although Christie’s attributing the crime to Graves allows her to parody the racial stereotypes surrounding Italians, “the butler did it” scenario reinforces a conservative social hierarchy and contrasts with Collins’s more progressive stance. Lidia Kyzlinkova, in a passage representative of much Christie criticism, asserts that “the servants are rarely seen as having enough intelligence or personality to be suspected of the dastardly deed itself and are doomed to the realm of the red herring” (117). The scholarly view that Christie’s servant characters are too dimwitted to plan and execute a sophisticated crime is untrue of Graves. He exploits class stereotypes about servants’ inability to outwit their masters and fools bourgeois English characters like Inspector Japp and Dr. Hawker. Even Hastings suspects that Graves could only murder Foscatini in concert with an Italian gang, whereas Poirot recognises a fellow ‘man of method’. In fact, servants are the main culprits in some of Christie’s early detective novels and commit several clever thefts and murders in her short stories; however, Graves’s death by hanging eradicates someone who threatens the social order. Collins offers a more sympathetic representation of Rosanna Spearman in The Moonstone that uncovers the injustice of the highly stratified Victorian class system. As previously discussed, Sergeant Cuff suspects Rosanna and Rachel of working together to fake the Diamond’s robbery and the latter functions as a red herring to distract readers from the thief. Though Collins uses a servant to misdirect readers based on their classism, Rosanna is an engaging character who shows intelligence, sensitivity, and devotion in her letter to Blake that introduces her perspective and reveals she died trying to protect the man she loves by hiding the nightgown proving he took the Diamond in an opium-induced trance. The tragic death of a female domestic offers a powerful critique of the Victorian social order, which forces Rosanna to work as a servant who is unfairly suspected because of her criminal past.
Not only is Graves too bright for his working-class position, but he also manipulates the new technology and living arrangements that were making servants obsolete during the early twentieth century in order to improve his prospects. The butler inhabiting racial shorthands of Italians well enough to masquerade as three of them is a parodic exposure of the ridiculous nature of these beliefs for average readers. Graves performs multiple roles of the victim, eyewitness, and perpetrators in mimicking his master’s voice on the telephone, pretending to be three Italians, and playacting the grieving employee. In his capacity as a servant, moreover, he uses his knowledge of Foscatini’s secrets and the anonymous conveniences of the modern flat to stage manage the crime scene. Poirot realises that Graves overheard Foscatini threatening to blackmail Ascanio’s client and arranged the crime to frame Ascanio and the consulate member by killing his master at the telephone and consuming several dinners. He admiringly notes, “Not only is [Graves] a man of brain; he has a resolute and capacious stomach! But after eating three tournedos, the rice soufflé is too much for him!” (Christie, “Italian”, 152). Besides being a main clue, the uneaten desert invokes Fosco’s sweet tooth, and yet Christie avoids identifying him with Graves because the butler abstains from the rice soufflé. As previously discussed, Graves instead leaves behind the “empty dishes” that suggest he committed this crime due to his class position (Christie, “Italian”,152). Poirot apprehends Graves for placing his master’s dying call outside the flat, but his ingenuity as a “man of brain” offers an implicit critique of the current social order. Graves’s conviction punishes the servant for daring to advance beyond his position and subtly criticises a rigid hierarchy that lacks opportunities for intelligent working-class people.
As part of my conclusion, I want to circle back to the start of this article and consider how Third Girl rewrites the conspiracy from The Woman in White while eschewing the “romantic outpourings” that Poirot attacks in the epigraph. In the novel, a young heiress named Norma Restarik consults Poirot out of fear that she is going insane and has killed someone, since she constantly blacks out, loses track of time, and finds murder weapons planted nearby. Poirot wonders how he can decipher Norma’s role in the narrative so that he can solve the mystery; his metafictional investigative methods include regarding her in terms of literary characters and pondering what narrative “pattern” she matches:
“We have first the girl and through all the maze of conflicting patterns I have to search the answer to the most poignant of questions. Is the girl a victim, is she in danger? Or is the girl very astute. Is the girl creating the impression she wants to create for her own purposes? It can be taken either way” (Christie, Third Girl, 135).
