Then and Now – Part 1 – Changing Mores


Then and Now is a series of blog posts in which I talk about the differences between present day mysteries and those written 50 or more years ago.

Something that stand out to me when I read classic mysteries is the casual racism woven into them. That is not to say the writer’s themselves were racist or sexist or other -ists, just that their characters exhibited behaviors considered normal enough for that time. For example, in Christie’s Peril at End House, the lead character casually remarks “He’s a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one.” simply as an afterthought during a conversation. Similarly, Erle Stanley Gardner, one of the champions of immigrants especially the Japanese, often showcase the casual racism of the times in his books; times when being Asian was automatically a reason for being suspected of a crime and where being accused of being half, or fourths or eights Asian was insulting and often dangerous to the character.

I don’t read very many modern mysteries but I don’t recall encountering any casual racism in the ones I have read, unless it was the author’s intention to portray the character as racist. That is not say that everything is ok now, just that it isn’t considered ok like it used to be. Like other genres, mysteries distill and stereotype characters into easily understood archetypes. The fact that we encounter fewer racist stereotypes in our books is one sign that we are moving forward.

In case anyone is interested:
Top Ten Racist Moments in Agatha Christie’s Novels


One response »

  1. Peter – There’s no doubt at all in my mind that you’re exactly right about the different attitudes towards race that we see in ‘then/now’ books. I could list a lot of examples but you probably already know the titles. I also see differences in ‘then/now’ books in terms of other ‘isms’ too such as sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. It’s an interesting development in writing over the past 100 years or so.


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