And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

>> Friday, August 26, 2016

TITLE: And Then There Were None
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

COPYRIGHT: 1939
PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: Harper

SETTING: 1930s England
TYPE: Mystery / Thriller
SERIES: None

"Ten . . ."
Ten strangers are lured to an isolated island mansion off the Devon coast by a mysterious "U. N. Owen."

"Nine . . ."
At dinner a recorded message accuses each of them in turn of having a guilty secret, and by the end of the night one of the guests is dead.

"Eight . . ."
Stranded by a violent storm, and haunted by a nursery rhyme counting down one by one . . . as one by one . . . they begin to die.

"Seven . . ."
Which among them is the killer and will any of them survive?
The BBC broadcast a much-talked-about adaptation of And Then There Were None last Christmas. I missed it (oh, poor me, I was sunning myself in Uruguay instead!), but the raves about it made me want to reread the book.

This is one of the non-typical Christie books, the kind which you read and love and then are disappointed when you realise there aren't any more quite like it in Christie's oeuvre. An odd group of people are lured to a mansion on a lonely island off the coast of Devon. None of them know any of the others, and it turns out none of them know the person who invited them. This becomes clear right the first night, when a recording suddenly starts playing, accusing each of them of a crime they've so far got away with.

Ridiculous!, they all cry. This U.N. Owen or Una Owen or whatever their host is really called must be playing a joke, but it's in bad taste, and they will all be leaving in the morning. When one of their group dies, it's a bit worrying, but it must have been an accident, surely. They'll just be careful and leave as soon as they can. But then another person dies, and another, and all in exactly the way coyly described in the nursery rhyme prominently displayed in each of their bedrooms:

Ten little Indian boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Indian boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.
...
...
...
And then the next morning there is no boat to take them away, and there is a storm, so there's not much they can do. And after a thorough search of the island makes it clear they are all alone and there's no master villain hiding anywhere, picking them off, the remaining guests start eyeing each other nervously...

This really is a masterful book. The plotting is top-notch: incredibly tense and well put-together, and running like clockwork. There is no way anyone will guess whodunnit, and yet when you find out and you go back and reread, Christie hasn't cheated at all. It's all there.

I was also really impressed by her characterisation. You get 10 people who are basically a type: the soldier of fortune, the hanging judge, the drunk doctor, the athletic, ambitious young woman, the rigid spinster. And yet they are all impressively distinct right from the start. At no point did I confuse them, wonder "Oh, so is X the doctor or the judge?". Even more impressive: I remembered most of them from the time I last reread this, many, many years ago.

I was also pleasantly surprised by something else, which was how well it's held up. Oh, it's very much of its time, starting with the title (the previous one, Ten Little Indians was changed to And Then There Were None for obvious reasons, but that was the second one, changed to after the first one, which used the N word instead of "Indians", became clearly inappropriate even earlier), but continuing on with some of the attitudes expressed. Oh, so the accusation is that you abandoned some natives in Africa to die? But they were only natives, says the character we come to think of as our heroine to the soldier of fortune. The thing is, it turns out she's not our heroine (I hope that's not too much of a spoiler), and we're not being told this by the narrative. The narrative is not insisting that some of these characters are innocent, the narrative is telling us they're guilty and responsible for the consequences of their actions, even the spinster whose rigid morality led to the death of a young servant in her house who 'got herself in trouble'. That's actually a remarkably modern worldview.

The characters were not all I remembered from all those years ago. I fully remembered the resolution, and the fact that I still enjoyed it as much as I did is a testament to just how good this is.

MY GRADE: An A-.

4 comments:

Bona Caballero 26 August 2016 at 10:33  

You make me want to reread this one! Great review, it manages to give a fresh descripciĆ³n of this classic.

Rosario 26 August 2016 at 10:42  

Oh, do! It's really enjoyable as a reread. :)

Anonymous,  4 September 2016 at 18:44  

Read this last winter for the first time and was amazed at how much characterization and suspense she packed into this relatively short book! And then watched the BBC adaptation when it showed up here in the US in early spring, and it was excellent. Do watch it if you get the chance

Rosario 5 September 2016 at 06:16  

Anon: I agree, and this is the book I always think of when people say Christie is all about the plot and the puzzle and not really good at characterisation. Oh, she can be! I'll definitely watch the miniseries at some point -it's actually available on the BBC store, I see, so no excuses!

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