While he calls her Ophelia due to her questionable sanity, I read Norma as a Laura Fairlie character who falls victim to a version of Fosco’s plot updated to fit 1960s England. The charlatans playing Norma’s estranged father and stepmother drug her with narcotics as well as frame her for two murders so that she will assume she is mad, and they can claim her wealth. While Fosco and Sir Percival switch Laura with her identical “mad” half-sister in an asylum, Christie transfers Collins’s theme of appearances to the “stepmother” wearing wigs and pretending to be Norma’s roommate. Unlike “Western Star” and “Italian Nobleman,” I would not categorise Third Girl as historiographic metafiction, as it lacks these works’ parodic intertextuality. Instead of creating empty parodic narratives, Christie’s English accomplices act more viciously than Collins’s in psychologically torturing Norma and slaying two people. With the passing of the Golden Age, Christie no longer needed to parody Collins’s foreign conspiracies for average readers as ‘snobbery with violence’ fell out of popularity (Watson 1). Her imitation of Collins in Third Girl illustrates her larger point: detective fiction authors could modernise his criminal plots without resorting to the xenophobic narratives of the romantic and sensation genres. In making this argument years earlier in “Western Star” and “Italian Nobleman,” however, Christie’s historiographic metafictions unfortunately reinforced the sexist and classist aspects of ‘snobbery with violence’ that average readers found so appealing.
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Reed, John R. “English Imperialism and the Unacknowledged Crime of The Moonstone.” Clio, vol. 2, no. 3, 1973, pp. 281-290.
Rowland, Susan. From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell: British Women Writers in Detective and Crime Fiction. Palgrave, 2001.
Roy, Ashish. “The Fabulous Imperialist Semiotic of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone.” New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation, vol. 24, no. 3, 1993, pp. 657-681.
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- See Light 65-73, Makinen 34-35, and Rowland 15-28 for more concerning Doyle’s influence on Christie’s detective fiction.
- For a discussion of scholarship that dates the start of neo-Victorianism earlier than the 1960s, see Kohlke 3-5.
- In keeping with Hutcheon’s observation that the past is mediated through textuality, an intense amount of metafictionality appeared in Christie’s detective fiction. The epigraph can be read as a microcosm of historiographic metafiction, in which Poirot’s critique of Collins’s fictional representation of detection is framed through writing. In the parodic outer layer, Christie ridicules Poirot for being satisfied with finishing his book and “pronounc[ing] that it was good,” just like God does after the act of creation, in a challenge to romanticised images of male authors. Christie not only imbeds her objections to a classic author of detective fiction in Poirot’s text, but also includes parodic intertextuality by making her sleuth a male writer with a godlike sense of authority. Her representation of a male writer with a belief in his divine authority daring to criticise another male author invites postmodern skepticism of both.
- In several of Christie’s early short stories, foreigners are falsely implicated in crimes committed by English or European characters. These stories include “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb” (the murder victim’s Egyptian servant Hassan), “The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan” (March 14, 1923; the robbery victim’s French maid Célestine), and “The Kidnapped Prime Minister” (April 25, 1923; the prime minister’s Irish chauffeur Murphy).
- Rowland’s look at female Golden Age writers and their treatment of race reveals that they deploy artifice to promote a conservative Englishness even as they expose its constructed nature (69). In her analysis of Christie’s portrayal of Jews, Greeks, and Middle Easterners, Makinen argues that she depends on stereotypes while resisting them (159). Bernthal points out that middle-class English characters are more likely to commit the murders than foreigners in Christie’s mysteries (78).
- Ever since John Reed’s landmark postcolonial reading of The Moonstone (1973), many critics have argued that Collins’s novel impugns the British presence in India. For interpretations that support Reed’s position, see Hultgren, Narayan, and Pionke 79-100. For readings critical of Collins’s portrayal of India in The Moonstone, see Roy, Duncan, and Manivalli.
