And Then There Were None

THE BOOK   Fontana 1977 pp190

Tom Adams apparently liked his ‘gollywog’ cover but I think it is horrible. My version still had the original title of the book, but I covered it for obvious reasons.

I re-read it in the recent Folio Society edition (on the right), but the paperback is still in beautiful condition.

The book is dedicated to ‘CARLO and MARY: this is their book, dedicated to them with much affection.’  Carlo was Charlotte Fisher, Agatha Christie’s secretary during the 1920s, and great friend ever after. Mary was Charlotte’s sister; they must have been so proud to be the dedicatees of this, possibly the best-known and best-loved work of crime fiction ever written.

THE STORY 

Ten people are invited, on various pretexts, to a house on an otherwise uninhabited island off the coast of Devon; none of them will ever leave it.

After dinner on the day of their arrival, each of the ten characters is accused of ‘getting away with murder’ by a recording, and within minutes one of them is dead, soon to be followed by another, then another … 

The story-line is deceptively simple, but one very difficult to achieve in a convincing fashion.

CHARACTERS 

The collection of characters is typical of Christie books at the time: young governess, purse-lipped spinster, alcoholic doctor, judge, man always to be found where trouble is brewing, police officer, thoughtless ‘Greek God’. More cardboard cut-outs, one might imagine.

Two of the ten are servants hired for the party, Mr and Mrs Rogers. We are never privy to their thoughts, but we certainly are to those of the other eight as they consider their guilty pasts and try to understand what is happening in the present. This adds flesh to the cardboard cutout, and, unusually, the more we find out about them, the less we sympathise with them, the less we care about them.

As a result, there is no element of the ‘Perils of Pauline’ tension that one finds in many of the Christies that do not feature her usual detectives. To this first-time reader, the situation was so brilliantly established that I raced through the book wondering who was going to be next, and not actually caring who was doing it.

Reading it again 50 years later and taking a bit more time over it, I thought it should have been obvious who the culprit was and why – it was so perfectly in character: hidden in plain sight. But, as with all the best Christies, people still don’t see it.   

ATTITUDES AND QUOTES 

It might be thought unsurprising that a book originally entitled Ten Little N*****s contains a few comments that would now (and then, in fact) be considered offensive, but there is more to it than that. Here is Philip Lombard, deep in thought:

That little Jew had been damned mysterious … He had fancied, though, that the little Jew had not been deceived – that was the damnable part about Jews, you couldn’t deceive them about money … 

I do not think that the author of these words was necessarily anti-semitic: Agatha Christie never puts statements like the above into the mouths of her detectives or heroines; if they do crop up, it is almost always in connection with an unsavoury character or one she is satirising.1 Lombard is a vile character, one who had been directly responsible for the deaths of 21 members of his regiment, but had never felt any remorse over it.

‘And natives don’t mind dying, you know. They don’t feel about it as Europeans do.’

The charming Mr Lombard again, having taken the natives’ food and abandoned his charges to their fate – a ‘matter of self-preservation, you know.’ Vera Claythorne sympathises with his action:

‘Well, there is that Mr Lombard. He admits to having abandoned twenty men to their deaths.’
Vera said: ‘They were only natives …’
Emily Brent said sharply: ‘Black or white, they are our brothers.’
Vera thought: ‘Our black brothers – our black brothers. Oh, I’m going to laugh. I’m hysterical. I’m not myself …’

Vera compares the dead ‘natives’ to the china figures that gave the book its original title. There is a heavy irony here, because Vera feels no sympathy or compassion whatsoever for any of the nine Europeans that pre-decease her on the island. An extra level of irony is added when she shoots Philip Lombard – a matter of self-preservation, you know …

SWIGATHA RATING  10/10

This is Agatha Christie at the height of her powers, and I think she knew it. The idea for the plot was one of genius, yet again: ten murderers being picked off one by one, each knowing that any one of the others was perfectly capable of being responsible. The one thing lacking was the humour usually found in her books; I guess that she may have found it somewhat inappropriate.

WHERE IT LED

Only two years later, Agatha Christie used the same setting (based on Burgh Island, near her Torquay home) for Evil Under The Sun.

ADAPTATIONS

Unsurprisingly, there have been many, many adaptations for cinema and TV, in English, Indian, German, French, Russian … 2 and for the stage by the author herself. The most recent was shown over three nights on BBC TV in 2015, a successful production that gained a new audience for the book.

NOTES

1 There is one notorious exception: the opening page of The Mystery of the Blue Train. Agatha Christie was ‘in a bad place’ when she wrote it, however, and hated the book with a vengeance afterwards.

2 Mark Aldridge, Agatha Christie on Screen