Note: This article contains hints and occasional mild spoilers for the solutions in Agatha Christie’s A Murder Is Announced, The Mousetrap, The Moving Finger, Hallowe’en Party, The Pale Horse, and Murder Is Easy. It does not, though, reveal the ending of The Mousetrap!
Agatha Christie’s detectives often don’t fit into the rigid gender roles that many modern readers associate with the first half of the twentieth century. Hercule Poirot, arguably her most famous character, is intellectual, somewhat hedonistic, and effeminate rather than particularly masculine. Miss Marple, her spinster sleuth, is an independent, older woman who has never had a husband or children. Even her married investigators, Tommy and Tuppence, have a clear partnership of equals as they work together for the British intelligence services.
But Christie didn’t stop with her detectives. She populated her books with a spectrum of characters who didn’t always fit societal expectations—including queer ones.
You might not notice them the first time you read, though. That’s because Christie, like many writers during the Golden Age of detective fiction, often wrote her queer characters carefully, almost subversively, in coded language and hints. Anything from a man being described as a having a “womanish” mouth or “artistic” fingers to a woman who wore trousers and never married could serve as clues to a character’s sexual identity.
In A Murder is Announced (1950), for example, readers meet Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd, two women living together in the village of Chipping Cleghorn. They could just be housemates, of course. But Christie drops clues that they are a lesbian couple left and right. Miss Hinchcliffe wears trousers, keeps her hair in a “manly crop,” does hard physical labor, and describes men as “dirty dogs.” Miss Murgatroyd, by contrast, is giggly, frumpy, and even a little air-headed, relying on “Hinch” to keep her grounded and focused.
This sort of description isn’t explicit by modern standards. But in fiction, as in life, something doesn’t need to be explicit to be clear.
A viewer watching a movie or tv show from the 1950s would see a married couple sleeping in twin beds halfway across the room from each other. But that viewer wouldn’t conclude that an actual stork brought their children into the family. We’re used to that sort of façade and the hints that accompany it. In the same way, many readers when A Murder Is Announced was first published would have understood that Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd were a couple.
Once you know what to look for, in fact, queer characters start peeking out of many of Christie’s mysteries.
In the play The Mousetrap (1952), Christopher Wren is written as an obvious outsider. Though the viewer doesn’t know exactly what he’s running from until the end of the play, plenty of queer coding happens with his character. He openly appreciates the handsome Detective Trotter and speaks to him with endearments; eventually, Christopher goes off to do housework while the other characters are attempting to solve a murder.
When you look Christie and her contemporaries, their inclusion of non-straight characters becomes less surprising than it might seem at first glance. They often subverted expectations of gender and sexuality in their own lives, pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable behavior. Their characters follow in their footsteps.
Dorothy L. Sayers, for example, had multiple affairs before her marriage, one of which resulted in the birth of her son John Anthony, known as Tony. (In a sequence of events that could have come straight from fiction, the wife of Sayers’s married lover helped her make arrangements for the birth, and Tony was raised as Sayers’s “nephew” before she and her eventual husband adopted him.) Her characters behave similarly: when Seyers’s famous sleuth Peter Wimsey first meets Harriet Vane, who he will later marry, Harriet is on trial for poisoning her lover.
Gladys Mitchell, who along with Christie and Sayers was hailed as one of the “big three” women writing detective fiction in the 1920s and 1930s, never married or had children. She led an unconventional life as a teacher at girls’ boarding schools in addition to writing mysteries. And her books are even more willing to break boundaries and present taboo subjects: they feature witchcraft, satanism, incest, and nymphomania.
A hallmark of crime fiction is the process of stripping away the polite fictions that people use to hide their private lives. If extramarital affairs and nymphomania could make their appearance in the pages of detective fiction, why not an occasional queer character? After all, it wasn’t as though gay, lesbian, or otherwise non-conforming people were unacknowledged in the world outside of fiction. As time went on, their fictional inclusion was even, occasionally, explicit.
In Christie’s Hallowe’en Party (1969), Miss Whittaker is an unmarried woman in her forties who teaches at a girls’ school. She is openly described as “queer.” This could mean “odd,” of course—except for the fact that less than a page earlier the same character who calls her queer explicitly links the words “queer” and “lesbian” when talking about another teacher who was an associate of Miss Whittaker’s.
In another Christie book from the 1960s, A Caribbean Mystery (1964), Raymond West reassures Miss Marple that her house sitter will take excellent care of her home while she’s away specifically because the tenant is gay. This isn’t coded at all; the label “queer” is used unambiguously, followed by the mental interjection:
“He had paused, slightly embarrassed – but surely even dear old Aunt Jane had heard of queers.”
This isn’t to say that all, or even many, of Christie’s first readers would have been understanding and accepting of queer individuals, in real life or in fiction. They would have brought their own assumptions and biases to how they read these characters. But Agatha Christie often did something interesting with those assumptions: she used them to misdirect.
In The Moving Finger (1942), readers meet the effeminate Mr. Pye, a “ladylike” man who collects antiques and loves scandal and gossip. For readers whose own prejudices might lead them to be suspicious of gay characters, Mr. Pye seems like a perfect suspect for the poison pen letters that have been plaguing the town of Lymstock. But he is, ultimately, a red herring.
Mr. Pye was proceeded in Christie’s body of work by Mr. Ellsworthy in Murder Is Easy (1939). Like Mr. Pye, Mr. Ellsworthy is an “artistic” and “womanish” antiques dealer, and he becomes one of the prime suspects based on his interest in the occult and his apparent mental instability. And also like Mr. Pye, he is there to direct readers’ attention away from the real killer.
Similarly, in The Pale Horse (1961), the “witches” Thyrza Grey and Sybil Stamfordis are coded as another lesbian couple. While they are certainly sinister and suspicious, they and their “black magic” distract the reader from the man behind the murder-for-hire plot.
This isn’t to say these inclusions were notably progressive. By today’s standards, Christie’s queer characters were often written as extreme and occasionally offensive stereotypes. But they are also accorded a degree of humanity and realism that might surprise modern readers.
Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd, for example, are written as a genuinely supportive couple, each looking after the other, with balanced strengths and genuine affection in their relationship. While some characters in The Mousetrap are openly hostile toward Christopher Wren, he finds genuine understanding and camaraderie with others. And more often than not, after Christie achieves her misdirection, she leaves her queer characters alone. They don’t all end up guilty or dead at the end of their arcs—a fact which may surprise many modern readers.
These characters may not have been written openly. But in Agatha Christie’s books, where nearly everyone has secrets they want to conceal, it turns out the queer characters are hiding in plain sight.