And Then There Were None
In the corner of a first-class smoking carriage, Mr. Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar and ran an interested eye through the political news in the Times.
"Many homicidal lunatics are very quiet, unassuming people. Delightful fellows."
There was nothing hidden in this house, nothing concealed. It had no atmosphere about it. Somehow, that was the most frightening thing of all….
When the sea goes down, there will come from the mainland boats and men. And they will find ten dead bodies and an unsolved problem on Indian Island.
And Then There Were None
Ten Little Problems With World's Most Popular Mystery
Despite issues with its objectionable titling over the years, And Then There were None has been not only the most popular novel by Agatha Christie during her long, prolific career, but one of the best-selling books of all time—ranked only a few spots behind the Bible.
It's also one of the Christie books that you have to read quickly, so as not to give yourself time to overthink the unbelievable characters and situations. Fortunately, she's got the knack of writing to speed you obliviously past such issues.
A large part of the appeal has got to be the plot, which was startlingly novel at the time. It's still effective today after we've had generations of thrillers and slashers in which all the characters are knocked off one at a time.
But this is not to denigrate the appeal also of the writer's ability to squeeze the most suspense possible out of the plot. It's relentless. Starting with the quick profiles of the actors in this drama as they each ponder their mysterious invitation to the house on an island, everyone obviously hiding a great secret in their pasts... the mystery ratcheting up as they realize they are stranded at the mercy of an unknown killer avenging their sins... suspecting and turning on each other as their numbers drop off one by one... until....
And that's one of Christies' favourite and most annoying writing tricks: the use of ellipses to build anticipation and suggest inexpressible terrors to come. More of a writing tic really, as she overuses those dot-dot-dots. One can almost hear the horror movie musical crescendos.
But why not? It helps keep the word count down to nearly novella lengths. This is a surprisingly compact piece of writing to contain so many murders and plot twists. Nothing fancy. Characters more like caricatures, revealed in brief internal monologues. Pointed dialogue that all sounds more or less the same regardless of who's speaking.
Not much description, given the strange locale. The foreboding atmosphere is nearly all due to the dire situation the characters find themselves in and their dark thoughts. An odd fact is that the house is paradoxically supposed to be relatively modern with bright, clean lines, without dark nooks or hidden passages—and yet every book cover and most film adaptations feature the Gothic-style mansions of horror story fame.
Also unusual is that this mystery has no mystery-solver—that is, no detective. Unless you consider everyone on the island is both suspect and detective.
Stream of unconsciousness
About those internal monologues though. How is it we drop in on the thoughts of all the players in this drama and somehow they never happen to be thinking about anything that would give away that they are or are not the obsessive killer?
This is a stunt Christie—and many another writer, to be fair—has pulled in certain other novels, but never to this extent. It's one of those many things in And Then There were None that don't make sense but probably don't bother many readers even if they notice it. Just part of the murder mystery game.
You might think the stage adaptation that Christie created four years after the novel came out would alleviate this issue because it has to rely on characters' behaviour, rather than on their thoughts. But the play, in which the bleak ending was changed to a happier one, opened up several other plot holes. The time between killings, for example, is reduced for theatrical presentation, not allowing the characters to react realistically.
Agatha Christie commonly skips over the normal human reactions to tragedies to get to the mystery-solving, but in this novel, and more so in the play, the people are particularly heartless. Even the butler whose wife is one of the first murder victims recovers in time to serve dinner to the rest.
What may disturb some readers now is a certain racist expression used twice in the novel, I believe. It can't be defended on the same grounds as can Mark Twain putting the N-word in characters' mouths in an earlier century.
The expression is a holdover from the first British publication of Christie's novel under the title Ten Little N———, referring to a children's rhyme recited in the story and reflected in the name of the island. It was thought this was objectionable enough that in the first American edition the title was changed, the new title taken from the last line of the rhyme, "And then there were none." In Britain, the N-words in the title, the rhyme and the island's name were replaced by reference to Indians. This too, of course, could hardly stand and in some editions the "Indians" in the text were changed to "Soldiers," while in others the Indians were kept but the title changed to the American version. However, even in those later editions, some casual uses of the original hideous word have survived as part of a derogatory phrase.
Apart from all these problems, the novel stands out as one of those Christie novels with a game-changing resolution. After The Murder of Roger Ackroyd fourteen years earlier and Murder on the Orient Express five years later—both of which roused indignation that Christie wasn't playing by the rules—her fervent fans were waiting for another thinking-out-of-the-box mystery. They got it and then some with And Then There Were None, or whatever it was called.