Ten people are lured to an isolated island and accused, by an unknown voice on a gramophone record, of murder. Then they start dying, one by one by one…
Dame Agatha devoted herself to carefully constructing this elaborate mystery, filled with complex characters who Christie delights in psychologically damaging even further. Ten people from different walks of life – a retired judge, an alcoholic doctor, a rigid and repressed spinster, two underprivileged servants – are deceitfully invited to an island off the coast of Devon, where their hosts fail to show up. On the first night in the manor house, a grammophone record (cheekily titled “Swan Song”) proclaims them all guilty of murders that the courts couldn’t or didn’t touch. By morning, two of their number have died in possible accidents, and suspicion is rife.
And Then There Were None may seem cliched now (and indeed, it wasn’t a formula-breaking idea back then), but Christie takes it far further than any other writer would have dared. This was her attempt to write the perfect murder mystery, without even a detective on the job until the final chapter. (If you’ve not read the book, incidentally, do so now before someone spoils it for you!) Christie continues to challenge us to say “No way!” after each chapter, and she puts each character through the wringer very well. The maudlin General, his mind stuck on his one cruel act done for love; the scripture-spouting Emily Brent who seems to fear no evil; beautiful, haunted Vera Claythorne, whose own tragic past plays in echoes in her mind… each of these characters comes across very strongly, making this possibly Christie’s best ensemble of suspects. The climactic scenes on a lonely beach are chilling and immensely clever, playing both the characters and us, while staying true to what we have learnt about each of them.
And Then There Were None was originally published as Ten Little Niggers and then – for quite some time – Ten Little Indians. The racial epithet comes from the nursery rhyme which fuels the plot (by far Christie’s best use of the format) and was considered acceptable at the time. Thankfully, the alternate title is actually more effective, and the book has survived in spite of that questionable beginning. The book has been adapted countless times for film and the stage, most of which take Christie’s adapted ending for her original play, which was a much more practical option for a non-literary format. (Only the Russians have adapted it as is, I believe, because of course they’d love something that bleak!)
Don’t get me wrong – like Tolkien or Rowling, Christie was a storyteller, not a literary giant. This is not Thomas Hardy, but nor was it meant to be. Her characters here are all perfectly pitched and the mystery is immaculately constructed. Of course, the murderer’s reliance on the nursery rhyme format means that s/he had a lot of luck in getting the right people alone at the right times!, but in the moment, it captivates.
And more importantly, And Then There Were None is a seminal work of detective fiction (well… “detective” fiction, in this case). It presents us with the facade of normalcy – all ten characters live upstanding lives, hiding the fact that they have caused deaths, some very callously. We have a host of clues which, cleverly, features only one true red herring. And, in the increasingly paranoid atmosphere, the suspects – cut off from the outside world until the unknown return of Fred Narracott’s boat – could all have motive, and none of them can have an alibi. There’s no wonder that this clever book has been adapted so many times (and I’ll be reviewing the major adaptations this week), and the methodical deaths of each of the characters imbue the novel with a relentless atmosphere of terror.
At the end of the day, of course, any one of Christie’s 78 central books could be your favourite. Or maybe it’s one of her plays instead. Part of that enjoyment can’t be defined though: do I really prefer this as a novel to Five Little Pigs or Crooked House or A Murder is Announced? Perhaps, or perhaps it’s just that residual nostalgia, that feeling of enjoyment as a child when I reached the novel’s climax, and realised how utterly Christie had tricked me. I once read an hysterical (but completely serious) review of this book where the writer claimed they hated Christie after this, because she surprised them too well with the killer’s identity. I wanted to find that person, grab them by the lapels, and scream “ISN’T THAT THE POINT!?” If nothing else, And Then There Were None confirms Christie’s reign as the Queen of Crime. She beguiles you with a mystery that is bewildering on the first read and clever on the second, while featuring interesting characters and a foreboding atmosphere.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my Christie rankings, and the other assorted thoughts I’ve had on her works and adaptations. I’ll continue with some more reviews of the other adaptations I’ve found over the next month, and maybe one day I’ll do a serious reread of the novels, and provide deeper thoughts. As always, I’d love to hear whether you agree or disagree. Each of Christie’s formats, atmospheres and detectives can inspire different reactions in readers. In truth, I love most of her books, even those that I’ve argued the flaws of for the sake of reviews. On top of that, these rankings – like any writer’s canon that I cherish – go up and down quite constantly. So please comment below, or one the relevant review, and I’d love to chat or debate with you!