First of all, I should note that I got this really cool graphic from this blog. It’s not the official cover of the book, but I like it much better!
Okay, so a confession: This was my first Agatha Christie novel. I’ve never been really attracted to the murder mystery genre, mostly because it seems to be a genre dominated by male protagonists being chauvinistic and old-fashioned. Pass. Agatha Christie is obviously an exception to the Sam Spade idea I’ve got in my head. One of her most famous repeating characters is Miss Marple, an elderly woman who solves most of her mysteries because people spill their guts to her without paying her much attention. Her lack of importance in society leaves her able to understand and see more than less disenfranchised (more enfranchised?) people would be able to. This isn’t a Marple mystery, nor is it one of her other popular characters taking the helm. In fact, no one has the spot as main character in this. It is, though, the best selling of all of Christie’s (many) books.
The plot revolves around ten people who have been brought to an island with a few different tricks and guises. One thinks he is there to meet old soldier friends, another believes she is there to be a governess to young children for a temporary placement. They are all called to a large house on a secluded island where they expect to meet a host who never arrives. The entire plot revolves around a nursery rhyme, which occupies the first page of the book:
Ten little Soldier Boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Soldier Boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Soldier Boys travelling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Soldier Boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.
Six little Soldier Boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
Five little Soldier Boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Soldier Boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Soldier Boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two little Soldier Boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one.
One little Soldier Boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.
As you might expect from a murder mystery, people start to be killed. And they are killed in the exact fashion described in the poem. Being reasonably intelligent people, the remaining guests realize that someone is killing these people. First, they search methodically for some kind of madman loose on the island. It is a small enough place that they can search its entirety in one day. There is no one but themselves. So, it must be one of their own. They begin to suspect and mistrust each other, driven to the point of paranoia and mania from fear and tension. One by one they are killed. All of them. They all die, as you might expect from the title.
Only in the last two-three pages is the killer revealed, and I’m happy to say I did not know who it would be. There isn’t really a good way to guess it. The only clue might be found in the last 6 or 7 pages, after everyone is already dead.
I was strongly reminded of the movie Clue while reading this, and firmly expected them all to be killing each other. I didn’t see any way for it to have been just one person, because they all end up dead.
I really enjoyed the book, and it did keep me guessing to the end. Some of the tropes involved in it are a little trite to a modern ear, but this book is about 80 years old. It’s possible this was one of the first examples of some of these tropes being used, so they didn’t particularly bother me. I liked the suspense, I liked the honest mystery, I liked the lack of a inveterate gumshoe in trench coat and fedora. I really enjoyed Christie’s style and thought it was easy to read. My only complaint was that it turned out to be very difficult to keep all of the characters straight off the bat. I had to keep a list with reminders, until they became solidified in my imagination.
My only complaint with the book is a very uneasy feeling I got when I learned the history of it. I read a lot of stuff that is about 200 years old, sometimes older. A lot of it contains very insensitive stuff about entire races of people, religions, and especially women. I’d say I’m mostly immune to it. But…I found out, upon looking this book up, that it was originally titled something else. The name obviously comes from the nursery rhyme I pasted above. The original form of the nursery rhyme in the UK was actually Ten Little N****rs, a fact that makes my stomach twist just thinking about it. And it came with some truly horrifying artwork on the cover:
In a somewhat palliative move, the US edition changed the name to And Then There Were None. In an incomprehensible move, they changed the nursery rhyme to read Ten Little Indians. Gee that’s so much better. Oh wait, no it’s not.
The book more or less uses the nursery rhyme as a frame for the action, and it doesn’t have much to do with race at all–all of the characters are white. But just having this sort of nonsense adjacent to the action makes me ill. I liked the book, but hoped to find others of Christie’s that don’t have the same associations.
But now that I really think about it, it isn’t just Native Americans or people of African descent who are thought of in unpleasant terms. The prejudice is widespread and very nonchalant. There is one character whose crimes against an entire group of Indians (sub-continent, not Native Americans) are especially nauseating. All of the characters are guilty of wrongdoing–wrongdoing that resulted in death–but this one character is responsible for the death of something like twenty ‘natives’ and is totally unapologetic! I thought I might puke. Add to that the fact that there were a few scenes of ludicrous anti-Semitism. One character describes someone as a sneaky, conniving ‘Jewboy’, exclaims that you can’t lie to Jews about money because ‘they know’ and talks about the man’s ‘thick Semitic lips’. My actual, physical nausea continues. Of course this is only one character, and every character in the book is fairly flawed (re: a murderer), so I thought perhaps it was more acceptable since we aren’t meant to like any of these people. Since then, I’ve read that many of Christie’s books have an undercurrent of anti-Semitism. And this book was published in 1939, just as World War II was starting…by someone living on the ‘good’ side. Makes you realize some truly horrifying things about what it meant to be any sort of minority during this time period. So…despite my enjoyment of the book, I’m not sure I feel comfortable reading any more of hers.