By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 7, 2016
It is early August in 1939 or thereabouts. Ten men and women of varying ages and backgrounds have gathered on Soldier Island, an isolated point of land about a mile off the coast of Devon, England. They will soon discover that each person present is united by a grisly secret — and moreover that they’ve been assembled by someone with malevolent intent. As a storm closes in, cutting off the uneasy inhabitants, members are killed, one by one. With their numbers dwindling, and the bonds of trust among the party becoming ever more frayed, the survivors reach an even more unnerving realization: The killer is someone among them…
This, of course, is the plot of Agatha Christie’s classic 1939 murder mystery, available now as And Then There Were None but first published in the United States as Ten Little Indians. The title under which the book was originally published in Britain included a vicious racial slur that is rarely if ever used in polite company. Its name was taken from a post-Civil War minstrel song, the lyrics of which inform the plot of and were quoted in Christie’s book.
I had neither read this book nor seen any of the various TV or film adaptations of it until just this past week. (I am, I must confess, unfamiliar with all of Christie’s work.) I was visiting some friends in Virginia when the book happened to come up in conversation; I prevented my friends from naming the killer, announcing that I hadn’t actually read the book (and also disclosing the original title). They offered to loan me a paperback copy — a 2011 reprint that refers to “soldiers” rather than “Indians” or this notorious epithet — and here we are.
Some consider And Then There Were None, as I shall call it, to be Christie’s masterpiece; fans named it her most popular book in a poll conducted in 2015 to mark the 125th anniversary of the British writer’s birth. Having now read the book, it’s blindingly obvious that myriad works are descended from Christie’s tale.
I don’t know whether Christie invented the premise of a small group of people being trapped with a killer, but elements of And Then There Were None are replicated in John Carpenter’s The Thing, Aliens and many a haunted-house story and murder mystery. Burke in the latter film has a sinister secret agenda, just like the murderer-mastermind in Christie’s book; determining who will control the isolated location’s only handgun and a tense examination of each survivor to determine who might be concealing a deadly secret are key points in both The Thing and And Then There Were None.
Isolation, the ocean, a violent storm and the discovery of a murder in the party’s midst also figure prominently in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 war drama The Lifeboat. The little-known 2003 suspense thriller Identity puts a clever spin on Christie’s premise; the killer’s use of motel room keys to announce the body count is a direct homage to the subtraction of figurines that track the remaining characters in And Then There Were None. There are surely countless other examples that will occur to me too late to be included in this post…
At any rate, Christie assembles an interesting cast of characters, from the sympathetic young former governess whose charge suffered an unfortunate drowning to the adventurer who’s survived some tight scrapes before and is confident he can prevail again to the successful doctor who once performed a surgery with very unfortunate results to the retired hyper-rational judge who asserts a steadying hand on the fractured party once the pressure sets in. None are drawn with much depth, but a few make for sympathetic victims or potential victims, and it’s fun to attempt to deduce who might be the real black hat.
In this passage, about two-thirds of the way into the novel, the former governess and the adventurer speculate about the identity of the unknown individual who is menacing the seven survivors. Lombard the adventurer thinks that it might be Wargrave, the retired judge.
“[T]o begin with, he’s an old man and he’s been presiding over court of law for a good many months every year. That must go to a man’s head eventually. He gets to see himself as all powerful as holding the power of life and death — and it’s possible that his brain might snap and he might want to go one step farther and be Executioner and Judge Extraordinary.”
Vera said slowly:
“Yes, I suppose that’s possible…”
“Who do you plump for?”
Without any hesitation Vera answered:
Lombard gave a low whistle.
“The doctor, eh? You know, I should have put him last of all.”
Vera shook her head.
“Oh no! Two of the deaths have been poison. That rather points to a doctor. And then you can’t get over the fact that the only thing we are absolutely certain Mrs. Rogers had was the sleeping draught that he gave her.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“If a doctor went mad, it would be a long time before any one suspected. And doctors overwork and have a lot of strain.”
Philip Lombard said:
“Yes, but I doubt if he could have killed Macarthur. He wouldn’t have had time during that brief interval when I left him — not, that is, unless he fairly hared down there and back again, and I doubt if he’s in good enough training to do that and show no signs of it.”
“He didn’t do it then. He had an opportunity later.”
“When he went down to call the General to lunch.”
Christie throws in enough red herrings to make just about anyone a plausible candidate for killer — up until he or she shuffles off this mortal coil, of course. I was in the dark about who was manipulating events on Soldier Island until the final pages of And Then There Were None.
The book’s dialog is to the point; virtually every sentence drives the action; the intricate plot works with the precision and relentlessness of some awesome machine. In short, And Then There Were None is an immensely enjoyable read, even for those who care little for murder mysteries.