- In contemporary reviews of Poirot Investigates, critics acknowledge that Christie was adapting Collins’s moonstone plot in “Western Star.” For instance, The Times Literary Supplement reviewer comments, “When in the first of M. Poirot’s adventures, we find a famous diamond that has been the eye of a god and a cryptic message that it will be taken from its possessor ‘at the full of the moon’ we are inclined to grow indignant on behalf of our dear old friend the moonstone. But we have no right to do so, for the story is quite original” (209). The reviewer for The New York Times Book Review notes the parodic racial stereotyping in “Western Star,” writing that Poirot “arrives at his deductions, sometimes incredibly swift, by means of a process which he himself terms ‘the little gray cells,’ but it is to be feared that some of the evidence he collects would fare badly in criminal courts…On another [case] a false trail is skillfully laid with shreds of torn silk, without any suspicion arising that the working dress of Chinese jewel robbers in the heart of the English countryside would be something other than mandarin robes” (25).
- Christie’s adaption of the moonstone plot hearkens back to earlier forms of detective fiction, rather than the media narratives of the contemporary drug panic documented in Kohn. Her “Western Star” parodies the stereotypes surrounding the Asian antagonists in the moonstone plot while overlooking the ones current during the 1920s, when England was experiencing a drug panic about cocaine trafficking perpetrated by the Chinese. Notably, her adaption lacks the Oriental drug storyline, even though it is essential to the original, with Blake taking the Diamond in an opium-induced trance and handing it to Godfrey. Mary and Lady Yardly’s position as actresses emphasises the story’s theatrical themes, while making them traffickers in diamonds, not drugs. The overdose deaths of the actress Billie Carleton (1922) and dancer Freda Kempton (1923) were associated with Chinese drug dealers, Lau Ping You and Billy “Brilliant” Chang, respectively. Christie avoids the linkage between the Chinese, drug trafficking, actresses, and interracial sex found in contemporary media in “Western Star” and “The Affair at the Victory Ball.” Despite being based on Carleton’s death, the latter story dispenses with the Chinese drug dealer altogether and only hints at it. Although the culprit lives in a room with “garish Oriental hangings” and the “overpowering fragrance of joss-sticks” (10), the blame for the actress’s death falls on the English film star as the story’s drug trafficker and murderer.
- In “The Lost Mine” (November 23, 1923), Christie portrays Poirot reminiscing to Hastings about a “fascinating page of commercial romance” (176) in which he investigated the murder of a Chinese merchant, Wu Ling, who had papers revealing the location of a valuable mine in Burma. The English syndicate head and his allies in a Chinese gang kidnapped and murdered Wu Ling and one of the latter impersonated him, on the basis that Chinese people all look alike to the English. The syndicate head fails to trick Poirot when he stages a scene in a Limehouse opium den in which the Chinese proprietor blames an innocent man for the theft of the papers.
- Doyle’s tale “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” (1904) features Lady Eva Blackwell hiring Holmes and Watson to retrieve her indiscreet love letters from the eponymous blackmailer; in the process, they witness Milverton being murdered by another lady he had ruined. In Christie’s rewriting of it as “The Veiled Lady” (October 3, 1923), a jewel thief plays the role of Lady Eva to disguise her motives from Poirot. She hires him to retrieve a “Chinese puzzle box” full of stolen gems from a fellow gang member whom she has double-crossed. The puzzle box’s designation as Chinese is indicative that readers need extra intelligence and subtlety to solve this crime due to the twist it offers on Doyle’s original. Similarly, Sayers relates the cleverness it takes to solve a detective story to the Chinese when she remarks, “The Oriental races, with their keen appreciation of intellectual subtlety, should surely have evolved [the genre of detective fiction]” (“Omnibus” 73).
- For scholarship on Collins’s literary representations of Italy, particularly in The Woman in White, see Caracciolo, Pionke, Costantini, Greenway, and Hsu. Greenway, Hsu, and Costantini offer readings of Fosco as a cosmopolitan Italian.
- In The Murder on the Links (1923), Hastings’s susceptibility to prejudice leads him to mistakenly think that his love interest killed the murder victim due to her fiery “Italian blood” (180); however, she is actually protecting her sister from suspicion.
- For similar views on the role that servants and the working classes play in Christie’s fiction, see Light 83, Makinen 125, and Bauceková 95-96.
- See The Mysterious Affair at Styles, “The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan,” “The Plymouth Express” (April 4, 1923), “The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman,” and The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) for crimes perpetrated by companions, maids, and valets.